The Origin of the Phrase, “Bleeding Heart Liberal”

Atlas Obscura

Westbrook Pegler was extremely good at calling people names. Particularly politicians. In his syndicated newspaper column, he called Franklin D. Roosevelt “Moosejaw” and “momma’s boy.” Truman was “a thin-lipped hater.”

Pegler was a bit of hater himself. He didn’t like the labor movement, Communists, fascists, Jews, and perhaps most of all, liberals. In one 1938 column, he coined a term for liberals that would eventually come to define conservative scorn for the left. Pegler was the first writer to refer to liberals as “bleeding hearts.” The context for this then-novel insult? A bill before Congress that aimed to curb lynching.

Before the 20th century, the phrase “bleeding heart” was popular in the religious-tinged oratory of 19th century America. Throughout the 1860s, it comes up often in poetry, essays, and political speeches, as an expression of empathy and emotion. “I come to you with a bleeding heart, honest and sincere motives, desiring to give you some plain thoughts,” said one politician in an 1862 speech. The phrase comes from the religious image of Christ’s wounded heart, which symbolizes his compassion and love. It was a common enough phrase that London has a “Bleeding Heart Yard” (featured prominently in the Dickens novel Little Dorrit) which is named after a long-gone sign, once displayed at a local pub, that showed the Sacred Heart.

By the 1930s, though, the phrase had fallen out of common use and Pegler, who one politician called a “soul-sick, mud-wallowing gutter scum columnist,” recruited it into a new context, as a political insult. He was a master of this art. As a contemporary of his wrote in an academic article on political name-calling, “Pegler has coined, or given prominence to, a fair share of unfair words.” (Pegler also called the AFL a “swollen national racket,” economics “a side-show science,” and Harold Ickes, who ran the Public Works Administration, “Donald Duck.”)

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