What does the expression “to hold the bag” mean and Where does it come from?

When one is left holding the bag he is being made the scapegoat, he has been left in an awkward predicament not of his own devising, or blamed for or punished for all the faults committed jointly by himself and others.

George Washington may have been familiar with the saying during the Revolutionary War, for it was used by an American army officer, Major Royall Tyler, in literature for the first time, when, in 1787, he wrote the first comedy to be written and produced in America.

This young officer had participated in the suppression of Shays’s Rebellion in the previous year and, in his play, has one of his characters say, “General Shays has sneaked off and given us the bag to hold.”

There was a much earlier expression, dating back to the sixteenth century, “to give the bag,” which meant to give one the slip, to elude someone, and also, to abandon. It is likely that the bag that was given was the same bag as that which one was left holding.

Neither the bag of the sixteenth century nor its contents, if any, is identified, but as the saying was used in speaking of a servant or apprentice who left without notification, it is highly probable that the original bag was empty, that the servant had absconded with his master’s cash, leaving him only an empty purse.