Source of a quotation regarding democracy and the rights of its minorities

I’m trying to find a quotation which I came across some years ago. Basically, it says words to the effect of:

"The true measure of a democracy is the way it treats its minorities".

Or possibly:

"The test of a democracy is the vigour with which it protects the rights of those in the minority".

Or something like the above.

I seem to recall it was uttered by Oliver Wendell Holmes and I’ve done a number of web searches using his name together with words like democracy, minority, test, etc. Although I came across some great (and wise) sayings, I could not find the quotation I’m seeking.

And, by the way, although I’m not certain the quotation’s by Holmes, I am positive it was not FDR (who did say some things approximating the one I’m looking for).

Any ideas?


The idea that government/society/civilization is judged/tested by how it treats the poor/downtrodden/sick/young/old/prisoners/etc. has been attributed to a great many people. It’s certainly older than Holmes. The earliest quotation of the sort that I’ve found is attributed to Samuel Johnson by Boswell: “A decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization.”

Indeed. Sort of like, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to Me”.

If you’re looking for the earliest form of the quote/sentiment which actually uses “The test of a democracy,” then I urge you to buy The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred Shapiro. A truly worthwhile book.

He found a cite from Helen Keller in 1935–

As a side note, Dostoyevski said, in 1862

And, the aforementioned Johnson quote.

PS–if you’re trying to pin down a more precise quote with more of the words, let me know.

Thanks, Sam!

I think this may be the source for which you are looking:

The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free
is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.
Lord Acton, The History of Freedom in Antiquity

I just checked my copy of Bartlett’s, and didn’t see anything that sounded like that for Holmes. I did learn, however, that there was an entry for both Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

I also checked the word “minority.” I did a spot check on “Democracy”, but there are a lot of quotes with that word.

A truly remarkable book, in its time!

Also, the word “Certitude” was used in one of the quotes.

Decades ago I saw this, or something similar, cited as a Winston Churchill quote. He was a shameless user of other folks’ wisdom, though. But I think it is great wisdom. I’ve used it (and attributed it to Churchill) many times since. It really is an important counter to the simple notion that democracy means only majority rule.

Lord Acton is also famous for: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Sounds a similar sentiment to the comment about minorities.

Note that Lord Acton was Roman Catholic, and thus in the religious minority in the U.K. - in fact, he was denied admission to Cambridge because of his religion. The quotation about treatment of minorities thus may have been based on his own personal experiences.

A little more. Churchill would have never tested democracy by economic outcomes. The context, as I remember was with political rights, not economic rights. It was the Soviet bloc that used democracy most explicitly to demand economic rights, thus the “Peoples’ Democracy of _____”, while denying political rights.

Hubert Humphrey, the former Senator from Minnesota and Vice President, cut his political teeth going after rampant anti-semitism when he was mayor of Minneapolis, and then leading the civil rights charge with his keynote speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention (that led to Strom Thurmonds’ 3rd party “Dixiecrat” segregationist campaign). Those were issues of political rights. Nonetheless, he wasn’t fearful of being labeled “lefty” when he said that (paraphase) “Democracies are only as good as they treat the old, the sick, and the vulnerable.”

I think he had the balance right. Protect everyone’s political rights, don’t guarantee economic success, but don’t let the poorer or weaker members of one’s community suffer.

Thank you! That really does seem like the one I had been trying to recall.

(As an aside, I think a six-year wait may be the record in terms of waiting for the answer to a specific, ‘factual’ question)