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Paging George Washington…


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.” – George Washington?  Perhaps, though likely not.


. . .There is no record that George Washington ever said it. James Fenimore Cooper called fire a “powerful servant but fearful master” in 1841. Kansas Senator John James Ingalls said “Government is force” in 1890. The full “George Washington” quotation appears in print by 1902.

An update from Eugene Volokh:

I’ve often seen this supposed quote from George Washington, including in books of quotes:
. . .
But I wanted to note that it’s not at all clear that Washington ever actually said this. I searched for it in various databases, and the earliest reference I found to it was in a 1902 source. Others have likewise noted that the quote might well be apocryphal.

Whether or not the quote is indeed Washington’s, its claims comport with experience and theory. It is apparently consistent with Washington’s clear and succinct style. We often see in the Talmud a Rabbi So-and-so quoting a passage in the name of an earlier Rabbi. It is understood that the passage may not always be a direct verbatim quote, though the passage always represents the irreducible minimum, the kernel of a particular teaching. Perhaps this “quote” from Washington appearing in 1902 is indeed apocryphal but it remains useful nonetheless.


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