Suppose You Call a Sheep’s Tail a Leg, How Many Legs Will the Sheep Have?

Abraham Lincoln? John W. Hulbert? Pious Clergyman? George Bradburn? Anonymous?

sheep08Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous riddle about the difference between a supposition and a fact:

How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?
Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.

There are different versions of this puzzler, and each is based on a different type of animal, e.g., a sheep, a calf, a horse, or a pig. But the template for the question and answer remains the same. Abraham Lincoln has usually been given credit for this instructive brainteaser. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: There is substantive evidence that Abraham Lincoln did employ this comical riddle by 1862, and detailed citations are given further below. But Lincoln was referring to a conundrum that was already in circulation.

The earliest evidence located by QI was published in multiple newspapers in 1825. The “Berkshire Star” of Massachusetts published a set of “Legislative Anecdotes” while acknowledging the “Washington County Post” of New York. One tale was told by John W. Hulbert who was a member of the New York House of Assembly. The story was about a parson who was interrogating a job candidate whom he disliked, so he employed a trick question to embarrass the jobseeker. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In the course of the debate, Mr. Hulbert remarked that the attempt to call the thing what it was not, reminded him of the story of a good old clergyman in Yankeetown who, though very pious, was fond of a joke.

The parson was sent for, to examine a young man who had offered himself for a school-master, but on his appearance before the trustees, the parson did not like his looks. When it came his turn to speak the parson said he would put a single question.

“Suppose,” said he, “you call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs will the sheep have?” “Why five, to be sure,” answered the would-be-school-master with an air of wisdom. “Very well” said the parson: “So if you call a sheep’s tail a leg, it is a leg, is it? But never mind, if the trustees say so, you may keep the school for what I care!”

In 1825 the riddle was further disseminated when it was reprinted in newspapers such as the “Woodstock Observer” of Woodstock, Vermont and the “Massachusetts Spy” of Worcester, Massachusetts. 2 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Thanks to top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake who located several valuable citations in her pioneering work on this topic which she shared on the Snopes website.

In 1834 “The Voice of the People” newspaper of Warren, Pennsylvania printed a short item containing a concise instance designed to make a political point: 4 5

“If you call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs will a sheep have?”—
“Five.”
“Will calling a sheep’s tail a leg make it a leg?”—”No.”
If then, calling a sheep’s tail a leg don’t make it a leg, will calling Tory a Whig make, him a Whig?

In 1840 an attendee of Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society named George Bradburn spoke to his fellow participants, and he employed a version featuring a discussion between a father and son. The animal was a calf instead of a sheep: 6

This discussion reminds me of the boy who said to his father, “Father, how many legs would this calf have, calling the tail a leg?” “Why, five, my son.” “No, father, he would not. He would only have four.” “Why, calling the tail a leg you said, my boy.” “Ah, father! but calling the tail a leg does not make it so, you know.”

In 1844 a collection called “The Junius Tracts” included an instance of the dialog: 7

“How many legs will a calf have,” asked a fellow of another whose depth and shrewdness he wanted to prove, “if you call his tail a leg?” “Five,” was the answer. “O no, that’s impossible.” “But certainly, he will have five.” “Does your calling his tail a leg, make it a leg?” “Well, now, I never thought of that.”

In September 1862 a newspaper in Wisconsin reported on a meeting that was held between President Abraham Lincoln and a group of religious leaders who wanted him to immediately sign an Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was hesitant and argued that the measure would be ineffective because it would not actually free slaves. He used the language of the riddle to figuratively explain his position: 8

The committee has returned, and on Saturday evening made a report of their interview with the President to a second meeting of “the religious community” assembled for that purpose. What the President said, one of the delegates told the meeting as follows:

On pressing the policy of emancipation upon the President we received this reply “You remember the slave who asked his master, ‘If I should call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs would it have?’

‘Five.’ ‘No, only four; for my calling the tail a leg would not make it so.’ “Now, gentlemen, if I say to the slaves, ‘you are free,’ they will be no more free than at present.”

In October 1862 a newspaper in Indiana reported on the meeting about the proclamation. In this version of the event the president also employed the riddle; however, the animal was a pig instead of a calf: 9

Greeley, Andrew, Blair of Michigan, and other Abolitionists, promised the President a million of men, if he would issue his Emancipation Proclamation. In vain did Lincoln protest; in vain did he cite the stories of the Pope, who issued a bull against the comet, and the slave who told his master that his calling a pig’s tail a leg, would not make it so. He was assured that if he would but spread his edict before the people, armed men would spring out of the earth at the stamp of his foot.

Ultimately, the President signed the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863.

In July 1863 an agricultural periodical called “The Genesee Farmer” published a variant of the conundrum featuring a dog: 10

“How many legs would a dog have, if you called his tail one?” “Five, of course.” “No; only four. It wouldn’t make his tail a leg to call it one.”

In 1868 “The American Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated” published an instance with a child and a grandfather: 11

A boy put this puzzling question to his wise progenitor: “Grandpa, calling the tail a leg, how many legs would the calf have?” Five, was the unscientific answer, which the more philosophical boy instantly corrected by replying: “No, sir, calling the tail a leg don t make it a leg.” So, calling us this, that, or the other don’t make us what we are not.

In 1876 a writer in “Wallace’s Monthly” credited Lincoln with a very concise instance: 12

As Mr. Lincoln once said, “calling a calf’s tail a leg don’t make it a leg.”

In 1883 a periodical called “American Counting-Room” printed a didactic dialog featuring a horse: 13

I remember having heard or read in my youth a dialogue between two boys, something like the following:
“Jack! Suppose a horse’s tail a leg, how many legs would it have?”
“Five.”
“No.”
“How’s that?”
“All your suppositions would not make the tail a leg.”
But if Bill had said to Jack:
“Jack! Suppose a horse’s tail is counted as a leg, how many counts, as legs, would there be for a horse?”
“Five.”
“Quite right, Jack.”

Sometimes the setting and participants in the Lincoln anecdote have been changed, For example, in 1941 a newspaper in Ottawa, Canada printed the following: 14

“Lincoln once asked Secretary of War William H. Seward how many legs a sheep would have if you called his tail a leg. Seward sputtered, finally answered five.

“Oh, no”, Lincoln replied. “Calling a sheep’s tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg. He’d only have four.”

In 1970 the popular syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers published another version of the Lincoln anecdote: 15

When Abraham Lincoln was asked by a prosecuting attorney, “How many legs does a sheep have?” He replied, “Four.” The attorney then asked, “If you called a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs would he have?” Lincoln replied, “Four. Merely because you call a sheep’s tail a leg does not make it one.”

In conclusion, this humorous riddle was in circulation by 1825 when a version was told by the legislator John W. Hulbert as reported in several newspapers. During his presentation Hulbert used the phrase “reminded him of the story” which signaled that he was not the creator of the riddle. Hence, the originator remains unidentified.

Image Notes: Picture of curious sheep from hbieser at Pixabay. Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Abraham Byers circa 1858 via Wikimedia Commons. Abraham Lincoln probably did use this puzzle in 1862, but he did not craft it. The linkage to his famous name enhanced its popularity, durability, and memorability.

(Great thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake whose previous fruitful research on this topic led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Ed Darrell who also inspired this investigation via a comment he made here that mentioned the quotation.)

Notes:

  1. 1825 April 28, Berkshire Star, Legislative Anecdotes, Quote Page 3, Column 3 and 4, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1825 May 24, Woodstock Observer, From the N.Y. Washington Co. Post Legislative Anecdotes (Acknowledgement to Washington Co. Post, New York), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Woodstock, Vermont. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1825 June 1, Massachusetts Spy, Legislative Anecdote (Acknowledgement to Washington Co. Post, New York), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Worcester, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1834 June 25, The Voice of the People, (Untitled item), Quote Page 3, Column 3, Warren, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1834 June 28, The Examiner (Washington Review and Examiner), (Untitled item), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Washington, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1840, Eighth Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Mass. Anti-Slavery Society, Presented January 22, 1840, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society at its Eighth Annual Meeting January 22 1840, Speaker: Mr. Bradburn (George Bradburn of Nantucket), Start Page 32 (xxxii), Quote Page 33 (xxxiii), Dow & Jackson, Printers, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1844 January, The Junius Tracts, Number 6, Democracy by Junius, Quote Page 7, (Also page 87 in global numbering), Published by Greeley & McElrath, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1862 September 23, Daily Milwaukee News, What the President Said, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1862 October 16, Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel, Where Are the Armed Men?, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Fort Wayne, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  10. 1863 July, The Genesee Farmer, Volume 24, Number 7, Miscellaneous, Start Page 222, Quote Page 222, Column 1, Published by Joseph Harris, Rochester, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1868 August, The American Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, What They Say (Section for letters from readers), Are You a Romanist? Start Page 72, Quote Page 72, Column 1, Published by Samuel R. Wells, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1876 August, Wallace’s Monthly, Mr. Helm’s Theories of Breeding the Trotting Horse, Start Page 251, Quote Page 254, Column 1, Published by Benjamin Singerly, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1883 August, American Counting-Room, Volume 7, Number 2, Counting-Room Chats, (From Joseph Hardcastle, New York), Start Page 78, Quote Page 79, Column 1, Counting-Room Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  14. 1941 March 26, The Ottawa Evening Journal, Waterways Plan Termed ‘Treaty’ Not Agreement, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1970 August 20, The Hillsdale Daily News, Your Problems Analyzed: Woman Feels Dr. Lynch Has Answer by Ann Landers, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Hillsdale, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)