Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote in The Prince (1505 in Italian, 1513 in English) what has been translated as “Never do an enemy a small injury.” If one is striking out at an opponent, one should make sure that the fatal blow is struck, successfully ending the confrontation. Machiavelli wrote that “the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.”
A well-known anecdote (cited in print since at least 1882) is that a young man wrote an essay criticizing Plato, and he sent the essay to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Emerson returned the essay with the remark, “When you strike (at) a king you must kill him.” The jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935), who frequently used the quote, wrote that this essayist was “a young friend of mine in his college days.” However, the saying appears much earlier in Emerson’s journal from September 1843: “Never strike a king unless you are sure you shall kill him.”
The saying has been written in many forms, usually without the word “strike.” The beginning is often “If you shoot at the king” or “If you’re going to shoot the king” or “If you aim at the king.” The ending “you must kill him” is often replaced with “you better make sure he’s dead” or “don’t miss.”
“When you strike (at) a king you must kill him” has been very popular with politicians and with lawyers. The saying has often been applied to a politician seeking to change the leadership in his or her political party. If the “king” is not “killed,” the party leaders will seek revenge.
Wikiquote: Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-05-03 – 1527-06-21) was a Florentine political philosopher, historian, musician, poet, and romantic comedic playwright. Machiavelli was also a key figure in realist political theory, crucial to European statecraft during the Renaissance.
The Prince (1513)
Original Italian title: Il Principe (written c. 1505)
Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.
. Ch. 3; Variant translation: Never do an enemy a small injury.
Wikiquote: Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-05-25 – 1882-04-27) was an American philosopher, essayist, and poet.
I read your piece on Plato. Holmes, when you strike at a king, you must kill him.
. Said to a young Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who had written a piece critical of Plato in response to his earlier conversation with Emerson, as reported by Felix Frankfurter in Harlan Buddington Phillips, Felix Frankfurter Reminisces (1960), p. 59.
The journals and miscellaneous notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson / 9 : 1843-1847
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Pg. 15 (September 1843):
Never strike a king unless you are sure you shall kill him.
3 July 1882, New York (NY) Herald, Personal, pg. 4:
Some years ago a young man, imbued with an iconoclastic spirit, as also with a high sense of his own abilities, wrote a critical essay upon Plato, wherein he rather pecked at the old philosopher, and sent it to Ralph Waldo Emerson, asking him to read it and give him his candid opinion concerning its merits. Mr. Emerson, on returning the essay, made only the remark: “When you strike a king you must kill him.”
The writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes
By Oliver Wendell Holmes
Edited by John Torrey Morse
Cambridge, MA: Printed at the Riverside Press
A young friend of mine in his college days wrote an essay on Plato. When he mentioned his subject to Mr. Emerson, he got the caution, long remembered, “When you strike at a King, you must kill him.”
Famous Sayings and Their Authors;
A collection of historical sayings in English, French, German, Greek, Italian, and Latin
By Edward Latham
When you strike at a king, you must kill him.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-82)—to a young man who wrote an essay on Plato and mentioned the subject to Emerson.
May 1912, The Bookman, pg. 249, col. 2:
One is reminded of Emerson’s remark to the young gentleman who wrote an essay in which he criticised adversely the philosophy of Plato, — “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.”
19 July 1937, Trenton (NJ) Evening Times, “Fair Enough” by Hugh S. Johnson, pg. 8, col. 7:
REHOBOTH, Del., July 19.—When you strike at a king, you must kill him. President Roosevelt agrees with those who have contended that, if he is utterly routed on the court legislation, his victors will take over party dominance.
The mind and faith of Justice Holmes:
His speeches, essays, letters, and judicial opinions
By Oliver Wendell Holmes
Edited by Max Lerner
Boston, MA: Little, Brown
“When you strike at a king,” Emerson had told him long before, “you must kill him.”
September 1954, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, pg. 291:
The admonition “When you strike at a king, you strike to kill,” has obviously (Pg. 292 --ed.) been adopted by our nation’s civil defense planners.
10 December 1954, Oregonian (Portland, OR), “Hall Calls McCarthy Attack Boon to President,” pg. 6, col. 6”
Democrats watching the presidential-McCarthy exchange from the sidelines generally lauded Mr. Eisenhower.
Senator Willis Robertson, Democrat, Virginia, said: “You know the philosophy of the man who said, ‘Never strike a king unless you kill him.’”
Google News Archive
5 October 1963, Spokane (WA) Spokesman-Review, “Break Up the Yankees??,” Jim Murray’s Column, pg. 8, cols. 3-4:
But as the old saying goes, if you shoot at a king, make sure you hit him, and if you bury him, make sure he’s dead.
1 January 1969, Seattle (WA) Daily Times, “State Demos Split Over McCormack” by William W. Prochnau, pg. 8, col. 1:
Representatives Floyd Hicks of Tacoma and Thomas S. Foley of Spokane are leaning somewhat reluctantly toward support for McCormack. Their feeling seems to be that if you are going to shoot at the king you had better not miss. They think the shot at McCormack will miss.
14 August 1973, Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA), “Is it so ‘unthinkable’?” by Garry Wills, pg. 19, col. 2:
An old maxim tells us, if you aim at the King, you had better kill him. Many people treat impreachment in this light. Do not speak or think of it until it becomes inescapable.
6 September 1974, Tri City Herald (Pasco, Kennewick, Richland, WA), “Labor muffed its stand” by Robert Cummings, pg. 6, col. 3:
OLYMPIA—There’s a maxim in politics which is as old as government itself. It goes like this:
“When you shoot at the king, you had better be sure you kill him.”
Google News Archive
27 October 1975, Miami (FL) News, “Tucker ally jabs at new challenger,” pg. 4A, col. 2:
TALLAHASSEE—One of House Speaker Donald Tucker’s closest allies has hinted at reprisals if Rep. Barry Kutun (D-Miami) fails in his bid to topple Tucker as the 1977-78 House leader.
“It reminds me of an old story that when you shoot at the king you kill him, you’d better kill him, don’t just wound him,” Majority leader Dick Clark (D-Miami) said yesterday.
More than they bargained for:
The rise and fall of Korvettes
By Isadore Barmash
New York, NY: Lebhar-Friedman Books/Chain Store Pub. Corp.
He had told Ferkauf during yesterday’s phone conversation, “If you’re going to shoot the king, you’re going to have to get him with the first bullet.”
19 September 1982, Baltimore (MD) Sun, “Hughes shows few soft spots” by Karen Hosier, pg. C1:
“If you’re going to shoot the king, you’ve got to kill him,” Mr. Neall said of the Democrats who opposed the governor. “Hughes hasn’t even been scratched.”
The Internet Movie Database
Memorable quotes for
Blood Simple. (1984)
Ray: If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him, and if you shoot him you’d better make sure he’s dead, because if he isn’t then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you.
Before the Fall:
An inside view of the pre-Watergate White House
By William Safire
New York, NY : Da Capo Press
“If you would kill a king,” was Oliver Wendell Holmes’s advice, “make sure he’s dead.”
May 1994, ABA Journal, pg. 48, col. 2:
When shoptalk among trial lawyers turns to recusal motions, someone invariably quotes the old adage, “When you aim at the king, you had better kill him.”
26 December 1994, Boston (MA) Globe, “Bulger backers eye retribution against rebels” by Scot Lehigh, Metro section, pg. 1:
“You know the old saying, ‘If you are going to shoot the king, don’t miss’.” said Assistant Majority Whip Frederick E. Berry.
Google Groups: alt.politics.libertarian
Newsgroups: alt.activism, alt.conspiracy, soc.culture.caribbean, soc.culture.cuba, soc.culture.latin-america, alt.politics.radical-left, alt.test, alt.politics.libertarian
From: (NY Transfer News Collective)
Subject: Drug-running: Latest psy-war smear against Cuba
“You don’t shoot the king unless you can kill him,” a source said.
READY, AIM, MISFIRE
By JAMES CARNEY/WASHINGTON;Karen Tumulty/Washington
Monday, July 28, 1997
Yet less than 36 hours later, Paxon was in Gingrich’s office, volunteering to relinquish the leadership post that Gingrich had invented for him. “Newt,” Paxon quavered, “if you want me to resign, I will.” The next morning, Gingrich accepted the offer. And so it was that a G.O.P. rising star learned a bitter lesson: if you set out to kill the king, you had better make sure he’s dead.
Nixon’s Ten Commandments of Leadership and Negotiation
By James C. Humes
New York, NY: Simon & schuster
On more than one occasion, Nixon quoted the words of Confucius, a minisgter of justice in China in the sixth century B.C.: “Build a golden bridge of escape for your enemies.”
The advice of the Chinese philosopher-statesman suggests a much different theory than that of Machiavelli, who warned that if you go after a king you’d better kill him.
1 February 1998, Boston (MA) Globe, “Lure of law and order: Starr put reputation on the line” by Peter S. Canellos, pg. A1:
Ralph Whitehead, a University of Massachusetts professor and specialist on the media and politics, offered this variation of an adage making the rounds in Washington: “If you shoot the king, you better not miss.”
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From: “Jose Leandro”
Subject: Re: Sexual harrassment…
I agree witg getting a labor lawyer, but be careful with your head wench, an old strategist said “If you are going to shoot the king, don’t miss!”.
By Scott Turow
New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
“You know the old saying? ‘If you shoot at the king, you better kill the king’?”
A paraphrase, I told him, of Machiavelli.
20 August 2000, Hartford (CT) Courant, “Dexter raider former prosecutor now sets sights on vulnerable firms” by Dan Haar, pg. D1:
“The basic rule if you’re going to try and shoot the king—you’d better not miss,” Kazan said.
Burden of Proof
Election 2000: Ballots on the Road to Tallahassee
Aired November 30, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET
VAN SUSTEREN: And, Roger, it’s sort of like what lawyers oftentimes say, if you’re going to shoot the king, you better kill him.
COSSACK: Yes, you better not miss.
The Quote Verifier:
Who said what, where, and when
By Ralph Keyes
New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press
According to a biographer, Emerson once told Oliver Wendell Holmes, “When you strike at a king you must kill him.” Some sources say that “Never strike a king unless you are sure you shall kill him” can be found in Emerson’s journal for September 1843, but it can’t. In any event, this thought could well have been inspired by an English proverb from the early seventeenth century: “Whosoever draws his sword against the prince must throw the scabbard away.”
Texas Monthly (February 2007)
Nobody but Craddick
by Evan Smith
“IF YOU’RE GOING TO SHOOT THE KING, you’d better kill the king.” That’s what famous blogger and occasional journalist Paul Burka, our senior executive editor, told me on the phone the morning of Saturday, December 23, as I was huffing and puffing between sets of tennis. He had called to say that the rumors we had both heard were true: Brian McCall, a Republican state representative from Plano, was prepared to challenge Tom Craddick in the upcoming vote for Speaker of the House.
April 4, 2011
Obama’s ultimate aim in Libya: a world military/police force?
By Wes Vernon
That recalls the old adage that if you’re going to shoot the king, you had better not miss.
Tallahassee (FL) Democrat
Bill Cotterell: Unions suffer payback in battle over dues
Bill Cotterell • Notebook • Published: April 18. 2011 2:00AM
There’s an old adage that if you shoot an arrow at a monarch, you dare not miss.
New York City • Government/Law/Politics/Military • (0) Comments • Friday, April 22, 2011 • Permalink