Abraham Lincoln? Alphonse Karr? B. Fay Mills? Roe Fulkerson? J. Kenfield Morley? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A popular quotation about achieving the proper perspective on life is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln:
We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.
Optimistic and pessimistic viewpoints are ingeniously contrasted in this expression. One may emphasize the beauty and lovely fragrance of a rose, or one may become preoccupied with the threatening pain of a thorn. I’m curious to know whether Lincoln actually spoke these words. I can’t find the source anywhere, and I’d like to know the context.
Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Abraham Lincoln wrote or spoke this quotation. Lincoln did mention roses and thorns when in 1850 he delivered a eulogy for Zachary Taylor who was the twelfth President of the United States. Here is an excerpt: 1
The Presidency, even to the most experienced politicians, is no bed of roses; and Gen. Taylor like others, found thorns within it. No human being can fill that station and escape censure.
The above statement was quite different from the saying under investigation.
The earliest evidence found by QI of a conceptual match using the same key vocabulary items was printed in a work by the prominent French journalist and author Alphonse Karr in 1853. The book “Lettres écrites de mon jardin” (“Letters written from my garden”) included a rhyming verse on this theme, but Karr’s introductory comment suggested an anonymous authorship: 2
De leur meilleur côté tâchons de voir les choses:
Vous vous plaignez de voir les rosiers épineux;
Moi je me réjouis et rends grâces aux dieux
Que les épines aient des roses.
Here is one possible translation of the verse into English:
Let us try to see things from their better side:
You complain about seeing thorny rose bushes;
Me, I rejoice and give thanks to the gods
That thorns have roses.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Alphonse Karr also placed this verse into his 1862 book “Sur la plage” (“On the beach”). 3 In 1877 the verse was printed in the collection “L’esprit d’Alphonse Karr: pensées, extraites de ses oeuvres completes” (“The spirit of Alphonse Karr: thoughts, extracted from his complete works”). There was no introduction to the verse, and readers may have assumed that the lines were composed by Karr. 4
By 1882 a version of the adage had entered the English language, and the words were ascribed to Karr. Here is an instance published in “The Christian Life: A Unitarian Journal” of London: 5
“Some people,” says Alphonse Karr, “are always finding fault with Nature for putting thorns on roses; I always thank her for having put roses on thorns.”
The statement was disseminated in several other journals in the following years. For example, in 1883 “The Freemasons’ Repository” of Providence, Rhode Island printed the remark and credited Karr. 6
In 1886 the popular lecturer Kate Sanborn published a calendar that was filled with quotations titled “A Year of Sunshine: Cheerful Extracts for Every Day in the Year”. The identical statement ascribed to Karr appeared on the calendar page for the 10th of December. 7
In 1888 “The Bow in the Cloud: Or, Words of Comfort for Those in Bereavement, Sickness, Sorrow, and the Varied Trials of Life” was published, and it included the version of the saying given above; however, the author was not precisely identified: 8
Another genial spirit said, “Some people are always finding fault with nature for putting thorns on roses; I always thank her for putting roses on thorns.”
In 1897 the expression was printed in the periodical “The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star”, but the words were assigned to an unspecified German writer. Boldface has been added to the excerpts below: 9
“Some people,” says a German writer, “are always finding fault with nature for putting thorns on roses. Now I always thank her for putting roses on thorns.” It is best to go about in life seeking the roses and trying to overlook the thorns. It is not so difficult when we once have formed the habit, and the habit is the key that opens the door to happiness for its possessor.
In 1898 “The Pacific Unitarian” described a contest conducted by “Mr. Moody” to find “the best thought”. In the following excerpt “Mr. Moody” probably referred to the prominent evangelist and teacher Dwight L. Moody. The contest winner was a rephrased version of the saying under investigation: 10
Mr. Moody said a good thought was worth a journey of a thousand miles. He once offered a prize for the best thought sent to him in a month. The following drew a prize: “Men grumble because God put thorns on roses. Would it not be better to thank God that he put roses on thorns.”
In 1911 a speaker named B. Fay Mills presented a lecture titled “The Happiness Habit” in Racine, Wisconsin and a newspaper described part of what he said: 11
Third, make the best of unpleasant experiences. Say with the Old Roman, ‘Though this be misfortune, to bear it nobly is good fortune.’ Don’t grumble because roses have thorns: rejoice because thorns have roses. The pessimist is the man who, of two evils, chooses both. Never censure anybody. Don’t mention your infirmities.
In 1916 a newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana printed an article composed of very short sermons. A segment referred to “rose bushes” together with “thorns” and was thematically related to the saying: 12
Rose bushes have thorns, and we bear with them for the sake of the roses. All of us have faults, but we are judged by the good we do. It is not enough to congratulate on the thorns we have, but we should look into our lives for the roses.
In 1929 a syndicated newspaper column called “The Hotel Stenographer” contrasted “thorn bushes” and “rose bushes”. These two terms were also used in the modern saying given by the questioner. The column was written by Roe Fulkerson, and he did not present an attribution: 13 14
You can think yourself into misery or happiness, whichever pleases you the best. It is as easy to rejoice that the onion family also produced lilies as to regret that the lily family also produces onions.
It is as easy to remember that thorn bushes have beautiful roses as to regret that rose bushes have such frightful thorns. It’s as easy to remember that ugly old cats have beautiful kittens as to remember that beautiful kittens grow to be bird-killing, flea-infested cats.
In 1936 the syndicated column “Office Cat” by Junius included an instance of the saying that was similar to the expression provided by the questioner. The words were ascribed to an unknown philosopher: 15
Viewpoint: A philosopher said: “I can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or I can rejoice because thorn bushes have roses. It’s all how you look at it.” Much in life depends upon the point of view. Are you looking at the thorns or the roses?
In April 1949 a newspaper in Canton, Ohio printed a short filler item that closely matched the version in “Office Cat”. The statement was credited to “Morley”. The 1964 citation presented further below gave a full name for Morley: 16
I can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses. It’s all how you look at it.—Morley.
In December 1949 a publication of the American Medical Association printed a short didactic tale about divergent attitudes toward life: 17
In addition to these physical differences, it is interesting to notice that your viewpoint and temperament affect the way you see things. There is an old legend about two little girls who moved to a new house with a garden. The first little girl went out to look at the garden and came back dolefully, saying, “Mother, the garden is a sad place; all the rose bushes have thorns on them.” The second child returned joyfully, saying, “Oh Mother, the garden is a wonderful place; all the thorn bushes have roses on them.”
In 1964 the popular columnist Earl Wilson printed an instance of the saying and credited J. Kenfield Morley: 18
REMEMBERED QUOTE: You can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice that thorn bushes have roses. It’s all how you look at it. — J. Kenfield Morley.
In 2003 a collection “Wilderness Wisdom: Quotes for Inspirational Exploration” assigned a version of the saying to the famous President Abraham Lincoln: 19
We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or we can rejoice that thorn bushes have roses. Abraham Lincoln
In conclusion, the earliest evidence found by QI for this type of saying appeared in French in a book by Alphonse Karr who declined to give an ascription. Hence, this saying has no known originator though Karr was the primal locus of popularization. The attribution to Lincoln occurred very recently and is unsupported.
Image notes: Thorn by zdenet at Pixabay. Lincoln portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy in 1869 at Wikipedia. Rose by LoggaWiggler at Pixabay. Alphonse Karr portrait at Wikimedia. All images are public domain. Cropped to create composite.
(Great thanks to “Jazz” whose email gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to W. Brewer and H. Wilson Gray for providing QI with suggestions for the translation of the 1853 verse from French to English. Any errors are QI’s responsibility.)
- Database of “The Abraham Lincoln Association”, Book Title: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume: 2, Author: Abraham Lincoln, Publication: Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Year: 1953, (Eulogy on Zachary Taylor: EULOGY PRONOUNCED BY HON. A. LINCOLN, ON THE LIFE AND SERVICES OF THE LATE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, At Chicago, July 25th, 1850) (Database at quod.lib.umich.edu accessed November 16, 2013) link ↩
- 1853, Lettres écrites de mon jardin by Alphonse Karr, Quote Page 293, Publisher Michel Lévy Frères, Paris. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1862, Sur la plage by Alphonse Karr, Quote Page 213, Publisher Michel Lévy Frères, Paris. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1877, L’esprit d’Alphonse Karr: pensées, extraites de ses oeuvres completes by Alphonse Karr, Quote Page 49, Publisher Calmann Lévy, Paris. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1882 July 22, The Christian Life: A Unitarian Journal, Volume 8, Number 323, Notes of the Week: Home and Abroad, Start Page 345, Quote Page 346, Column 1, London, UK. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1883 February, The Freemasons’ Repository, Volume 12, Number 5, Gleanings, Quote Page 171, E. L. Freeman & Co., Providence, Rhode Island. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1886, A Year of Sunshine: Cheerful Extracts for Every Day in the Year, Selected and Arranged by Kate Sanborn, (Date listed in calendar on page: December 10), Unnumbered Page, Ticknor and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1888, The Bow in the Cloud: Or, Words of Comfort for Those in Bereavement, Sickness, Sorrow, and the Varied Trials of Life, Edited by J. Sanderson (Joseph Sanderson), Quote Page 319, Published by E. B. Treat, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1897 April 1, The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, Volume 59, Number 13, (Freestanding short article), Quote Page 199, Edited and Published by Rulon S. Wells, Liverpool, UK. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1898 December, The Pacific Unitarian, Volume 7, Number 2, Notes, Start Page Quote 37, Page 41, Column 1, Published monthly by the Pacific Unitarian Conference, San Francisco, California. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1911 March 29, Daily Register Gazette, The Happiness Habit: B. Fay Mills Says That It Produces Character and Makes One Useful, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1916 November 12, New Orleans States, Sentence Sermons for Stay-at-Home Folk of Old Town by Rev. A. J. Gearheard, Quote Page 5, Column 2, (GNB Page 21), New Orleans, Louisiana.
- 1929 November 22, Riverside Daily Press, The Hotel Stenographer by Roe Fulkerson, Section 2, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1929 November 22, Olean Evening Times (Olean Times), The Hotel Stenographer by Roe Fulkerson, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Olean, New York. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1936 February 15, Edwardsville Intelligencer, Office Cat by Junius, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Edwardsville, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1949 April 1, The Canton Repository (Repository), (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1949 December, Hygeia: The Health Magazine, Volume 27, Number 12, Using the Hidden Senses by Estelle H. Ries, Start Page 824, Quote Page 824, Column 1, Published by the American Medical Association, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1964 February 27, Aberdeen American-News (Aberdeen Daily News), Earl Wilson’s New York by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 2003 copyright, Wilderness Wisdom: Quotes for Inspirational Exploration, (NOLS: National Outdoor Leadership School), Edited by John Gookin, Quote Page 79, Published by Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Preview) ↩