FACT CHECK: Did George Washington Call Government ‘A Dangerous Servant And A Fearful Master’?

David Sivak | Fact Check Editor

An image shared on Facebook claims that President George Washington once said, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

Verdict: False

There is no record of Washington ever making this statement.

Fact Check:

This quote has appeared in print for more than a century, with etymologist Barry Popik tracing its first known appearance to 1902, attributed to none other than the country’s first president, who died in 1799.

The original version of the quote is longer, offering this warning about government: “Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

The expression has been investigated by a number of researchers, none of whom could locate it anywhere in Washington’s writings. His estate at Mount Vernon includes the quote in its list of “spurious quotations.”

According to the website Quote Investigator, the depiction of government as “a dangerous servant and a fearful master” is reminiscent of a centuries-old saying about water and fire. “Water is a very good seruaunt, but it is a cruell mayster,” reads an excerpt from 1562.

(Notice that the quote ascribed to Washington alters the sentiment here: it calls the servant “dangerous” rather than “good.”)

The phrase “government is force” dates back to at least 1890, according to Popik. “The purification of politics is an iridescent dream,” Kansas Senator John James Ingalls was quoted as saying. “Government is force. Politics is a battle for supremacy.”

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David Sivak

Fact Check Editor
Follow David on Twitter Have a fact check suggestion? Send ideas to [email protected].

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