Abraham Lincoln? Lumberjack? Woodsman? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear 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.
- 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) ↩