Government Is Like Fire, a Dangerous Servant and a Fearful Master

George Washington? John Tillotson? Jonathan Swift? James Fenimore Cooper? Frederick Uttley Laycock? Robert Heinlein? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A cautionary statement about statecraft has often been attributed to George Washington. Here are three versions:

1) Government is like fire, a dangerous servant and a fearful master.
2) Government, like fire, is a troublesome servant and a terrible master.
3) A government is like fire, a handy servant, but a dangerous master.

Washington died in 1799, but I have seen no citations in the 1700s or 1800s; therefore, I am suspicious. Would you please examine the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: Several researchers have attempted to trace this saying, and no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to George Washington has yet been located. The earliest linkage to Washington appeared in “The Christian Science Journal” in 1902 which was more than one hundred years after his death. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1902 November, The Christian Science Journal, Volume 20, Number 8, Liberty and Government by W. M., Start Page 465, Quote Page 465, Published by the Christian Science Publishing Society, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

The first President of the United States said: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence,—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

The master-servant metaphorical framework has a very long history. In 1562 water was described as a good servant but a cruel master. The spelling of the period was not standardized as shown by this excerpt:[ref] Year: Imprint date 1579 (Date on document 1562), Title: Bulleins bulwarke of defence against all sicknesse, soarenesse, and woundes that doe dayly assaulte mankinde: which bulwarke is kept with Hilarius the gardener, [and] Health the phisicion by William Bullein, Doctor of Phisicke. 1562. Author: William Bullein (Died 1576), Publisher: Imprinted at London: By Thomas Marshe, dwellinge in Fleetestreate neare vnto Saincte Dunstanes Church. (Early English Books Online EEBO-TCP Phase 1) link [/ref]

Rayne water is bynding and stopping of nature, water is a very good seruaunt, but it is a cruell mayster.

In 1637 the report of a great conflagration led a writer to state that fire and water were both good servants but evil masters. Indeed, the context suggested that this assertion was already considered proverbial. The word “evil” was spelled “evill”:[ref] Year: 1637, Title: Monro his expedition with the worthy Scots Regiment (called Mac-Keyes Regiment) levied in August 1626 by Sr. Donald Mac-Key Lord Rhees, colonell for his Majesties service of Denmark, and reduced after the Battaile of Nerling, to one company in September 1634. Collected and gathered together at spare-houres, by 1634, Author: Robert Monro, Publisher: Printed by William Iones in Red-Crosse streete, London, 1637. (Early English Books Online EEBO-TCP Phase 1) link [/ref]

… the Temple St Marke was almost all burnt, and the Dukes Palace was preserved with great difficulty; which verifies, that fire and water are good servants but evill masters.

A sermon in 1674 employed the master-servant figurative language by embedding it within a simile about fancy. Here “fancy” meant imagination with a strong connotation of desire:[ref] 1674, A Supplement to the Morning-exercise at Cripple-gate Or Several More Cases of Conscience Practically, Resolved by Sundry Ministers, Sermon 19: The Sinfulness and Cure of Thoughts by Mr. S. C., Quote Page 422, Printed for Thomas Cockerill, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Fancy is like fire, a good Servant but a bad Master; if it march under the conduct of faith it may be highly serviceable, and by putting lively colours upon divine truth may steal away our affections to it.

The words attributed to George Washington followed the same template, but “government” was substituted for “fancy”. Examples presented below will show that over time each of the following terms has been placed into the simile template: “zeal”, “the passions”, “love”, and “the press”. In addition, the following terms have replaced “fire and water” within the proverb: “the bank”, “the press”, and “opium”. These examples are not meant to be exhaustive; instead, they illustrate the variability of the expressions.

Interestingly, the instances ascribed to Washington have shifted the semantics of the phrase about fire. Traditionally, fire was described as a good servant, but the revised remark used words such as dangerous and troublesome. Hence, the connotations of fire were negative as both a servant and a master.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1682 the Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson preached a sermon titled “The Danger of Zeal without Knowledge”, and he employed the simile template with “zeal” instead of “government” or “fancy”:[ref] Year: 1700, Title: Arch-Bishop Tillotson’s: Sixteen Sermons, Preached on Several Subjects and Occasions, Volume 2, Author: John Tillotson, Late Lord Arch-Bishop of Canterbury, Editor: Ralph Barker, Sermon 13: The Danger of Zeal without Knowledge, Date Preached: November 5, 1682, Start Page 353, Quote Page 378, Printed for Ri. Chiswell, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

There is nothing oftner misleads Men, than a misguided Zeal; it is an ignis fatuus, a false fire, which often leads Men into Boggs and Precipices; it appears in the Night, in dark and ignorant and weak minds, and offers it self a guide to those who have lost their way; it is one of the most ungovernable Passions of Human Nature, and therefore requires great knowledge and judgment to manage it, and keep it within bounds. It is like fire, a good Servant, but a bad Master. . .

In 1732 a collection of adages and witty sayings called “Gnomologia” included two relevant entries. One entry repeated the proverb about fire and water, and the other entry placed “the passions” into the simile template:[ref] 1732, Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Collected by Thomas Fuller, Quote Pages 58 and 203, Printed for B. Barker, A. Bettesworth, and C. Hitch, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

1) Fire and Water are good Servants, but bad Masters.
2) The Passions are like Fire and Water; good Servants but bad Masters.

In 1738 the prominent literary figure Jonathan Swift writing under the pseudonym Simon Wagstaff published “A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation”. The proverb about fire and water was included, but the context suggested that Swift was criticizing the banality of the speaker:[ref] 1738, A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation: According to the Most Polite Mode and Method Now Used at Court, and in the Best Companies of England by Simon Wagstaff (Jonathan Swift), Dialogue II, Start Page 115, Quote Page 183, Printed for B. Motte and C. Bathurst London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Ld. Sparkish. You know, his House was burnt down to the Ground.
Col. Yes; it was in the News: Why Fire and Water are good Servants, but they are very bad Masters.

In 1746 an essay by Sir John Barnard about raising money for the British government employed a metaphor with the term “the Bank” replacing “Fire and Water” in the statement immediately above:[ref] 1746, A Defence of Several Proposals for Raising of Three Millions for the Service of the Government for the Year 1746 by Sir John Barnard, Quote Page 33, Printed for J. Osborn, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

I say further, That the Bank is a very good Servant, but a very bad Master; and it would be very easy to prove, that the Bank depends as much, for their Flourishing, on the Favour of the Government, as the Government does on the Assistance of the Bank; and therefore the Benefits ought to be reciprocal.

In 1785 “The Gentleman’s Magazine” printed an article with a set of resolutions directed toward older people. The term “love” was placed into the simile template:[ref] 1785 August, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 55, A Set of Resolutions for Old Age, Start Page 581, Quote Page 582, Printed by John Nichols for David Henry, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref][ref] 1785 September, The Edinburgh Magazine, or Literary Miscellany, Set of Resolutions, Start Page 125, Quote Page 126, Printed by MacFarquhar and Elliot for J. Sibbalp, Edinburgh. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Love, like fire, is a good servant, but a bad master. Love is death, when the animal spirits are gone.

In 1809 a newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland described a dinner party that was attended by some members of the U.S. Congress. A toast offered at the event placed the term “the Press” into the proverb instead of “fire”:[ref] 1809 July 11, Federal Republican, (News item from Lancaster, July 7), Quote Page 2, Column 5, Baltimore, Maryland. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

The Press—A good servant, but a bad master—may its freedom remain unimpaired; but may it never be encouraged in proscribing private character, or dictating measures to the representatives of the nation.

In 1832 a letter from a doctor that was published in “The Boston Morning Post” in Massachusetts placed the term “Opium” into the proverb instead of ‘fire”:[ref] 1832 July 27, The Boston Morning Post (Boston Post) (Letter from W. Hunt M.D. about the treatment of cholera), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Dr N. observes, in the first stage the most sedative treatment is essential, whilst in the second, the very opposite, that of excitation. I think Opium is a good servant, but a bad master.

In 1838 the popular novelist James Fenimore Cooper published a non-fiction work titled “The American Democrat”, and he included an instance of the simile using the term “the press”:[ref] 1838, The American Democrat by J. Fenimore Cooper, On the Press, Start Page 124, Quote Page 125, Published by H. & E. Phinney, Cooperstown, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

It is a misfortune that necessity has induced men to accord greater license to this formidable engine, in order to obtain liberty, than can be borne with less important objects in view; for the press, like fire, is an excellent servant, but a terrible master.

In 1869 the famous showman Phineas Taylor Barnum published the memoir “Struggles and Triumphs: Or, Forty Years’ Recollections of P. T. Barnum”. He applied the simile to money:[ref] 1869, Struggles and Triumphs: Or, Forty Years’ Recollections of P. T. Barnum by Phineas Taylor Barnum, Chapter 31: The Art of Money Getting, Quote Page 473 and 474, J. B. Burr & Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Money is in some respects like fire — it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master. When you have it mastering you, when interest is constantly piling up against you, it will keep you down in the worst kind of slavery. But let money work for you, and you have the most devoted servant in the world.

In 1902 in “The Christian Science Journal” printed the saying under examination with an ascription to George Washington as noted previously in this article:

The first President of the United States said: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence,—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

In 1907 “Motives of Mankind: A Study of Human Evolutionary Forces by Frederick Uttley Laycock was published, and the term “government” was placed into the simile template, but Washington was not credited. This version referred to both fire and water. Also, the phrase “good servant” was used instead of “dangerous servant’; thus, the continuity with past instances was clearer:[ref] 1907, Motives of Mankind: A Study of Human Evolutionary Forces by F. U. Laycock (Frederick Uttley Laycock), Quote Page 190, The Open Road Publishing Co., London. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

Government, like fire and water, may be a good servant, but is a bad master. It is not difficult to realise that when we think of the motives of the individual.

In 1915 the famous muckraking author Upton Sinclair released “The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest”, and he included a short item with the saying attributed to Washington:[ref] 1915, The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest, Edited by Upton Sinclair, Quote page 305, Published by Upton Sinclair, New York and Pasadena, California. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

By George Washington
(First president of the United States, 1732-1799)

GOVERNMENT is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force! Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.

In 1927 a version of the simile with ‘government” was printed in “The Milwaukee Journal” of Wisconsin, and no attribution was given:[ref] 1927 June 24, Milwaukee Journal, Where Newspapers Aid The Government, (Acknowledgement to Longview, Wash., News), Quote Page 2, Column 8, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)[/ref]

Government, like fire, is a good servant, but a bad master. Let either once escape from the most rigorous control and its tendency is to spread in every direction and seize upon whatever it touches that can be converted into fuel to strengthen and extend it.

In 1929 a version of the simile was printed in the “St. Petersburg Times” of Florida, and no attribution was given:[ref] 1929 January 15, St. Petersburg Times, The Good That Publicists Do, Section 1, Page 4, Column 2, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News Archive)[/ref]

Government, like fire, is a good servant, but a bad master.

In 1966 the well-known science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein published the prize-winning novel “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” which included a futuristic instance of the simile:[ref] 1987 (Copyright 1966), The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, Quote Page 240 and 241, Published Ace Books, New York. (Verified with scans in 1987 edition; not yet verified in 1966 edition)[/ref]

Comrade Members, like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom—if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant.

In conclusion, the connection of the saying to George Washington is currently unsupported. Yet, servant-master metaphors for fire and water have a long history that extends back before the birth of Washington. Also, the simile built on the metaphor was applied to “fancy” and “zeal” in the 1600s. Thus, QI would be unsurprised if future researchers locate examples before 1902 of the simile applied to “government”.

(Great thanks to Dennis Lien whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Barry Popik for his very valuable research on this topic located here. Special thanks to the reference “Respectfully Quoted” edited by Suzy Platt which examined this saying and provided evidence that the ascription to Washington was probably apocryphal.)

Update History: On December 28, 2016 the P.T. Barnum citation of 1869 was added to the article.

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