QUESTION: I’ve heard this line quoted: “Tradition is the democracy of the dead. It means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors.” It’s a great line. Where does it come from?
ANSWER: It comes from Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy, Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland.” And the line is usually quoted backwards, as you have quoted it. It actually reads: “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Chesterton goes on to say: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”