Abraham Lincoln? Emperor Sigismund? Martin Luther King? Loretta Young? Mark Twain? Cardinal Richelieu? Robert Jones Burdette? John Wooden? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The leader of a victorious group decided to treat the vanquished people with compassion. Critics of the leader were unhappy because they believed that the enemies deserved destruction. Here are three versions of the response:
- The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.
- I will slay my enemies by making them my friends.
- The only safe and sure way to destroy an enemy is to make him your friend.
This saying has been attributed to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match for this anecdote located by QI appeared in a Bellows Falls, Vermont newspaper in April 1818. The word “reproaching” should have been “reproached” in the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
The Emperor Sigismund was reproaching for rewarding instead destroying his enemies, as by that means he gave them an opportunity to injure him. “What!” said the noble minded monarch, “do I not destroy my enemies by making them my friends.”
Sigismund died in 1437, and the long delay before this tale appeared reduces its credibility. A similar anecdote was told by the 1940s about Abraham Lincoln who died in 1865. The delay suggests that this story was also apocryphal.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In November 1818 the tale of Sigismund appeared in “The Kilmarnock Mirror” of Scotland. The phrasing was somewhat different: 2
Bon Mot.–The Emperor Sigismund was reproached for regarding instead of destroying his enemies, and by that means giving them the power again to injure him. ‘What,’ said the noble minded monarch, ‘do not I destroy my enemies, when I make them my friends.’
In 1824 the “New England Farmer” of Boston, Massachusetts credited an anonymous emperor with the saying: 3
A certain emperor, being reproached for rewarding, instead of destroying his enemies, replied, I destroy my enemies, by making them my friends.
In 1858 a newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin employed the saying while discussing French statesman Cardinal Richelieu. The incorrect spelling “Richilieu” occurred in the follow passage: 4
Richilieu destroyed his enemies by making them his friends. Cannot Madison, and the friends of the University act, without loss, on alike principle?
In 1867 the anecdote about Sigismund occurred within the pages of a New Orleans, Louisiana newspaper: 5
A Noble Reply.—”Why do you show favor to your enemies instead of destroying them?” said a chieftain to the Emperor Sigismund. “Do I not destroy my enemies by making them my friends?” was the Emperor’s noble reply.
In 1885 the following single line without attribution appeared as a filler item in a Montpelier, Vermont newspaper: 6
“To destroy an enemy make him your friend.”
In 1899 a newspaper in Windsor, Ontario presented a version of the tale featuring a Chinese Emperor: 7
A Chinese Emperor once started on a campaign against some of his rebellious subjects by saying: “And now we go to destroy our enemies.” No sooner did he come near them than he gave them distinguishing marks of loving kindness. Some of his impetuous soldiers said: “We thought that you had determined to destroy your enemies rather than to show them these acts of kindness.” He replied: Thus I have really destroyed my enemies, for I have converted them unto my friends.”
In 1902 a newspaper in Topeka, Kansas printed a question together with a response from a fictional Senator Sorghum: 8
“Why don’t you try to destroy your enemies by making them your friends?” said the man of noble inspirations.
“I wouldn’t dare try it,” answered Senator Sorghum. “As soon as I made any overtures of friendship, they would think they had me down, and they would begin to try to jump on me.–” Washington Star.
Humorist Robert Jones Burdette penned a piece containing the saying in 1914 which appeared in the “National Magazine” of Boston. Massachusetts in 1915: 9
I will slay my enemies by making them my friends which is far better than making them my brothers. For brothers are not always friends, but true friends are always better than brothers.
In 1921 a newspaper in Newton, Kansas printed a miscellaneous set of sayings which included the following three items: 10
Almost every man believes in heredity until his son acts like a chump.
The only safe and sure way to destroy an enemy is to make him your friend.
Too many wives learn with regret why the other fellow at her wedding was called the best man.
In 1923 versions of the anecdote continued to circulate. A newspaper in Birmingham, Alabama printed an instance featuring a good king: 11
History: A good king had a long, peaceful and prosperous reign. Other kings asked: “How did you do it?” Answer: “By destroying all my enemies.” The royal seekers after the good and perfect way knew that he had had no wars, but they needed no exposition to teach them that the good king had destroyed his enemies by making friends of them.
In 1940 columnist and impresario Ed Sullivan spoke to movie star Loretta Young who employed the saying with an ascription to Abraham Lincoln. This citation was the earliest located by QI which assigned the remark to Lincoln: 12
I asked her once if she ever has been vindictive, or if she enjoyed getting revenge, and she answered me with an Abraham Lincoln quotation: “I destroy my enemies—by making them my friends.”
In 1944 “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut printed a letter to the editor containing the Lincoln version of the anecdote: 13
After our Civil War was over and Lincoln was trying to help the South get back upon its feet, a woman reproached him for his attitude, “They are our enemies,” she said. “They ought to be destroyed.” “Madame,” replied the President, “how can I better destroy my enemies than by making them my friends?”
In 1957 a newspaper in New Mexico printed a filler item that assigned an instance of the saying to Mark Twain. This saying contained the phrase “safe and sure way” which occurred in a 1921 citation without attribution: 14
The only safe and sure way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend.—Mark Twain.
In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. published a collection of sermons titled “Strength to Love”. The sermon “Loving Your Enemies” included an instance of the Lincoln anecdote: 15
But through the power of love Lincoln transformed an enemy into a friend. It was this same attitude that made it possible for Lincoln to speak a kind word about the South during the Civil War when feeling was most bitter. Asked by a shocked bystander how he could do this, Lincoln said, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” This is the power of redemptive love.
In 1981 the Associated Press published a piece about the prominent basketball coach John Wooden who carried a “billfold full of Lincolnisms”. Wooden shared a version of the Lincoln tale: 16
Wooden says that once when Lincoln was criticized by a Northerner for being too lenient to the South and not destroying his enemies, the president replied: “Am I not destroying an enemy when I make a friend of him?”
In 1987 “The Speaker’s Book of Quotations” by Henry O. Dormann included an anonymous instance of the saying under the topic “Friendship”: 17
The only safe way to destroy an enemy is to make him your friend.
In 1998 “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene included a version of the Lincoln tale: 18
In a speech Abraham Lincoln delivered at the height of the Civil War, he referred to the Southerners as fellow human beings who were in error. An elderly lady chastised him for not calling them irreconcilable enemies who must be destroyed. “Why, madam,” Lincoln replied, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
In conclusion, based on current evidence this anecdote is apocryphal. The attributions to Emperor Sigismund, Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain occurred many years postmortem; hence, the linkage evidence is quite weak. Robert Jones Burdette employed the saying after it was circulating. Loretta Young, Martin Luther King, and John Wooden used the saying while crediting Lincoln.
(Great thanks to Jason Zweig and Carl Hegelman whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Zweig mentioned that John Wooden told the anecdote about Lincoln.)
- 1818 April 6, Vermont Intelligencer, Anecdotes, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Bellows Falls, Vermont. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1818 November, The Kilmarnock Mirror, and Literary Gleaner, Volume 1, Number 2, The Port-Folio, Start Page 72, Quote Page 73, Printed and Published at the Kilmarnock Press by Mathie and Lochore, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1824 January 31, New England Farmer, (Filler item), Quote Page 216 (8), Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1858 April 19, Wisconsin Daily State Journal, The State University Again, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Madison, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1867 March 23, The Daily Picayune, A Noble Reply, Quote Page 4, Column 1, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1885 October 30, The Vermont Chronicle, Section: Advertisements, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Montpelier, Vermont. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1899 November 7, The Evening Record (The Windsor Star), Odd, Curious, or Novel, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Windsor, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1902 April 9, The Topeka Daily Herald, (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 5, Topeka, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1915 January, National Magazine, Volume 41, On the Trail with the Go-Hawks by The Chief of Massachusetts, Author: Robert J. Burdette, Location: Sunnycrest, Pasadena, Date: February 18, 1914, Start Page 608, Quote Page 610, Column 1, Chapple Publishing Company, Boston. Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1921 November 23, Evening Kansan-Republican, Section: The Bethel Collegian, Bethel College, Newton, Kansas, (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 6, Newton, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1923 April 12, The Birmingham News, Section: Voice of the People (Letters to the Editor), Letter Title: A Plea for a Better Understanding, Letter Author: D. A. Burns, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Birmingham, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1940 April 6, Chicago Tribune, Looking at Hollywood by Ed Sullivan, Quote Page 17, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1944 May 3, The Hartford Courant, Section: The People’s Forum (Letters to the Editor), Letter Title; Indictment of War, Letter From: Bertha Strong Cooley, Letter Location: South Deerfield, Massachusetts, Quote Page 10, Column 7, Hartford, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1957 August 24, Las Vegas Daily Optic, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 7, East Las Vegas, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1963, Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon 5: Loving Your Enemies, Start Page 34, Quote Page 39, Published by Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1981 April 7, Hazleton Standard-Speaker, John Wooden talks about the best by Will Grimsley (AP Special Correspondent), Quote Page 13, Column 4, Hazleton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1987, The Speaker’s Book of Quotations by Henry O. Dormann, Topic: Friendship, Quote Page 49, Fawcett Columbine, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1998, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, Chapter: Law 2, Quote Page 12, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩