"Of the People, by the People, and for the People"?

My earlier query about the antecedents of this phrase yielded this comment:

The prologue to John Wycliffe's English translation of the Bible, dated 1384, includes this observation:

The Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.

And indeed many sources, including The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, so state.

This provenance, though, smacked of myth to me, and it appears likely that it is indeed a myth. I haven't checked the prologue myself, because it's long, the only version I could find was in a very bad font and not searchable, and the matter is too tangential to my article to track down. (The article is about Thomas Cooper, and I decided just not to mention the possibility that his earlier version might have been the indirect source for Lincoln's famous quote.) But here's what our reference librarian Stephanie Plotin reports:

[T]hree sources ... say that they've read the whole General Prologue and can't find anything remotely similar to the "government of the people ..." quote.

Thus, though I can't say from personal research that the attribution to the Wycliffe prologue is spurious, there seems to be at least good reason to doubt the attribution. Don't rely on it unless you can check it yourself.

Related Posts (on one page):

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  2. "Of the People, by the People, and for the People"?
There goes my article topic: Wycliffe's Gettysburg Address and the Myth of Lincoln's Oratory. I guess I'll have to start on my next idea, "Would the President Still Be The President If He Said The Words of Oath in Alphabetical Order?"
1.27.2009 1:41pm
martinned (mail) (www):
I guess that is the difference between myself and a researcher who's actually good at his job. There's no way I would be able to resist the temptation of looking for myself in this situation.
1.27.2009 1:43pm
Actually, it has a certain ring to it:

Ability and and best Constitution defend do execute faithfully I I of of of of Office preserve President protect solemnly States States swear that the the the the to United United will will.
1.27.2009 1:47pm
alkali (mail):
Note that the prologue to the Wycliffe translation was not written by Wycliffe, but by his secretary John Purvey, who produced an important revision of the Wycliffe translation at Wycliffe's suggestion.
1.27.2009 2:03pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
I prefer this order:

I I do of of of of to and and the the the the best that will will swear defend Office States States United United Ability execute preserve faithfully solemnly President Constitution
1.27.2009 2:10pm
man from mars:
1.27.2009 2:27pm
Anderson (mail):
Ah, Notes &Queries ... the internet before there was an internet.

Still in publication, I see. Though it seems contrary to the spirit of the journal that it's not available online. Perhaps that raises the quality of the responses, at the cost of diminishing the odds of finding one's answer.
1.27.2009 2:49pm
J. Aldridge:
It was always my understanding Lincoln's Getty speech borrowed the idea from the words of Thomas Cooper: "The government is the government of the people and for the people."
1.27.2009 2:50pm
Matt P (mail):
I suppose that a search could be made to see if Wycliffe's quote was extant at the time of Lincoln. The failure to find any allusion to the Wycliffe quote in anything written before the address was given would seem to imply that Lincoln wouldn't have been aware of it to use it as a source for his speech.

The real question for me is how would such a tradition of sourcing the quote to Whycliffe even begin?
1.27.2009 3:15pm
Moshe (mail):
Ah well, it would have been cool if true. I agree with Matt P - the question of how this tradition got started is just as interesting.
1.27.2009 3:20pm
alkali (mail):
@Anderson: Old volumes of Notes &Queries are available and searchable via
1.27.2009 3:34pm
Richard Goldberg (mail):
In Lincoln's version, it's asyndeton. There is no "and": "that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
1.27.2009 3:37pm
oledrunk3 (mail):
For the original source, check out
1.27.2009 4:18pm
CDR D (mail):

... I have to wonder if ol' "Joe Hair Plugs" might be related to any of those folks.

It fits.
1.27.2009 6:49pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):

Unfortunately, the witnesses you quote don't seem particularly useful since they all seem to refer back to the 1850 printed version of the book, which, while the first printed version, represents one transcription -- and there is no indication what was or was not edited from those or any previous manuscripts.

However, from the 14th century to 1850, there was no single manuscript and no printed version. The "Wycliffe Bible" was the product of multiple people and came in multiple versions, with multiple differences in multiple dialects of Middle English falling into two broad families (early and late).

As I remember, the 1850 printed version compares two translations. The fact that review of this one printed edition merely shows that the version(s) used for printing did not contain the phrase, or that it was simply not included. Editors do funny things. A review of this one source is a good start at answering the question, but is only a start.
1.27.2009 7:41pm

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