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Proverbs Are The Best Policy

Proverbs Are The Best Policy: Folk Wisdom And American Politics

Wolfgang Mieder
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 350
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  • Book Info
    Proverbs Are The Best Policy
    Book Description:

    Wolfgang Mieder, widely considered the world's greatest proverb scholar, here considers the role of proverbial speech on the American political stage from the Revolutionary War to the present. He begins his survey by discussing the origins and characteristics American proverbs and their spread across the globe hand in hand with America's international political role. He then looks at the history of the defining proverb of American democracy, "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Subsequent essays consider such matters as Abigail Adams's masterful use of politically charged proverbs; the conversion of the biblical proverb "a house divided against itself cannot stand" into a political expression; Frederick Douglass's proverbial prowess in the battle against racial injustice; how United States presidents have employed proverbial speech in their inaugural addresses; and the proverbial language in the World War II correspondence between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, which sharpened their communication and helped forge bonds of cooperation. Mieder concludes with an insightful, relevant examination of the significance of the ambiguous proverb "good fences make good neighbors."

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-518-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. XI-XVI)

    Several years ago my book on The Politics of Proverbs: From Traditional Wisdom to Proverbial Stereotypes (1997) appeared in print, and I was deeply honored when it was selected for the Giuseppe Pitrè International Folklore Prize. This award most assuredly encouraged me to continue my work on the use and function of proverbial wisdom in political rhetoric, resulting in such books as The Proverbial Abraham Lincoln (2000) and “Call a Spade a Spade”: From Classical Phrase to Racial Slur (2002). It is indeed with much pleasure that I can now present eight additional studies on various aspects of the political...

  5. 1 “Different Strokes for Different Folks” American Proverbs as an International, National, and Global Phenomenon
    (pp. 1-14)

    Proverbs as one of the smallest ubiquitous folklore genres have been collected and studied since the beginning of written records. Both paremiographers and paremiologists have been hard at work at publishing collections and treatises throughout the world. In fact, proverb scholarship has reached such a phenomenal level of accomplishment that it is difficult for the fledgling proverb scholar to deal with the plethora of valuable information.¹ And yet, as is true for most intellectual endeavors, there still remains much work to be done in both areas of proverb studies. The varied use and function of proverbs as cultural signs and...

  6. 2 “Government of the People, by the People, for the People” The Making and Meaning of an American Proverb about Democracy
    (pp. 15-55)

    Abraham Lincoln’s closing remarks of his short yet famous Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, have become proverbial as “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yet, as is the case with some other famous utterances of Lincoln, he relied on the wisdom and insights of others to create his memorable phrase that provides a most succinct definition of democracy. Already on May 9, 1901, Samuel A. Green made the following observation on the widespread distribution and currency of this American credo:

    One short clause at the very end of this speech has been quoted on various...

  7. 3 “God Helps Them Who Help Themselves” Proverbial Resolve in the Letters of Abigail Adams
    (pp. 56-89)

    American patriarchs like John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and others are deservedly revered as the founding fathers of the American nation,¹ but behind all of these political heroes stood their wives and other women, who helped or enabled these great men to construct a republican government based on sound democratic principles. While the glory of these men continues to shine, there is also a female star that has received universal acclaim. This person is Abigail Adams (1744–1818), wife of President John Adams (1735–1826) and mother of President John Quincy...

  8. 4 “A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand” From Biblical Proverb to Abraham Lincoln and Beyond
    (pp. 90-117)

    Biblical proverbs have permeated vernacular languages throughout the world, and the masterfully translated King James Bible helped to spread ancient wisdom literature in the form of new English proverbs with much vigor and success. One of these proverbs appears in three slightly altered variants in three of the gospels of the New Testament, thereby literally assuring its spread through the English-speaking world. Matthew records Jesus as having stated that “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand” (Matthew 12:25), while Mark has Jesus make the same statement in...

  9. 5 ”Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You” Frederick Douglass’s Proverbial Struggle for Civil Rights
    (pp. 118-146)

    There is no doubt that Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was the most visible and influential African American of the nineteenth century. Together with Abraham Lincoln, he belongs to a select group of truly outstanding public figures of that age. Son of a slave and an unidentified white man, Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 after secretly having taught himself how to read and write. Lacking any formal education whatsoever, he nevertheless quickly became a driving force in the antislavery movement, impressing abolitionist audiences with his oratorical eloquence and imposing presence. He subsequently gained considerable fame both in the United States...

  10. 6 “It’s Not a President’s Business to Catch Flies” Proverbial Rhetoric in Presidential Inaugural Addresses
    (pp. 147-186)

    After yet another American presidential election in which the political rhetoric of the two principal candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush seemed rather uninspired, trite and devoid of colorful metaphors, it might be of general interest to take a glance at the verbal prowess of previous American presidents. Modern presidents, certainly since Harry S. Truman, are relying ever more on speech writers and advisors who put words into their mouths that lack emotional vigor and instead are replete with statistics and factual information. It is, however, to be hoped that presidents of this large nation will at least continue...

  11. 7 “We Are All in the Same Boat Now” Proverbial Discourse in the Churchill-Roosevelt Correspondence
    (pp. 187-209)

    Recounting his second visit to Washington in mid-June of 1942 in his celebrated six-volume personal history of The Second World War (1948–1954), Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill relates how at a meeting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and General George C. Marshall agreed spontaneously to let the British armed forces have an urgently needed supply of Sherman tanks and guns. Still overwhelmed years later by this generous and philanthropic action, Churchill cites the proverb “A friend in need is a friend indeed”¹ to underline this clear proof of the close friendship that existed between the United States and Great Britain...

  12. 8 “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” The Sociopolitical Significance of an Ambiguous Proverb
    (pp. 210-243)

    Contrary to popular opinion, those seemingly plain and simple truths called proverbs are anything but straightforward bits of traditional wisdom. A glance into any proverb collection quickly reveals their contradictory nature, as can be seen from such well-known proverb pairs as “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “Out of sight, out of mind.” Proverbs are not universal truths, and their insights are not based on a logical philosophical system. Instead, they contain the general observations and experiences of humankind, including life’s multifaceted contradictions. But matters are even more complex, since the actual meaning of a particular proverb depends on...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 244-296)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 297-309)
  15. Name Index
    (pp. 310-314)
  16. Subject Index
    (pp. 315-318)
  17. Key Word Index of Proverbs
    (pp. 319-323)