Napoleon Bonaparte? Haley Barbour? Woodrow Wilson?
Dear Quote Investigator: I saw Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi on television recently and he recited a quotation that he attributed to Napoleon [HBCNN] [HBFOX]:
You know, Napoleon said ‘Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.’
Is this an accurate quote? Could you investigate whether Napoleon actually presented this as military advice?
Quote Investigator: Yes, QI can attempt to trace this quote for you. QI was unable to find an exact match for this advice in the 1800s, but QI did find words attributed to Napoleon in an 1836 history book during a discussion of an 1805 battle. These words may have been transformed into the modern maxim. QI also found similar statements made during the past one-hundred and seventy-four years.
Here are several select citations in reverse chronological order. Theodore H. White wrote a series of popular political books called “The Making of the President”. Each title in the series also included the year of a presidential campaign. The book for the 1964 election cycle was published in 1965, and it contains a very close match to the quotation. This book may have helped popularize the quote for the current generation of politicians [MP]:
Never were Republicans denounced as such; the opposition was involved in its own civil war, and the President obeyed Napoleon’s maxim: Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.
In 1932 a version of the quote is used by a prominent banker. However, the enemy’s actions are described differently. The phrase “making a mistake” appears instead of “destroying himself” [CEM]:
Russia seems to have adopted a maxim quoted by Charles E. Mitchell, head of New York’s big National City bank, “never interfere with the enemy while he is in the process of making a mistake.”
Ace etymologist Barry Popik pointed out that Woodrow Wilson once included analogous advice in a letter he wrote in 1916 [YQW]:
Never … murder a man who is committing suicide
In 1888 a variant of the quotation is attributed to Napoleon. The phrase “making a mistake” is used instead of the longer clumsier “in the process of making a mistake”. In this case, the older quote is more streamlined than the more recent variant [ABN]:
He who takes up arms against another commonly wounds himself, and the avenger should remember the words of Napoleon, “Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
In 1879 the quote is presented as a “maxim in war” that is unattached to any famous figure. The term “false move” is used instead of “mistake” [AW]:
I assured him that Lee was of more importance to us than Stuart; the latter was in a false position and useless to Lee, and that it was a maxim in war never to interfere with the enemy when he was making a false move.
In 1855 a military book “Considerations on Tactics and Strategy” quotes Napoleon giving advice to his marshals [GT]:
Previous to the commencement (tactically speaking) of the battle of Austerlitz, the allies attempted a flank march in column to turn the right flank of Napoleon. He restrained his marshals, who were eager to attack, saying, “the enemy is making a false move, why should we interrupt him?”
In 1852 a biographical magazine also quotes Napoleon giving advice to his marshals [BM]:
“Then, gentlemen,” said Napoleon, “let us wait a little; when your enemy is executing a false movement, never interrupt him.”
An 1836 multi-volume history book titled “French Revolution” contains a version of the quotation that is similar to the one given in 1852. This history book dates the quotation to a battle in 1805. These words may have been transformed into the modern maxim [FR]:
“In that case,” said Napoleon, “let us wait twenty minutes; when the enemy is making a false movement we must take good care not to interrupt him.”
So the advice does have a long history, and a version has been attributed to Napoleon for more than a century and three-quarters. Thanks for your question.
(This question was inspired by an email from Barry Popik.)
[HBCNN] 2010 June 6, CNN website, State of the Union: Candy Crowley’s Crib Sheet for June 6, Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Mississippi), on “Fox News Sunday”. link
[HBFOX] 2010 June 6, Fox News Sunday Interview with Haley Barbour (R-Mississippi). link
[MP] 1965, The Making of the President 1964 by Theodore Harold White, Page 374, Atheneum Publishers, New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link
[CEM] 1932 October 20, The Palm Beach Post, Today by Arthur Brisbane (King Features, Inc), Page 1, Column 1, West Palm Beach, Florida. (Google News Archive) link
[YQW] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 830, Yale University Press, New Haven. The note with the quote says “Letter to Bernard Baruch, 19 Aug 1916. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of American Quotations “This is Wilson’s hands-off strategy for dealing with Charles Evans Hughes, his Republican opponent in the 1916 election. He attributed the precept to ‘a friend’”.
[ABN] 1888, The Virtues and Their Reasons: A System of Ethics for Society and Schools by Austin Bierbower, Page 58, George Sherwood & Co., Chicago. (Google Books full view) link
[AW] 1879, The Annals of the War Written by Leading Participants North and South, The Campaign of Gettysburg by Major General Alfred Pleasonton, Page 453, The Times Pub. Co., Philadelphia. (Google Books full view) link
[GT] 1855, Considerations on Tactics and Strategy by Colonel George Twemlow, Second Edition, Page 82, Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., Stationers’ Court, London. link
[BM] 1852 January, Lives of the illustrious: (The Biographical Magazine), “Marshal Soult, Duke of Dalmatia”, Page 28, J. Passmore Edwards, London. link
[FR] 1836, French Revolution: Volume 5 by Archibald Alison, Page 476, William Blackwood and Sons. Edinburgh. link