Commentary: Humpty Dumpty makes modern day appearance on political stage

By Samuel Damren

In recent media appearances, attorneys for Donald Trump suggest that despite what Trump said in the days leading up to the January 6 insurrection, he had no criminal intent.  

For example, when Trump asked the Georgia Secretary of State to “find” an additional 11,780 Trump votes, attorneys now contend his request was merely “aspirational.”

To many, this suggestion rings of the Humpty Dumpty approach to the meaning of words depicted in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” published in 1871:  

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”  

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”  

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that is all.”

That quote and issue attract many desperate litigants. Not surprisingly, the Humpty Dumpty approach to the meaning of words is routinely rejected by

In an article on contract interpretation published nearly 30 years ago in “Law and Philosophy,” I analyzed the Humpty Dumpty approach contrasted with the views of Oliver Wendell Holmes, law professor Arthur Corbin, and philosophers of language.

This commentary, however, will examine the history of Humpty Dumpty.  

Humpty Dumpty originated as the protagonist of a nursery rhyme recited to children in the English countryside. The verse, which everyone knows, was a riddle. So, recite the verse and ask – what is Humpty Dumpty? Answer: a wobbly egg.

But if you ask - who is Humpty Dumpty, you get different answers.

In Carroll’s parable, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that he is, in fact, part of the “History of England” and its kings, but does not identify a particular king. That omission led to speculation in literary circles as to which king, Lewis Carroll intended to skewer through the parable of Humpty Dumpty.

From this frolic, two candidates emerged: Charles I and Richard III.

Charles I was King of England1625-49. He reigned during the English Civil War (1642–51), a time of charged religious and political strife where he and supporters of the monarchy warred against opposing Parliamentarian forces.

In the year 1648, Parliamentarian soldiers held siege to the strategically important town of Colchester with the Royalists trapped inside. Despite repeated attacks, they were unable to take the town due to a strong battery of canons positioned atop the town walls. One large squat cannon causing considerable damage was nicknamed “Humpty Dumpty.”

During an exchange of artillery, the town wall was finally breached and Humpty Dumpty tumbled to the ground, breaking apart such that it could not be re-assembled. The Royalists fled Colchester.

That story does not provide much foundation for a skewer of Charles I by Carroll, which leads to Richard III.

Richard III was King of England 1483–85 and forever vilified by William Shakespeare in his 1597 play by that name. As portrayed by the Bard, Richard was a vicious, licentious villain who hid behind clever words to both manipulate adversaries and inspire allies to perform his dirty work.  

In the play, Richard’s rise to power in the “tottering State” was punctuated by conspiracy, violence, and his unending determination to secure personal advantage through the betrayal of anyone and any institution.

In 1485, Richard met his demise at Bosworth Field, the final battle of the Wars of the Roses. Reportedly, he rode into battle on a horse named “Wall.” When ultimately surrounded by opposing soldiers, he was toppled from the steed and bludgeoned to death.

Some contemporary historians dispute the accuracy of Shakespeare’s dark portrayal of Richard, but in the times of Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll, there were no contrarian views.

If Carroll did intend to skewer an English king through the parable of Humpty Dumpty, it was clearly Richard III.

In 1995, Shakespeare’s play was updated to film and re-set in mid-20th century England as the fictional story of the rise of a Nazi styled leader portrayed by actor Ian McKellen. In the film and verbatim from the play, Richard makes a particularly disturbing proposition to another royal. She angrily asks, “Shall I be tempted by the Devil?” Richard responds “Yes, if the Devil tempts you to do good.”  

A version of that Shakespearian tragedy will play out on American stages of courtrooms and ballot boxes in the coming year. The outcome of the election may depend on how many white evangelicals continue to view Donald Trump as a savior of sorts while other voters begin to see him as more engaged - Humpty Dumpty/Richard III style – in yet another scheme to tempt and falsely deceive them.

As a prelude to 2024, the movie “Richard III,” is well worth watching.
Samuel Damren is an attorney and author.


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