Otto von Bismark, “Laws are like sausages. It is best not to see them being made.” Quote or No Quote?


Politics is a messy business, even in the best of times, and especially in the worst of times. Many people console themselves with this reality by quoting Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century Prussian politician who, among other things, was the the first Chancellor of the German Empire (from 1871 to 1890). He was also a strong believer in realpolitik, the idea that realism and practicalities should outweigh ideology and emotion in political decisions. It’s not surprising, therefore, that he often quoted as saying, “Laws are like sausages. It is best not to see them being made.” The analysis implicit in that phrase certainly fits Bismarck’s political personality.

There’s no evidence, though, that Bismarck ever said it, much less coined it. Quotation researchers Fred Shapiro, Garson O’Toole, and, of course, the researchers grinding away in the sausage factory that is the Buzzkill Institute, have traced it to the American poet, John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887).

Saxe, a popular poet in the mid-19th century, is mostly remembered today for setting the ancient parable from India about the blind men and the elephant to verse, and making the story popular in the United States. (I have put the full poem in the blog on our website.)

The law and sausages idea was attributed to Saxe as early as 1869, and that’s the first appearance of that phrase. What he said was, “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” [University Chronicle. University of Michigan (27 March 1869), Daily Cleveland Herald (29 March 1869), McKean Miner (22 April 1869)]

In the succeeding decades, the concept was whittled to the more pithy, “Laws are like sausages. It is best not to see them being made.” And that version of Saxe’s phrase was only attributed to Bismarck in the 1930s.

And it’s unfortunate that the phrase lost some of its original sophistication. “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made,” is more useful, analytically speaking, than “Laws are like sausages. It is best not to see them being made.” The idea that laws and sausages “_cease to inspire respect in proportion_ as we know how they are made,” allows for varying degrees of disgust, depending on how much we know the details of their construction.

It is with much relief, therefore, that you Buzzkillers never actually see this podcast being made. It’s best that you don’t. As Lady Buzzkill will certainly tell you, seeing it would indeed, “cease to inspire respect in proportion to how much you knew about how it’s made.”

The Blind Men and the Elephant
John Godfrey Saxe

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Buzzkill Bookshelf

The Poetical Works of John Godfrey Saxe (Classic Reprint, 2018).

A collection of Saxe’s poems, including “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” Saxe was one of America’s most widely-read and quoted poet of the 19th century. This volume helps bring his talent back to light.



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