Category Archives: Abraham Lincoln

If I Am To Speak Ten Minutes, I Need a Week for Preparation; If an Hour, I Am Ready Now

Woodrow Wilson? Abraham Lincoln? Rufus Choate? Thomas B. Macaulay? William Howard Taft? Mark Twain? Anonymous?

woodrow04Dear Quote Investigator: A biography of President Woodrow Wilson included an entertaining quotation about the preparation time needed for speeches of varying lengths. Here is an excerpt from the book: 1

A member of the Cabinet congratulated Wilson on introducing the vogue of short speeches and asked him about the time it took him to prepare his speeches. He said:

“It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

This biography was published in 1946, i.e., many years after the death of Wilson in 1924. Could you search for earlier support of this quotation?

Quote Investigator: QI has located a match for a close variant quotation in 1918 that was attributed to Woodrow Wilson. The details are given further below.

There is a family of statements expressing this central idea, and it has been evolving for more than one hundred years. Tracing this family is difficult because of the high variability of the wording.

The first relevant instance found by QI was spoken in 1893 by the Governor of California. He ascribed the words to Abraham Lincoln, but this linkage was weak because Lincoln died decades earlier in 1865.This rudimentary version mentioned two different speech lengths instead of four: 2

Lincoln once made a most apt suggestion applicable to such cases. When asked to appear upon some important occasion and deliver a five-minute speech, he said that he had no time to prepare five-minute speeches, but that he could go and speak an hour at any time.

In 1895 a minister named J. N. Hall gave a speech at a meeting of the Men’s Sunday Evening Club as reported in a Rockford, Illinois newspaper. Hall ascribed an instance of the saying to Rufus Choate who was an orator and Senator from Massachusetts who died decades earlier in 1859. This version was tripartite; however, the third part referred to talking all day instead of speaking for an hour: 3

There is a great deal in condensation in these days of compressed yeast and potted ham, and I am reminded of an incident told of Rufus Choate, who being asked to make a speech on a certain occasion said, “If it is to be a minute speech I shall need four weeks in which to prepare, if a half hour speech, then two weeks, but if I am to talk all day I’m ready now.”

The QI website also has an entry for a popular related quotation: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”. Here is a link.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1946, The Wilson Era: Years of War and After 1917-1923 by Josephus Daniels, Quote Page 624,The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1893, Appendix to the Journals of the Senate and Assembly of the Thirtieth Session of the Legislature of the State of California, Volume 1, First Biennial Message of Governor H. H. Markham to the Legislature of the State of California, Thirtieth Session, (Delivered on January 3, 1893 in Sacramento, California), Start Page 3, Quote Page 5, Published by A. J. Johnston, Superintendent of State Printing, Sacramento, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1895 December 3, Rockford Daily Register Gazette, It’s Second Birthday: Men’s Sunday Evening Club Properly Celebrates, Quote Page 5, Column 2, (GNB Page 3), Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)

I Know Only Two Tunes: One of Them Is Yankee Doodle, and the Other Isn’t

Ulysses S. Grant? Abraham Lincoln? W. S. Gilbert? William Tecumseh Sherman? Victor Borge? Richie Havens? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: The holiday season is filled with singing, but my talent in this domain can be accurately summarized with the following quotation:

I know only two tunes: one of them is “Yankee Doodle,” and the other isn’t.

This humorously self-deprecating comment has been attributed to Ulysses S. Grant, but a similar remark has been ascribed to Abraham Lincoln and the famous librettist W. S. Gilbert. Could you please ascertain who first employed this expression?

Quote Investigator: There are many versions of this quip which has been in circulation for 175 years or more. Several different songs have been mentioned in the joke, e.g., “Old Hundred”, “Auld Lang Syne”, “God Save the Queen”, “Yankee Doodle”, and “Hail Columbia”. In the earliest instances located by QI the person with woeful musical knowledge was anonymous.

In 1839 a New Orleans newspaper printed a short article that described an unnamed individual who wanted to relax while perusing a poem; however an organ grinder and a squalling vocalist prevented a pleasant reverie and provoked an expletive: 1

We ought to apologize for swearing, but really we suffer considerably from music, and only know two tunes, one of which is “Old Hundred,” and the other isn’t. –N. O. Picayune.

This comical tale was reprinted in the “Saturday Morning Transcript” of Boston, Massachusetts and “The Musical Review” of New York. 2

In 1845 the same joke appeared in a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper where it was assigned to an anonymous singer: 3

A singer down east says he knows two tunes; one is ‘Old Hundred,’ and the other is not.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1839 April 20, Saturday Morning Transcript, Pleasant, Quote Page 134, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1839 May 4, The Musical Review, Volume 2, Number 1, Pleasant, Quote Page 11, Column 1, Printed by William Osborn, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1845 August 11, Daily Republican (Springfield Republican), (Freestanding untitled short item), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)

You Cannot Fool All the People All the Time

Abraham Lincoln? Jacques Abbadie? Denis Diderot? Anonymous?

diderot02Dear Quote Investigator: One of the most famous sayings attributed to Abraham Lincoln is about deception:

You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

I was astounded to learn that there is no solid evidence that Lincoln actually used this adage. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Abraham Lincoln died in 1865. Two decades later in September 1885 a version of the adage was used in a speech by a Prohibition Party politician named William J. Groo who provided no attribution for the remark. In March 1886 another Prohibitionist politician employed the saying, and this time the words were credited to Lincoln. These citations constitute the earliest evidence of closely matching statements located by QI. Details are presented further below.

An intriguing precursor appeared in a popular 1684 work of apologetics titled: “Traité de la Vérité de la Religion Chrétienne” by Jacques Abbadie who was a French Protestant based in Germany, England, and Ireland. The following passage appeared in chapter two: 1

… ont pû tromper quelques hommes, ou les tromper tous dans certains lieux & en certains tems, mais non pas tous les hommes, dans tous les lieux & dans tous les siécles.

The spelling “tems” was used in the original text instead of “temps”. Here is one possible translation into English: 2

One can fool some men, or fool all men in some places and times, but one cannot fool all men in all places and ages.

Abbadie’s treatise was published in many editions for many years. The same statement appeared during the next century in the landmark “Encyclopédie: ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers” edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. The fourth volume of the encyclopedia was released in 1754, and it included a passage that was nearly identical to the one above with “peut” instead of “pû” in a philosophical section discussing metaphysics and God. 3

On September 9, 1885 the “Syracuse Daily Standard” of Syracuse, New York published an article about a convention of Prohibitionists during which a speech was delivered by a judge named William. J. Groo who complained about the actions of state politicians. He spoke a version of the adage without attribution, and this was the earliest strong match located by QI: 4

You can fool all the people part of the time, or you can fool some people all the time, but you cannot fool all people all the time.

On March 8, 1886 “The Albany Times” of Albany, New York published an interview with Fred. F. Wheeler who was the chairman of a state committee for Prohibitionists. Wheeler employed a version of the adage while criticizing politicians for blocking a referendum, and this citation was the earliest ascription to Lincoln located by QI: 5

They should remember Abraham Lincoln’s famous saying: “You can fool part of the people some of the time, you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time,” and take their stand boldly and fearlessly on this question and abide the result at the ballot box.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. Year: 1684 (MDCLXXXIV), Title: Traité de la Vérité de la Religion Chrétienne, Edition: Author: Jacques Abbadie, Quote Page 11, Publisher: Chez Reinier Leers, Rotterdam, (The original text used “tems” instead of “temps”) (Google Books Full View) link
  2. The English translation used for Jacques Abbadie’s French statement is the same as the one listed in The Yale Book of Quotations for Denis Diderot’s nearly identical French statement; see 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Denis Diderot, Quote Page 204, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. Year: 1754 (MDCCLIV), Title: Encyclopédie: ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, Authors and editors: Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Volume: 4 (Tome Quatrieme), Quote Page 978, Published in Paris with approval of the King: “avec approbation et privilege du Roy”, (The original text used “tems” instead of “temps”)(Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1885 September 9, The Syracuse Daily Standard, Prohibitionists in Arms: The Third Party Declare War to the Knife on Democrats and Republicans, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Syracuse, New York. (Old Fulton)
  5. 1886 March 8, The Albany Times (Albany Evening Times), Prohibitionists Not Fooled: By Advances of the Republican Party – Interesting Interview with Chairman Wheeler, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Albany, New York. (Old Fulton)

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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  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 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

I Will Send a Barrel of This Wonderful Whiskey to Every General in the Army

Abraham Lincoln? Charles G. Halpine? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

grantcrow04Dear Quote Investigator: There is a brilliant anecdote about President Lincoln defending General Grant from an accusation of drunkenness. I have read conflicting statements about whether this anecdote is accurate. Perhaps you could examine this tale for the next Presidents’ Day holiday?

Quote Investigator: The story of Abraham Lincoln’s humorous response to criticisms of General Ulysses S. Grant’s imbibing is famous. The earliest instance QI has found appeared in the New York Herald on September 18, 1863: 1

After the failure of his first experimental explorations around Vicksburg, a committee of abolition war managers waited upon the President and demanded the General’s removal, on the false charge that he was a whiskey drinker, and little better than a common drunkard. “Ah!” exclaimed Honest Old Abe, “you surprise me, gentlemen. But can you tell me where he gets his whiskey?” “We cannot, Mr. President. But why do you desire to know?” “Because, if I can only find out, I will send a barrel of this wonderful whiskey to every general in the army.”

On October 30, 1863 a compact version of the story was printed in the New York Times: 2

When some one charged Gen. Grant, in the President’s hearing, with drinking too much liquor, Mr. Lincoln, recalling Gen. Grant’s successes, said that if he could find out what brand of whisky Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.

The text above was reprinted in other newspapers such as the Daily Constitutional Union of Washington D.C. 3 and the Cleveland Plain Dealer of Cleveland, Ohio. 4

This popular story has been disseminated in numerous books and periodicals from 1863 to the present day. But testimony regarding its originality and veracity is complex and contradictory. Some individuals have claimed that they heard the joke directly from Lincoln, and other individuals have stated that Lincoln denied telling the joke. In addition, critics have questioned the novelty of the jest.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1863 September 18, New York Herald, The President’s Habeas Corpus Proclamation and the Act of Congress on the Subject, Quote Page 6, Column 4 and 5, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1863 October 30, New York Times, Blair’s Bitters, Quote Page 4, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)
  3. 1863 November 2, Daily Constitutional Union (Evening Union), Blair’s Bitters, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Washington D. C. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1863 November 2, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ultra Temperance, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

Folks Are Usually About as Happy as They Make Up Their Minds To Be

Abraham Lincoln? Frank Crane? Orison Swett Marden? Dale Carnegie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: On twitter recently there was an exchange about a deeply insightful quotation credited to Abraham Lincoln:

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

I love this saying, and it helps me to reflect constructively on my own turbulent emotional life. Sometimes focusing on the positive enables one to feel happy instead of unhappy. Could you determine if Lincoln or someone else created this adage?

Quote Investigator: Expert Ralph Keyes examined a version of this saying in The Quote Verifier and expressed skepticism about the common ascription: 1

“People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
This popular Internet quotation is usually attributed to Lincoln. It doesn’t sound like him, however, and no evidence has been offered that he ever said or wrote this. It has appeared in unreliable collections of Lincolniana, and was attributed to Lincoln in the 1960 film Pollyanna.

The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a newspaper article about New Year’s Resolutions on the first day of 1914 by the columnist Dr. Frank Crane: 2

Determine this year to be master of self; that you will control your thoughts, regulate your passions, and guide your own deeds; that you will not let events lead you by the nose.

Resolve to be happy. Remember Lincoln’s saying that “folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Crane’s column about resolutions was printed in the Syracuse Herald of Syracuse, New York. It also appeared in other papers in 1914 such as: the Moberly Morning Monitor of Moberly, Missouri; 3 and the Grand Forks Herald of Grand Forks, North Dakota. 4

In 1916 Crane invoked the adage again in his column titled “Plain Talk for Plain People”, but the phrasing he employed was somewhat different. The expression used “most people” instead of “folks” and included the phrase “in this world”: 5

Do you remember what Lincoln said? It was this:
“I have noticed that most people in this world are about as happy as they have made up their minds to be.”

Note that Crane placed the statement between quotation marks, and he credited Abraham Lincoln, but he was not certain how it was originally phrased. Indeed, as shown below, Crane gave a third version in 1920. Lincoln died in 1865 about fifty years before the earliest instance of the quote known to QI.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 129, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1914 January 01, Syracuse Herald, New Year’s Resolutions by Dr. Frank Crane, Unnumbered Page (NewsArch Page 16), Column 4, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1914 January 4, Moberly Morning Monitor, New Year’s Resolutions by Dr. Frank Crane, Page 2, Column 4, Moberly, Missouri. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1914 January 15, Grand Forks Herald, Old-Fashioned Advice. Some Worth While Resolutions for the New Year, (Acknowledgement to Chicago News), Page 7, Column 6, Grand Forks, North Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1916 July 23, Boston Globe, Plain Talk for Plain People by Dr. Frank Crane, Page 44, Column 8, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)

It’s Not the Years in Your Life That Count. It’s the Life in Your Years

Abraham Lincoln? Adlai Stevenson? Edward J. Stieglitz? Edward Barrett Warman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There are posters, shirts, mugs, and other commercial products displaying the following inspirational quote:

And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with this aphorism, but I cannot find it in his collected works. Can you determine who really said it?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Lincoln used this expression. Some quotation references attributed the remark to Adlai Stevenson II who was the Governor of Illinois and a Democratic Presidential nominee. Indeed, Stevenson did employ a version of this adage in speeches as early as 1952.

But the earliest strong match located by QI was in an advertisement in 1947 for a book about aging by Edward J. Stieglitz, M.D. The image at the top of this article shows the ad for “The Second Forty Years” which ran in the Chicago Tribune newspaper. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The important thing to you is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!

The rhetorical technique of reversing word order in successive clauses is called antimetabole. In this case, “years in your life” was transformed into “life in your years”, and the contrast between the two subphrases was highlighted.

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  1. 1947 March 16, Chicago Tribune, “How Long Do You Plan to Live?”, [Advertisement for the book “The Second Forty Years” by Edward J. Stieglitz, M.D.], Page C7, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? John B. Finch? John Stuart Mill? Abraham Lincoln? Zechariah Chafee, Jr.?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am writing a book on the theme of freedom and would like to include a classic quotation about the pragmatic limitations on liberty. My research has identified several versions of this popular saying:

The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.

The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins.

My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.

Strangely, these three similar statements were credited to three very different people. The first quote was attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The second saying was credited to John Stuart Mill, and the third was ascribed to Abraham Lincoln. But I do not trust any of these attributions because no citations were provided. Could you investigate this adage and determine its origin?

Quote Investigator: The seminal reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” presents an important citation for this saying that shows when the phrase entered the realm of scholarly legal discourse. The saying was not credited to any one of the three luminaries mentioned in the query. In June 1919 the Harvard Law Review published an article by legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee, Jr. titled “Freedom of Speech in War Time” and it contained a version of the expression spoken by an anonymous judge [ZCYQ] [ZCHL]:

Each side takes the position of the man who was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose, and asked the judge if he did not have a right to swing his arms in a free country. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

Interestingly, the genesis of this adage can be traced back more than thirty-five additional years. Several variants of the expression were employed by a set of lecturers who were aligned with the temperance movement which favored restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in a collection of speeches that were delivered by John B. Finch who was the Chairman of the Prohibition National Committee for several years in the 1880s and died in 1887.

The saying Finch used was somewhat longer and clumsier than later versions of the aphorism. But the central idea was the same, and Finch received credit from some of his colleagues. It is common for expressions to be shortened and polished as they pass from one speaker to another over a period of years. Here is the relevant excerpt from an oration Finch gave in Iowa City in 1882 [PVJF]:

This arm is my arm (and my wife’s), it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:

“Is not this a free country?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”

“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”

Here civil government comes in to prevent bloodshed, adjust rights, and settle disputes.

For decades the saying was used at pro-Prohibition rallies and meetings. Also, at the turn of the century the saying was adopted by some educators who presented it as a moral rule that children should learn about. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Abraham Lincoln? Ambrose Burnside? Charles Fair?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the worst military strategists in history was a Civil War general named Ambrose Burnside (sideburns are named after his whiskers). After a military fiasco called the Battle of the Crater, Abraham Lincoln relieved him of command and supposedly said:

Only Burnside could have managed such a coup, wringing one last spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory.

The phrase “defeat from the jaws of victory” might be a cliché now, but I think Lincoln was one of the first to use it in this powerful quotation. Unfortunately, I am having trouble finding any solid references to this quote from before the 1970s. Can you tell me where I can find it in a Civil War newspaper, or a diary, or some other document from the era?

Quote Investigator: You have stumbled upon a Lincoln legend based on a false quotation. A fascinating newspaper article from 1971 states that the saying began as a mistake on the cover of the book “From the Jaws of Victory” by Charles Fair [LCF]:

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Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt

Abraham Lincoln? Mark Twain? Biblical Proverb? Maurice Switzer? Arthur Burns? John Maynard Keynes? Confucius? Anonymous?

lincolntwain05Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an entertaining saying that is usually credited to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.

The phrasing is different, but I think these two statements express the same thought. When I mentioned this adage to a friend he claimed that it was in the Bible, but it does not sound very Biblical to me. Can you resolve this dispute?

Quote Investigator: There is a biblical proverb that expresses a similar idea, namely Proverbs 17:28. Here is the New International Version followed by the King James Version of this verse: 1

Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.

Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.

The quotations that the questioner listed use a distinctive formulation that is certainly more humorous. In the biblical version one is thought wise if one remains silent, but in the questioner’s statements the word “wise” is not used. Remaining silent simply allows one to avoid the fate of being thought a fool or stupid. This maxim has many different forms, and it is often ascribed to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. However, there is no substantive evidence that either of these famous individuals employed the maxim.

The wonderful Yale Book of Quotations (YBQ) 2 investigated the saying and presented the earliest known attribution to Lincoln in Golden Book magazine in November 1931: 3

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

Since Lincoln died in 1865 this is a suspiciously late instance, and it provides very weak evidence. Further, YBQ indicated that the phrase was in use years before this date with no attachment to Lincoln. The ascription of the saying to Mark Twain is also dubious.

When Ken Burns filmed a documentary about Mark Twain in 2001 a companion book was released, and it listed the following version of the quote in a section titled “What Twain Didn’t Say”: 4

Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.

The earliest known appearance of the adage discovered by QI occurred in a book titled “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer. The publication date was 1907 and the copyright notice was 1906. The book was primarily filled with clever nonsense verse, and the phrasing in this early version was slightly different: 5

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.

Most of the humorous content of “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” has the imprint of originality, and based on currently available data QI  believes that Maurice Switzer is the leading candidate for originator of the expression. This 1906 citation was also given in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”, an indispensable new reference work from Yale University Press. 6

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. Proverbs 17:28 has many translations. Here is a link to a webpage with several from the Online Parallel Bible Project of (Accessed on October 24, 2012) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Abraham Lincoln, Page 466, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1931 November, Golden Book Magazine, Volume 14, Quote Page 306, Published by The Review of Reviews Corporation, Albert Shaw, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 2001, Mark Twain by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C. Ward, Based on a Documentary by Ken Burns, Section: What Twain Didn’t Say, Page 189, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1907, “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer, Page 29, Moffat, Yard & Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 83, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)