Laws are Like Sausages. Better Not to See Them Being Made

Otto von Bismarck? John Godfrey Saxe? Claudius O. Johnson?


Dear Quote Investigator: The quotation of Otto von Bismarck about laws and sausages has been a favorite of mine for years. I found several versions using Google, and here are two:

Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.

To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.

I looked for some clear references to texts written by Otto von Bismarck and translated into English to justify the attributions. I could not find anything. Could you investigate this quotation to find out who really said it originally?

Quote Investigator: Quotation experts Fred Shapiro and Ralph Keyes have identified the most likely originator of the aphorism. Before presenting that evidence QI will give the details of a citation in an American history textbook from the 1930s. This post ends with information about a bizarre duel involving sausages that was reported in the 1860s.

The earliest citation that QI has located that attributes a version of the quotation to Otto von Bismarck is in a 1933 textbook titled “Government in the United States” by Claudius O. Johnson. The chapter on “Congress: Procedure and Powers” begins with the following [GCJ]:

I think it was Bismarck who said that the man who wishes to keep his respect for sausages and laws should not see how either is made. With reference to the laws, a knowledge of how they are made may increase our respect for them and their makers; and if it does not, we are at least able to express our dissatisfaction in an intelligent manner.

The textbook author expresses uncertainty about the attribution, but later writers express fewer reservations. (Thanks to Mike at Duke University for checking this citation on paper.) Here is an example in a Utah newspaper in 1958 [OUB]:

There is an old saying attributed to Prince Bismarck that “to retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.”

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has the epigram listed in the Misquotations section because of its flawed association with Bismarck [ODQB]:

Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.

attributed to Bismarck, but not traced and probably apocryphal

In March of 2009 Fred Shapiro discussed the quote in a posting at the Freakonomics blog of the New York Times. He updated the findings reported in the Yale Book of Quotations [FSB]:

This is usually attributed to Bismarck, but the Iron Chancellor was not associated with that quip until the 1930’s. The Daily Cleveland Herald, March 29, 1869, quoted lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe that “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made,” and this may be the true origin of the saying.

Ralph Keyes found an attribution to John Godfrey Saxe on the 29th of April 1869 [QVB]. QI found a slightly earlier cite dated March 27th that accords with the thesis of Fred Shapiro and Ralph Keyes that Saxe may be the crafter of the aphorism [UCGS]:

“Laws,” says that illustrious rhymer, Mr. John Godfrey Saxe, “like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made;” and we fancy it is much the same with impeachment trials.

Why was the quotation assigned to Otto von Bismarck? Bismarck is more famous than Saxe, and quotes are sometimes credited to greater luminaries. But there is another possible reason.  The researcher John Baker found a remarkable anecdote about Bismarck that emphasizes the unpalatable nature of some sausages. This story was repeated for decades and may have popularly connected Bismarck with sausages. The tale recounts a proposed duel between Otto von Bismarck and the scientist Rudolf Virchow that would have used sausages as the weapon of choice. Baker noted that the story “goes back at least to A.H. Miles, One Thousand and One Anecdotes (1895).” QI located a version of the anecdote in a South Carolina newspaper in 1867 [DBV]:

(In this account Vichow is misspelled as Vircow.)

A Berlin journal relates that the famous Bismarck once challenged Dr. Vircow for offensive language used in parliamentary debate. The learned doctor was at that time engaged in investigations relating to trichinosis. He is said to have thus replied to the messenger who bore Bismarck’s challenge: “My arms; there they are—those two sausages. One of them is full of trichinae; the other is pure. Let his Excellency breakfast with me. We will eat the sausages; and he shall take his choice of them.”

Whether this story influenced the attribution of the quotation is speculative, but it is an entertaining yarn that QI wished to share. In conclusion, QI suggests that the questioner should credit John Godfrey Saxe instead of Otto von Bismarck for the aphorism. Thanks for the question.

[GCJ] 1933, Government in the United States by Claudius O. Johnson, Page 321, Thomas Y. Crowell, New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper by Mike at Duke University) link

[OUB] 1958 May 11, Ogden Standard-Examiner, Week in Washington: Strange Congress Grinds Into Gear, Page 3A, Ogden, Utah. (NewspaperArchive)

[ODQ]  [Accessed 2010 May], Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Misquotations, Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.

[FSB] 2009 March 5, New York Times: Freakonomics Blog online, “Our Daily Bleg: Uncovering More Quote Authors” by Fred Shapiro. link

[QVB] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Pages 188 and 324, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.

[UCGS] 1869 March 27, University Chronicle: University of Michigan, Page 4, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Google Books full view) link

[DBV] 1867 July 18, The Mountaineer, Page NA, Column 1, Issue 17, Greenville, South Carolina. (Gale InfoTrac 19th Century U.S. Newspapers)

4 thoughts on “Laws are Like Sausages. Better Not to See Them Being Made

  1. Pingback: Review: The Complete Book of Butchering, Smoking, Curing, and Sausage Making | How To Cook Like Your Grandmother

  2. Earlier still: A certain witty advocate remarked: “One would risk being disgusted if one saw politics, justice, and one’s dinner in the making.” – Nicolas de Chamfort (1741–1794)

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