The Grammarphobia Blog

Blood and treasure

Q: I’m curious about the origin of the expression “blood and treasure,” as in “Was Vietnam worth the price in blood and treasure?”

A: We’ve seen the phrase “blood and treasure” a lot lately, but it’s an age-old poetic expression meaning “lives and money.” It’s generally been used in reference to the high price of war or conquest.

The expression seems to have been fairly common in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The earliest references we’ve been able to find appeared in the 1640s.

Passages from the proceedings of the House of Lords include “the Blood and Treasure that hath been spent” (1646) and, reversing the formula, “with great Expence both of their Treasure and Blood” (1643).

We found a petition to the British Parliament on behalf of the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, dated 1647, that refers to “those our Native Liberties, which have now cost the Kingdom such vast Expence of Blood and Treasure.”

Sir Henry Vane used the expression in attacking Richard Cromwell in a speech before Parliament in 1659:

 “We have driven away the hereditary tyranny of the house of Stuart, at the expense of much blood and treasure, in hopes of enjoying hereditary liberty, after having shaken off the yoke of kingship.” (Vane was executed for treason the following year.)

The phrase crops up a lot in early 18th-century political pamphlets and essays, such as Robert Crosfeild’s The Government Unhing’d, a political treatise written in 1702 and published in 1703:

“In vain has the Nation spent so much Blood and Treasure, to preserve its Liberty, if Men have not the Freedom of Speech without Doors, as well as within.”

Daniel Defoe frequently used the expression. So did Jonathan Swift, who was so fond of it that he used it twice in a single sentence in this passage from his pamphlet The Publick Spirit of the Whigs, written in 1712:

“I cannot sufficiently commend our Ancestors for transmitting to us the Blessing of Liberty; yet having laid out their Blood and Treasure upon the Purchase, I do not see how they acted parsimoniously; because I can conceive nothing more generous than that of employing our Blood and Treasure for the Service of Others.”

In Swift’s other political writings, we find passages like these: “the Disposal of their Blood and Treasure” … “without whose blood and treasure” … “obtained by the Blood and Treasure of others”… “sacrificing so much Blood and Treasure” … “the blood and treasure of his fellow-subjects” … “prodigal of our Blood and Treasure” … “conquered … with so much Blood and Treasure” … “the loss of infinite blood and treasure,” “our best Blood and Treasure,” and others.

Possibly because of Swift’s influence, countless examples of the phrase appeared in books, newspapers, pamphlets, and journals of the 1720s, ’30s and ’40s.

In 1742, a speaker in the House of Commons referred to “Spain, which hath cost us much Blood and Treasure, and is like to cost us much more.”

And the 1778 issue of The Annual Register, a summary of the year’s events in Britain, referred to the Revolutionary War as “So great an exhausture of blood and treasure.”

Byron used the phrase in his poem The Age of Bronze (1823): “Blood and treasure boundlessly were spilt.”

At least two American presidents have used the expression at times of great political turmoil.

John Adams wrote on July 3, 1776: “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States.”

And Abraham Lincoln said on Dec. 1, 1862, that the country’s essential nationhood “demands union and abhors separation. In fact, it would ere long force reunion, however much of blood and treasure the separation might have cost.”

In our own time, we’ve seen the phrase used in reference to the war in Afghanistan.

In a Pentagon press conference on Jan. 10, 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used the phrase in response to a similar usage by a journalist.

The journalist asked Panetta: “How do you go to the American people and ask for yet another year, 18 months, or more of blood and treasure to pour into this war that kind of seems endless?”

Panetta’s reply: “Look, we have poured a lot of blood and treasure in this war over the last 10 years. But the fact is that we have also made a lot of progress as a result of the sacrifices that have been made.”

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