19

Cardinal Richelieu is frequently quoted as saying,

If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.

What I've never seen cited, though, was the context of this quote. I find it difficult to imagine any context in which someone would want to actually admit this, even if it were true, because of what a horrible person it makes you look like when you come out and actually say it, but apparently he said it anyway. Is anyone able to put this quote in its proper context?

  • 1
    Well, a rather quick search for the quote in French(i suppose more results would turn up this way, and maybe sources) tells me that there is no information of the context of the quote, nor of its authenticity. Sources are wikiquote and 2 french litterary forums – Adrian Todorov Aug 3 '15 at 13:16
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    Possibly this was a description of Richlieu's nefariousness rather than his own words. – Semaphore Aug 3 '15 at 13:32
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    The quote may be rhetorical - I read it as simply expressing that even innocent writing often contains something that can be made to sound sinister. I don't see it as expressing that he literally proposes to hang people. Compare the quote attributed to Archimedes: "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world." He isn't literally offering to move the world himself, merely expressing circumstances under which it would, in theory, be possible. – Nate Eldredge Aug 3 '15 at 20:30
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The idea originated with the memorialist Françoise Bertaut de Motteville who only entered the French court after Richelieu had died, so she was reporting rumors she heard from people who knew Richelieu personally.

In her memoirs published in 1723, she wrote the following in volume one:

Laffemas avoit promis au Ministre qu'il le tourmenteroit si bien qu'il en tireroit a-peu-pres ce qu'il en desiroit savoir, & que sur peu de mal il trouveroit les moyens de lai faire son proces selon les manieres meme du cardinal, qui, a ce que j'ai oui conter a ses amis, avoit accoutume de dire qu'avec deux lignes de l'ecriture d'un homme on pouvoit faire le proces au plus innocent, parce qu'on pouvoit sur cette matiere ajuster si bien les affaires, que facilement on y pouvoit faire trouver ce qu'on voudroit.

which means:

Laffemas promised the Minister that he would harrass him so much that he would extract pretty much everything he wanted to know, and that it would be little trouble as he would find the means to prosecute him according to the methods of the cardinal himself, who, as I have heard his friends tell, was in the habit of saying that with two lines of a man's handwriting, an accusation could be made against the most innocent, because the business can be interpreted in such a way, that one can easily find what one wishes.

The "six lines" paraphrase is an invention of "quotation book" editors who came later.

12

The attribution may well be apocryphal.

In the Wikipedia entry on Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, the phrase is attributed to Richelieu himself, either in Mémoires or in Testament politique. However, I have been unable to find it in either of these texts (admittedly, just did a quick search).

In the Bulletin du bibliophile, Volume 6 (1843), page 12, the phrase is attributed to Voltaire, not Richelieu.

In Débats du procès instruit par la Haute-cour de justice, contre Drouet, Baboeuf et autres, Volume 2, Éd. Baudouin, Paris (179?) , page 44, it is now attributed to Laubardemont - but with some hesitation.

So, at least by the time of the French Revolution it is clear there was some confusion as to the original author and context.

  • It may be worthwhile to mention that the quote in the French Wikipedia article says two lines, not six. A search for "deux lignes" turns up other quote sites with a different wording than the one in the article: Avec deux lignes d'écriture d'un homme, on peut faire le procès du plus innocent. Another version reads: donnez-moi deux lignes de l'écriture d'un homme, et je me charge de le faire pendre – Random832 Aug 3 '15 at 20:47
  • @Random832 Yes, indeed. And the Wikipedia version uses the turn "suffire à sa condamnation", not "le faire pendre". This variety contrasts with usual style in French, where quotations tend to be well-known by all and cited quite precisely. – ALAN WARD Aug 3 '15 at 20:56
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    It sounds like something Voltaire would have written. However, that could well be a trap. Voltaire at the point of your reference was roughly equivalent in distance and stature in France to where Mark Twain is currently in English (or at least American) literature. Twain is constantly getting pithy sayings misattributed to him because it sounds plausible. – T.E.D. Aug 4 '15 at 16:34
  • @T.E.D. I agree (about the attributions, and also that they sound plausible). Another thought that came to me -pure speculation, mind you- is that it would have been possible for Voltaire to have commented on Richelieu's saying at some point, and that a later author could have gotten somehow confused. – ALAN WARD Aug 4 '15 at 17:03
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because of what a horrible person it makes you look like when you come out and actually say it

Well, you managed to do it with less than 2 lines (although perhaps not for the most honest of men).

Regardless of the authenticity of the quote, I can see two interpretations:

  1. I am so skilled in twisting words that I can make even the most innocent phrase look like treason
  2. Language is so ambiguous and prone to misinterpretation that it is possible to twist even the most innocent words to a reason for hanging

Personally I've never thought of the first interpretation until I saw the question; I always considered the quote a warning about the consequences of saying something in public (esp. if it's written or otherwise persisted). While it is possible to argue that he is proud of his skill, I see it mostly as an exaggeration: it wouldn't be the same if he said "suspended from class", would it?

  • I'd never actually thought of the second interpretation, mostly because when people quote him on that the context is almost invariably something to do with government overreach and malicious prosecution. It just seems weird to me, like something a cartoon villain might say while twisting his mustache and bragging about how diabolical he is. But Cardinal Richlieu was a real person, not a cartoon villain, (yes, yes, I know... you know what I mean,) so I was wondering why he might say something like that. – Mason Wheeler Aug 3 '15 at 17:26
  • I always thought it meant the latter. The trick is getting everyone to accept your (re)interpretation. You can see this pretty darn clearly just by following US politics. My favorite example I heard from a (former) southern Senator(?), who made the mistake on the campaign trail of admitting that he was sick of eating barbeque. It subsequently became a huge issue, and he lost his election. – T.E.D. Aug 4 '15 at 16:43

protected by Community Sep 27 '18 at 8:34

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