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:
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:
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”:
… 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:
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.
Continue reading Government Is Like Fire, a Dangerous Servant and a Fearful Master