S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.


  • [Louis Adolphe Thiers, a French historian and statesman; born at Marseilles, April 16, 1797; settled in Paris as a lawyer and journalist, 1821; councillor of state, 1830; member of the Chamber of Deputies; minister of the interior, 1832; member of the Academy; minister for foreign affairs, 1836 and 1840; acted with the opposition during the Second Empire; president of the French Republic, 1871–73; died 1877.]
  • The king reigns, but does not govern (Le roi règne, il ne gouverne pas).

  • This was said in Latin, the language of the Polish and Hungarian diets, as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century, by Jan Zamoyski, in the Polish parliament: “Rex regnat, sed non gubernat.” President Hénault (“Memoirs,” 161) remarked of Mme. des Ursins, who was “the power behind the throne” of Philip V. of Spain, “She governed, but did not reign” (Elle gouvernait, mais elle ne régnait pas). Thiers, however, gave the aphorism its greatest celebrity, by placing it as the maxim of constitutional government in an early number of the newspaper, “The National,” which appeared under the direction of himself and his political friends six months before the dissolution of a monarchy whose principle was that the king both reigned and governed. As developed under the liberal monarchy which succeeded Charles X., it signified that a responsible ministry should relieve the sovereign of that personal intervention in government which had hitherto characterized the French monarchy. Thiers elsewhere expressed it, “The king is the country made man” (Le roi, c’est le pays fait homme). Coleridge advanced the same idea in his “Table-Talk:” “A nation is the unity of a people. King and parliament are the unity made visible.”
  • In a debate on the budget in the German Reichstag, Jan. 24, 1882, during a discussion of a rescript which asserted the right of the emperor, as king of Prussia, to personally direct the policy of the kingdom under the constitution, and which required all officials to hold aloof during elections from agitations against the government and its candidates, Prince Bismarck declared that the maxim, “The king reigns, but does not govern” (in German, Der König herrscht aber er regiert nicht), did not apply to Germany, and that the expression “ministerial responsibility” was equally absurd.
  • Alphonse Karr paraphrased the maxim: “The king reigns like the cornice round the room.”
  • We are the young guard.

  • At his first meeting with Charles de Rémusat, who became his intimate friend and political associate, and, as secretary for foreign affairs in 1871–72, aided him in the liberation of French territory from German occupation. The advice of Talleyrand to the young and ambitious Thiers was, “You wish to rise: make enemies.” He was perhaps thinking of the saying of Socrates, “Every man in his life has need of a faithful friend and a bitter enemy,—the one to advise him, the other to make him look about him.” Chesterfield wrote to his son, in whose political advancement he took a strong interest: “You have a surer way of rising, and which is wholly in your power: make yourself necessary.”—Letters, Feb. 9, 1748. When an article on M. Montausier by young Thiers appeared in 1827, Talleyrand exclaimed, “He is not a parvenu: he is an arrivé!” and in another version is said to have added, “who will go farther than any of us.”
  • “The man that makes a character makes foes.”
  • YOUNG: Epistles to Pope, I. 28.
  • The determination of Thiers to enter public life was made early. Even in the law-school at Aix, where party politics ran high, and he and Mignet were the leaders of the ultra-liberal side, the former was wont to exclaim, when the practicability of his doctrines was disputed, “Wait until we are ministers” (quand nous serons ministres). He made use in 1835 of the distinction, “I am not liberal, but national.” He was at this time an admirer of the English as opposed to the American form of government, and used to say, “We must cross the Channel, that we may not be obliged some day to cross the Atlantic” (Il faut franchir la manche pour n’avoir pas un jour à franchir l’Atlantique). When the government party, near the end of the reign of Charles X., complained of the strained interpretation of the charter, and cried out, “Legality is killing us!” Thiers met them with a counter-cry, “We will kill you with legality!” In a short time a three-days’ revolution overthrew the Bourbons.
  • The Republic divides us the least.

  • Passing over the Second Empire, which was for Thiers a time of study rather than of action, he appears as the advocate of a republican form of government. This change of views was rather a development of ideas by the force of circumstances, than a change of theoretic opinions.
  • With a republic itself he had originally no sympathy; for he said, “It is always destined to end in imbecility or blood” (La république est destinée toujours à finir par l’imbécillité ou dans le sang). After the revolution of 1848 he seemed to despair of the future. “It only remains for us,” he said, “to make ourselves forgotten” (Il ne nous reste plus qu’à nous faire oublier). He looked upon events, however, with his usual perspicacity; and after a review of troops at Satory, near Paris, by the Prince-President in 1851, a short time before the coup d’état, he remarked to those about him, “The empire is a fact” (l’empire est fait). “The man who never speaks,” as Thiers called Louis Napoleon, was about to act.
  • When the Second Empire had fallen, and the future form of government was discussed, Thiers found that the republic, proclaimed without opposition after the surrender of Sedan, was the only practicable solution of the problem. Nevertheless, he said it must be “a republic without republicans,” because the worst enemies of French republics had invariably been found among their most radical supporters. He was thinking of a republic administered by men, who, like himself, had supported constitutional monarchy as long as it was possible, and now rallied to what was known in 1871–72 as the conservative republic; “for,” said Thiers, “the republic will be conservative, or it will not be at all” (la république sera conservatrice, ou elle ne sera pas). He now brought into daily use an expression he employed as early as 1849, and which in 1871 was accepted by men of widely different theoretic views: “The republic is the form of government which divides us the least” (le gouvernement qui nous divise le moins). How could it be otherwise when there were three applicants for any throne which might be set up,—the Imperialists, the Legitimists, followers of Henri Cinq, and the Orleanists, who supported the Comte de Paris, grandson of Louis Philippe: “There is but one throne,” said Thiers; “and there are three who wish to sit on it, which is impossible” (La monarchie est impossible, puis qu’il y a trois dynasties pour un seul trône).
  • Behold the Liberator of the Territory!

  • A remarkable scene occurred in the French Chamber during the exciting session of 1877, when both parties were arraying themselves for the electoral campaign of the autumn. Fourtou, a member of the conservative ministry, had, in the presence of Thiers, applied the title of “Liberator of the Territory” occupied by the Germans after the war, to the Assembly of 1871. As a matter of fact, President Thiers, by arrangements with English and Continental bankers, after the success of a loan subscribed for in France fourteen times above the original call, had anticipated the payment of the immense war indemnity, and thus freed the Eastern departments from German occupation before the time stipulated in the treaty of peace. Exasperated that the services of the “Saviour of his Country” were ignored, Gambetta rushed to the space in front of the tribune, and, pointing to Thiers, shouted, “Behold the real Liberator of the Territory!” The whole Left and Left-Centre of the Chamber rose, and burst into uncontrollable cheering.
  • In politics it is always the unexpected that happens.

  • An application to politics of the proverb: “Nothing is so certain as the unforeseen.” Both are to be referred to an incident in the war of the Fronde. When, during the Conferences of Bordeaux in 1650, Cardinal Mazarin found himself in a carriage with three leaders of the other party, he said, “Who would have believed four days ago that we four would to-day be in the same carriage?”—“Oh,” replied the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, “every thing happens in France!” (tout arrive en France!)
  • You demand the impossible.

  • Dr. Véron, the journalist, once requested a place under government, which should give him “consideration.”—“Oh, mon cher,” replied Thiers, “vous demandez l’impossible!”
  • He did not entertain a high opinion of Comte de Molé, prime minister of Louis XVIII.; for he once said, “I cannot conceive how a man who calls himself Molé should wish to be any thing but a keeper of the seals!” The count was overthrown by a combination between Guizot, Thiers, and others; and when he remarked that Thiers in his place would do as he himself had done, the liberal statesman replied, “I might have played the same tune, but I should have played it better” (c’est possible je jouerais le même air, mais je le jouerais mieux).
  • Thiers remarked when the editor of his paper, the “Constitutionnel,” left it for a better position, “M. Bailay is like a cook: as soon as he has learned his trade, he changes his master” (il fait comme font les cuisinières: aussitôt qu’il a su faire la cuisine, il a changé de maître).
  • He said of certain newly appointed ministers who were accused of a lack of good breeding, “They believe themselves virtuous because they are ill-bred.”
  • To some one who advised him to answer a calumny, Thiers replied, “I am an old umbrella, upon which the rain has fallen for forty years: of what account are a few drops more or less?” (Je suis un vieux parapluie, sur lequel il pleut depuis quarante ans: qu’est-ce que me font quelques gouttes de plus ou de moins?”
  • Common sense is the genius of our age (le véritable génie de notre époque consiste dans le simple bon sens).

  • Goethe, in the appendix of the “Wanderjahre” (“Werke,” XXII. 213), quotes the remark of an unknown French author, “Common sense is the genius of humanity” (Le sens commun est le génie de l’humanité); derived, perhaps, from the bon sens of Diderot, which he, in turn, translated from Shaftesbury’s “Common Sense” (“Characteristics,” I. 3). This common sense (gemein Verstand) Goethe applies to the solution of the ordinary problems [Bedürfnisse] of life; and its sufficiency for such purposes prompted the following maxim: “There is nothing unreasonable which reason (Verstand) or chance cannot straighten, nothing reasonable which unreason or chance cannot warp.”
  • Lamartine once said of the mobility of M. Thiers’ features in conversation, “One can see him think through his skin!” He also remarked of the “History of the French Revolution,” “Man is in this history: God is not. M. Thiers’ history is a landscape without a sky.”