Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Let Them Know the Truth, and the Country Is Safe

Abraham Lincoln? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Newseum is a museum in Washington, D.C. featuring exhibits about the history of communication, the news industry, and free expression. A powerful quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln is engraved into one of its walls:

Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.

I have been unable to locate a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the “Boston Morning Journal” of Boston, Massachusetts on April 17, 1865 a couple days after Lincoln’s death on April 15th. A letter writer identified as “E. K.” reported that he had spoken to Lincoln in July 1864, and E. K. presented remarks he ascribed to Lincoln. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Many of his best friends had deserted him, and were talking of an opposition convention to nominate another candidate; and universal gloom was among the people. The North was tired of the war, and supposed an honorable peace attainable, Mr. Lincoln knew it was not—that any peace at that time would be only disunion. Speaking of it, he said: “I have faith in the people. They will not consent to disunion. The danger is, they are misled. Let them know the truth, and the country is safe.”

QI hypothesizes that the modern quotation evolved from the statement above. Here is a list of variant expressions together with citation dates:

1865: Let them know the truth, and the country is safe.
1907: Let the people know the truth, and the country is safe.
1920: Let the people know the truth and the country will be safe.
1944: Let the people know the facts and the country will be saved.
1969: Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe.

The list above represents a snapshot of current findings, and earlier citations for variants may be uncovered by future researchers. Additional details appear below in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 1865 April 17, Boston Morning Journal, The Death of President Lincoln, Message to the Editor of The Boston Journal, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans of microfilm from Boston Public Library)

Never Wrestle with a Pig. You Both Get Dirty and the Pig Likes It

George Bernard Shaw? Mark Twain? Abraham Lincoln? Cyrus Stuart Ching? J. Frank Condon? Richard P. Calhoon? N. H. Eagle? Cale Yarborough? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular metaphorical adage warns individuals not to engage with disreputable critics. Here are two versions:

  1. Don’t wrestle with pigs. You both get filthy and the pig likes it.
  2. Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty and the pig enjoys it.

This saying has been credited to a triumvirate of quotation superstars: Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and George Bernard Shaw. I doubt these ascriptions because I haven’t seen any solid citations. Would you please investigate?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Twain, Lincoln, or Shaw crafted this saying. Each was given credit only many years after death.

The adage evolved in a multistep multi-decade process. An interesting precursor was in circulation by 1776. QI has a separate article about that saying: Don’t wrestle with a chimney sweep or you will get covered with grime.

In 1872 a partial match using “hog” instead of “pig” appeared within a letter by J. Frank Condon published in an Ebensburg, Pennsylvania newspaper. Condon was responding to a previous verbal fusillade. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

It has been remarked by a wise man that he who wrestles with a hog must expect to be spattered with filth, whether he is vanquished or not. This maxim I have long known and appreciated; nevertheless, there are occasions when it must be disregarded. A man may be attacked in such a way that he is compelled to flagellate his hogship, even at the risk of being contaminated by the unclean beast.

The label “maxim” and the phrase “long known” signaled that the saying was not constructed for the letter; instead, it was already in circulation. This simpler adage differed from the modern version because it did not mention the contentment of the swine.

The earliest strong match for the modern saying located by QI appeared in the January 3, 1948 issue of “The Saturday Evening Post” within a profile of Cyrus Stuart Ching who was the head of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The ellipsis is in the original text: 2

A man in the audience began heckling him with a long series of nasty and irrelevant questions. For a while Ching answered patiently. Finally he held up his big paw and waggled it gently.

“My friend,” he said, “I’m not going to answer any more of your questions. I hope you won’t take this personally, but I am reminded of something my old uncle told me, long ago, back on the farm. He said. ‘What’s the sense of wrestling with a pig? You both get all over muddy . . . and the pig likes it.'”

Ching did not claim coinage; instead, he credited an unnamed uncle who may have been relaying a pre-existing item of folk wisdom. Oddly, another later citation shows Ching crediting his grandfather. Whatever the source, Ching did help to popularize the expression.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 1872 February 3, The Cambria Freeman, Communication, (Letter to the Editor from J. Frank Condon; letter date Jan 29, 1872), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Ebensburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com and Chronicling America)
  2. 1948 January 3, Saturday Evening Post, Volume 220 Number 27, The Two-Fisted Wisdom of Ching by Beverly Smith, Start Page 15, Quote Page 58, Column 1, Saturday Evening Post Society, Inc., Indianapolis Indiana. (Academic Search Premier Ebsco)

The Foolish and the Dead Alone Never Change Their Opinion

Abraham Lincoln? James Russell Lowell? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: Intelligent and thoughtful people maintain mental flexibility throughout life. It is irrational to rigidly adhere to a fixed opinion in the face of reliable contrary information. Abraham Lincoln supposedly said:

The foolish and the dead alone never change their opinions.

These words have also been credited to the prominent poet and editor James Russell Lowell. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: This quotation appeared in the 1871 collection “My Study Windows” by James Russell Lowell within a section about President Abraham Lincoln. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The imputation of inconsistency is one to which every sound politician and every honest thinker must sooner or later subject himself. The foolish and the dead alone never change their opinion.

The passage above was written by Lowell and reflected his opinion. He did not ascribe the words to Lincoln; however, some readers probably became confused because the piece was about Lincoln. Lowell’s quotation differed slightly from the popular modern version. The word “opinion” was singular in the original statement.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 1871, My Study Windows by James Russell Lowell (Professor of Belles-Lettres in Harvard College), Section: Abraham Lincoln: 1864, Start Page 150, Quote Page 166, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

Nearly All Men Can Stand Adversity, But If You Want To Test a Man’s Character, Give Him Power

Abraham Lincoln? Thomas Carlyle? Robert G. Ingersoll? Horatio Alger Jr.? Apocryphal?

lincoln07Dear Quote Investigator: I saw the following quotation on the website of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Lincoln was credited, but I have seen skepticism expressed on other websites. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that this statement was spoken or written by Abraham Lincoln. The famous orator and free thinker Robert G. Ingersoll employed similar phrases when he was describing Lincoln. QI conjectures that this was the primary nexus of confusion: something that was said about Lincoln was transformed into something that was said by Lincoln.

The overall history and evolution of the saying is long and complex. Part of the semantics can be traced back to a remark by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle in 1841. An exact match for the modern instance with an ascription to Lincoln appeared by 1931.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading


  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)

If What You Gave Me Last Was Tea, I Want Coffee. If It Was Coffee, I Want Tea

Abraham Lincoln? Traveler? John Randolph of Roanoke? Apocryphal?

drink07Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend when Abraham Lincoln was served a cup of unpalatable brew he made the following hilarious remark:

If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.

I have not been able to find a solid citation for this saying. Are these really the words of Old Abe?

Dear Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this quip known to QI appeared in January 1840 in the “Madison Courier” of Madison, Indiana. The speaker was an unidentified “distinguished citizen of North Carolina”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It is said, that once, on an occasion when a distinguished citizen of North Carolina, was disgusted by the taste of some beverage or other which was placed before him at a public table to answer the place of coffee or tea, he exclaimed, ‘boy! if this is tea bring me coffee, and if it is coffee bring me tea.’

The same jocular item was disseminated in other newspapers in 1840 such as “The North-Carolina Standard” of Raleigh, North Carolina and “The Camden Journal” of South Carolina. 2 3

By 1852 the witticism had been assigned to a Congressman from Virginia with the moniker John Randolph of Roanoke. This ascription became common, but the supporting evidence was weak because Randolph had died many years earlier in 1833.

Special thanks to the fine researcher Barry Popik who located the January 1840 citation and the earliest citation crediting John Randolph. Popik’s webpage on this topic is located here.

By 1902 the remark had been re-assigned to the famous statesman Abraham Lincoln who died in 1865. Nowadays, this unlikely ascription has become prevalent. It is true that the joke was circulating while Lincoln was alive; thus, it was conceivable he employed it; however, QI has found no contemporaneous citations to support this possibility.

This entry presents a snapshot of what is known. The joke was initially linked to an unknown “distinguished citizen of North Carolina”, but the anecdote was prefaced with the locution “it is said” signaling that the tale was being relayed via indirect knowledge. Indeed, the scenario might have been concocted by an anonymous jokesmith. More may be learned by future researchers.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 1840 January 18, Madison Courier, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 1, Column 6, Madison, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1840 February 12, The North-Carolina Standard, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Chronicling America)
  3. 1840 May 2, The Camden Journal, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 1, Column 5, Camden, South Carolina. (Chronicling America)

People Who Like This Sort of Thing Will Find This the Sort of Thing They Like

Abraham Lincoln? Artemus Ward? George Bernard Shaw? Max Beerbohm? Muriel Spark?

ward08Dear Quote Investigator: A popular anecdote asserts that Abraham Lincoln was obliged to listen to a prolix lecture about spiritualism by an enthusiastic friend. After the discourse was complete, Lincoln’s opinion was sought, and he replied with a humorously redundant non-committal statement designed to be inoffensive. Here are three versions:

1) People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.
2) For people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like
3) For those who like that sort of thing I should think it just the sort of thing they would like.

Other prominent figures have been credited with this line such as the wit Max Beerbohm and novelist Muriel Spark. I am suspicious of the attribution to Lincoln. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI hypothesizes that the seed of this family of expressions was sown by the popular humorist Charles Farrar Browne who was known to audiences by his pseudonym Artemus Ward. In 1863 he created advertising material for a set of lectures he was performing. He included parodic testimonials from fictional people, and one ersatz supporter was named “O. Abe”. The name “Artemus” was misspelled as “Artemas” in the following passage from a Maine newspaper in October 1863. Boldface was been added: 1

Artemas Ward among other puffs of his lectures has the following from “Old Abe:”,

Dear Sir–I have never heard any of your lectures, but from what I can learn I should say that for people who like the kind of lectures you deliver, they are just the kind of lectures such people like.
Yours, respectably, O. Abe.

The letter penned by Ward was printed in multiple newspapers. The words became linked to Abraham Lincoln because of the suggestive name “Abe”. Over time the phrasing evolved, and a variety of anecdotes were constructed to accompany the expression.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 1863 October 23, Daily Eastern Argus, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Portland, Maine. (GenealogyBank)

Whatever You Are, Try To Be a Good One

Abraham Lincoln? William Makepeace Thackeray? Laurence Hutton? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

thackeray09Dear Quote Investigator: Selecting a profession can be quite difficult, and changing your initial choice may be necessary. Yet, you should always strive for excellence. The following inspirational words are heartening:

Whatever you are, be a good one.

The phrase is usually attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but it sounds modern to my ear. Books about happiness, coaching, and career choice have all included the saying. Sadly, misattributions to Lincoln are commonplace. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Abraham Lincoln made this remark. Lincoln died in 1865, and the earliest attribution to Lincoln was printed in a compendium of quotations in 1946, a very late date.

Interestingly, at the turn of the previous century the saying was firmly attached to another famous individual, the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray who died in 1863. The earliest instance of the saying located by QI was published in a memoir in 1897 by Laurence Hutton who was a prominent magazine editor, critic, and essayist. The memoir was serialized in “St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks”.

Hutton described a crucial incident from his childhood in the 1850s when he met William Makepeace Thackeray who asked him about his aspirations. Hutton was uncertain about his goals in life, but he replied that he wanted to be a farmer. Thackeray responded to Hutton with a version of the saying which has now become popular. Hutton’s memoir was written in the third person, and he referred to himself as “The Boy”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Mr. Thackeray took The Boy between his knees, and asked his name, and what he intended to be when he grew up. He replied, “A farmer, sir.” Why, he cannot imagine, for he never had the slightest inclination toward a farmer’s life. And then Mr. Thackeray put his gentle hand upon The Boy’s little red head, and said: “Whatever you are, try to be a good one.”

If there is any virtue in the laying-on of hands The Boy can only hope that a little of it has descended upon him. And whatever The Boy is, he has tried, for Thackeray’s sake, “to be a good one!”

By 1904 the above version of the saying was shortened to “Whatever you are, be a good one” and assigned to Thackeray. Both versions were disseminated in the following decades.

QI believes that Laurence Hutton’s memoir was the most likely origin of the statement, and Hutton ascribed the words to William Makepeace Thackeray, but he was writing many years after the incident occurred; hence, uncertainty was inherent. On the other hand, the expression deeply impressed Hutton and influenced his life, so the phrasing he reported might have been accurate.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 1897 March, St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, Conducted by Mary Mapes Dodge, Volume 24, Number 5,A Boy I Knew by Laurence Hutton, (The final installment of a series that began in December), Start Page 409, Quote Page 413, Column 2, Published by The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Success Is Going from Failure to Failure Without Losing Your Enthusiasm

Winston Churchill? Abraham Lincoln? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

disaster09Dear Quote Investigator: Winston Churchill once famously exhorted an audience to “never give in”. There is another saying attributed to him about perseverance. Here are three versions:

1) Success is the ability to move from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.
2) Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.
3) Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.

I have been unable to find a speech or letter by Churchill containing this expression. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: This statement was placed in an appendix called “Red Herrings: False Attributions” in the book “Churchill By Himself” which presented a comprehensive collection of quotations from the prominent statesman edited by Richard M. Langworth who is the top expert in this domain. Langworth noted that the expression has also been attributed to Abraham Lincoln. In the realm of quotations the names of Churchill and Lincoln both attract a profusion of spurious ascriptions: 1

Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.

Broadly attributed to Churchill, but found nowhere in his canon. An almost equal number of sources credit this saying to Abraham Lincoln; but none of them provides any attribution.

The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a 1953 book about public speaking titled “How to Say a Few Words” by David Guy Powers. The author did not claim credit, and the ascription was anonymous: 2

Success has been defined as the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 2013 December 12 (Kindle Edition Date), Churchill By Himself (Winston Churchill’s In His Own Words Collection), Compiled and edited by Richard M. Langworth, Appendix I: Red Herrings: False Attributions, Entry: Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm, (Kindle Locations 19860-19861), RosettaBooks. (Verified in Kindle Edition)
  2. 1953, How to Say a Few Words by David Guy Powers, Quote Page 109, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (HathiTrust)

To Cut Down a Tree in Five Minutes Spend Three Minutes Sharpening Your Axe

Abraham Lincoln? Lumberjack? Woodsman? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

lincoln05Dear Quote Investigator: Rigorous preparation is the key to success for many endeavors. There is a popular saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln about planning and executing tasks. Here are three versions:

If I had four hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first two hours sharpening the axe

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

If I had 8 hours to chop down a tree, I would spend 6 of those hours sharpening my axe.

I thought trees usually required considerably less time to chop down. Also, the wide variation in the number of hours does not inspire confidence in the accuracy of these expressions. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Abraham Lincoln who died in 1865 made a remark of this type. The earliest instance located by QI matching this general template appeared in 1956 in a volume about agricultural education. However, the words were ascribed to an anonymous woodsman and not to Lincoln. In addition, the cutting task was measured in minutes and not hours: 1

A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.” Let us take a few minutes to sharpen our perspective.

The first ascription to Lincoln found by QI was printed in 1960. The details are given further below. This 1960 citation also used minutes to measure time, and QI believes that instances using hours evolved from the sayings based on shorter time periods.

This exploration was performed in conjunction with researcher Barry Popik.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 1956, Increasing Understanding of Public Problems and Policies: A Group Study of Four Topics in the Field of Extension Education, “Objectives and Philosophy of Public Affairs Education” by C. R. Jaccard, Start Page 12, Quote Page 12, Published by Farm Foundation, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper)