Some internet sites, including those of a more dubious and conspiratorial nature, have been posting this rather ominous quote:

The real rulers in Washington are invisible, and exercise power from behind the scenes.

They attribute it to Felix Frankfurter, a US supreme court judge in the early 20th century. A quick search on Wikiquote gives the following information:

The earliest source for this quote was published 20 years after Frankfurter died, by Ratibor-Ray M. Jurjevich, The War on Christ in America: Christian Fortress in America Under Siege--Christophobes of the Media and of the Supreme Court in Action (1985), p. 296, attributing it to Felix Frankfurter as "an agent of the anti-American conspiracy". There is no earlier attribution to anything remotely this quote, even in equally conspiratorial and antisemetic works, marking this as the date when this quote was manufactured


My question therefore is: did Felix Frankfurter actually say this quote, or was it manufactured? If he did say it, what was the context behind it?

  • 5
    If you can't trust the judgement of a conspiracy theorist, who can you trust?
    – Oldcat
    Mar 5, 2015 at 19:09
  • I knew it! The apparent members of Congress are way to stupid to control anything, so there must be hidden rulers! Mar 5, 2015 at 19:43
  • @TylerDurden - hidden rulers? Wow - that'd be a lot better than the ones you can see, like the nuns used..! Mar 6, 2015 at 0:15
  • @Oldcat - hmmmmmm...what makes you claim that these mysterious "conspiracy theorists", as you call them, should be trusted..? Mar 6, 2015 at 0:18

2 Answers 2


Felix Frankfuter, before his SCOTUS appointment, was the founder of the ACLU, and an avid New Dealer. As such, the quote doesn't sound at all like him, or at least not the way its being used. He was just not a guy who thought about government in that way.

For reference, here are some documented quotes from him about how he believes the USA operates. Both in outlook and vocabulary, they don't seem similar at all to the one you have.

In a democratic society like ours, relief must come through an aroused popular conscience that sears the conscience of the people's representatives.

Lincoln's appeal to "the better angels of our nature" failed to avert a fratricidal war. But the compassionate wisdom of Lincoln's first and second inaugurals bequeathed to the Union, cemented with blood, a moral heritage which, when drawn upon in times of stress and strife, is sure to find specific ways and means to surmount difficulties that may appear to be insurmountable

  • Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958).

This is just not a guy who believed that the people were helpless against some shadowy alternate power structure. Quite to the contrary, he believed strongly in the ultimate power of the electorate.

Some people can't put themselves into another person's head, and thus assume those who they disagree with must have their same perspective, but be stereotypical mustache-twirling "bad guys". This reads a lot like a quote made up by such a person.

I tried running some ngrams on parts of the phrase, but the results were pretty inconclusive. For example, "exercise power" was about twice as popular (and rising) in the early 80's as it was back during Frankfurter's heyday. However, back then there was a big spike in "real rulers". This seems to be due chiefly to a series of books by that name published from the late 30's through the early 60's. (Todo: a search of The Real Rulers of America may well produce the actual source of this quote). Again, these books all seem very conspiratorial in nature, and thus may be more likely to have been read by a 1985 conspiracy book author than by Justice Frankfurter.

So I'd say that it is probably quite fair to take the position that Justice Frankfurter never said any such thing, unless someone can find a documented speech or decision in which he said it. Everything the guy did was heavily documented, so if it exists it should be easy to find.


A possibly related quote attributed to Frankfurter is:

The real rulers of a nation are undiscoverable.

He reportedly said this at a cocktail party after being asked who really runs the United States. This appeared in an article titled “Globalists Run U.S., Says Sen. Malone” appearing in the Chicago Daily Tribune, April 25, 1949, p. 1, as documented by KHirsh on the Wikiquote 'Conspiracy' page. KHirsh considered the "real rulers of Washington" sentence to be a variant of the Tribune quote.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.