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: 1

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: 2

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”: 3

… 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: 4

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


  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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