King George II? Duke of Newcastle? Joe Miller? James Wolfe?
Dear Quote Investigator: When George II of Great Britain was planning to send General James Wolfe on a military expedition to Canada his close advisor told him that Wolfe was a poor selection for such an important assignment because he was a madman. The King famously replied:
Mad, is he? Then I hope he will bite some of my other generals and make them mad, too.
The earliest citations I have seen for an instance of this humorous exchange appeared in the twentieth century. Is there any earlier evidence?
Quote Investigator: King George II lived from 1683 to 1760, and James Wolfe died in battle in 1759. The first citation QI has located was printed in a book in 1786 titled “Letters and Poems by the Late Mr. John Henderson with Anecdotes of His Life”. Wolfe was not identified by name, but the King’s advisor was identified as the Duke of Newcastle: 1
It brought to my recollection an anecdote I have heard of his late majesty, who, naming an officer that he intended should command in an expedition of some consequence, was told by the Duke of Newcastle that “the gentleman was by no means eligible for so important a station, being positively mad.” Is he, replied the king, he shall go for all that, and before he sets out I wish to my God he would bite some of my Generals, and make them mad too.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In June 1786 “The Town and Country Magazine” reprinted an excerpt containing the anecdote from the book mentioned above. Thus, the story was further disseminated. 2
In 1791 a version of the tale was published in “The New-York Magazine”. This instance specified the destination of the military expedition, and it gave the name of the General accused of madness: 3
When George the Second proposed giving the command of the expedition against Quebec to General Wolfe, great objections were raised; and the Duke of Newcastle, in particular, begged his Majesty to consider, that the man was actually mad—’If he is mad, so much the better,’ replied the King; ‘and if he is mad, I hope to God he’ll bite some of my Generals.’
In 1804 a version of the story was published that depicted the Earl of Chesterfield as the detractor of James Wolfe: 4
Once, when there were to be promotions in the army and navy, the King demanded to look at the lists; when, reading the names of the former as they stood, and making a pause between, each had a friend to speak of his merits, except poor Major Wolfe. “What!” said his Majesty, “is there no one to speak for Wolfe?” The Earl of Chesterfield, who it seems was no great friend to the Major, observed, that Wolfe had all the rashness of a madman. His Majesty, who had well weighed his worth, answered hastily, in his plain but honest way, “So much the better, my Lord; I will promote him for that, and I hope he will bite some of my Generals.”
By 1840 the anecdote appeared in an edition of a famous compendium of humor titled “Joe Miller’s Complete Jest Book”. This popular series of joke books was so long-lived that eventually it became known as a repository of stale humor: 5
When George II. was once expressing his admiration of General Wolfe, some one observed that the general was mad. ‘Oh! he is mad, is he!’ said the king with great quickness, ‘then I wish he would bite some other of my generals.’
In 1909 a biography of James Wolfe was published that recounted the larger context of the anecdote. The biographer stated that after Wolfe was appointed to the military campaign in Canada he dined with the government Minister William Pitt and Lord Temple. The two Ministers were “aghast at an exhibition” of bravado and patriotic fervor that included Wolfe’s flourishing a sword. The Duke of Newcastle heard about Wolfe’s behavior, and he “could not fathom such patriotic enthusiasm not based on the hope of tangible reward”: 6
He ran to tell the King that Wolfe was mad. George was not without sagacity and biting wit at times. “Mad, is he?” he retorted grimly, thinking of the failures of Mordaunt, Loudoun, Abercrombie and his own son, Cumberland; “then I hope he will bite some of my other generals!” Madness of that kind is a virtue in war, as his Majesty well knew, and though Wolfe never bit the generals, he had already inoculated a dozen lesser officers with the virus.
In 1966 the quotation attributed to King George II was printed in the “Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations”: 7
Oh! he is mad, is he? Then I wish he would bite some other of my generals.
George II: Reply to the remark that Wolfe was mad, 1758
In conclusion, the humorous tale of King George’s response to the Duke of Newcastle has been in circulation for more than two centuries. The earliest printed evidence known to QI appeared in 1786 after all the men involved were dead. The 1909 biography presented several interesting details, but it was published many years after the supposed event. It is an entertaining yarn of uncertain veracity.
- 1786, Letters and Poems By the Late Mr. John Henderson with Anecdotes of His Life by John Ireland, Quote Page 60, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1786 June, The Town and Country Magazine, “Anecdote of the late Mr. Reddish, the Player from Mr. Ireland’s, Life of Mr. Henderson”, Start Page 317, Quote Page 317, Printed for A. Hamilton, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1791 November, The New-York Magazine; or, Literary Repository, “Anecdotes”, Quote Page 662, Column 1, Printed and sold by Thomas and James Swords, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1804, The Naval Chronicle for 1804: Containing A General and Biographical History of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, Volume 11, Naval Anecdotes: Anecdote of the Late Admiral Hawke, Quote Page 445, Printed and Published by I. Gold, Shoe LAne, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1840, Joe Miller’s Complete Jest Book, Anecdote Number 1528, Page 494, Published by Scott, Webster & Geary, London. (HathiTrust; The image of the date reads 18340; The date in the HathiTrust catalog is 1840) link link ↩
- 1909, The Life and Letters of James Wolfe by Beckles Willson, Quote Page 417, William Heinemann, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1966, “Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations” edited by Robert Debs Heinl, Category: “Wolfe, James”, Quote Page 362 and 363, United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland. (Verified on paper) ↩