We Can Complain Because Rose Bushes Have Thorns, or Rejoice Because Thorn Bushes Have Roses

Abraham Lincoln? Alphonse Karr? B. Fay Mills? Roe Fulkerson? J. Kenfield Morley? Anonymous?

rose07Dear 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.

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Notes:

  1. 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
  2. 1853, Lettres écrites de mon jardin by Alphonse Karr, Quote Page 293, Publisher Michel Lévy Frères, Paris. (Google Books full view) link