The History of ‘Bleeding Hearts’

You may have seen the expression “bleeding heart” used occasionally in political columns. Actually, it has a surprisingly long history in Western literature.

According to Merriam-Webster, the phrase first appeared as “he felte his herte blede” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century poem Troilus and Criseyde. It also took on a religious meaning as an image of the heart of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, it was used more broadly as sincere pain or heartache.

It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that the expression was given a political meaning. An American newspaper journalist, Westbrook Pegler, became a critic of President Franklin Roosevelt’s policies, especially Roosevelt’s support for organized labor. In 1938 Pegler wrote a column on, of all things, lynching, which he considered a minor issue to be dealt with on a local level due to its relatively infrequent occurrence. In criticizing the debate for anti-lynching laws, Pegler wrote “I question the humanitarianism of any professional or semi-pro bleeding heart who clamors that not a single person must be allowed to hunger, but would stall the entire legislative program in a fight to ham through a law intended, at the most optimistic figure, to save 14 lives a year.”

As Pegler’s writing became more conservative, he used the term as more of an insult toward Democratic administrations. He was copied by Senator Joe McCarthy, especially in his attacks on CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow. Hence the modern meaning as a term of derision, although some of its targets have embraced the expression as a point of pride.

Will it soon take on another meaning? Something to think about in this election year.

Taken from “What is a ‘Bleeding Heart’?” (

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