iron hand (in a velvet glove), to rule with an

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rule with an iron hand

To rule, govern, or control a group or population with complete, typically tyrannical authority over all aspects of life, work, etc. A noun or pronoun can be used between "rule" and "with." He rules with an iron hand, and moves swiftly to gain control over any entity that is not already in his grasp. She has ruled this company with an iron hand for three decades, and it's going to be difficult for her to let go of control.
See also: hand, iron, rule
Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.

iron hand (in a velvet glove), to rule with an

To rule with absolute firmness (concealed by a mild manner). Ruling with iron was an idea expressed in the Bible, in the Book of Revelation: “And he shall rule them with a rod of iron” (2:27). Iron hand in a velvet glove comes from Thomas Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) and is there ascribed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “‘Iron hand in a velvet glove,’ as Napoleon defined it.” However, the phrase has been attributed to other rulers, too, among them Charles V. Today it is more often used for lesser authorities, such as a strict parent, but may be dying out.
See also: hand, iron, rule, velvet
The Dictionary of Clichés by Christine Ammer Copyright © 2013 by Christine Ammer
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References in periodicals archive ?
Jean Martin Charcot, who first described the clinical features and pathology of MS, flourished in a highly politicized French hospital system that he came to rule with an iron hand. He would have been shackled in German research institutions, but Talley shows that the economic, social and political milieu of academic medicine in 1880s Paris allowed Charcot to elucidate MS.
WAY OUT WEST: Ian McShane continues to rule with an iron hand in Deadwood, Sky One, 10.00pm