Lincoln quote sourced: Calf’s tail, not dog’s tail


It’s a delightful story I’ve heard dozens of times, and retold a few times myself: Abraham Lincoln faced with some thorny issue that could be settled by a twist of language, or a slight abuse of power, asks his questioner how many legs would a dog have, if we called the dog’s tail, a leg. “Five,” the questioner responds confident in his mathematical ability to do simple addition. Lincoln Memorial statue, profile view

“No,” Lincoln says. “Calling a dog’s tail a leg, doesn’t make it a leg.”

But there is always the doubt: Is the story accurate? Is this just another of the dozens of quotes that are misattributed to Lincoln in order to lend credence to them?

I have a source for the quote: Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by distinguished men of his time / collected and edited by Allen Thorndike Rice (1853-1889). New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1909. This story is found on page 242. Remarkably, the book is still available in an edition from the University of Michigan Press. More convenient for us, the University of Michigan has the entire text on-line, in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, an on-line source whose whole text is searchable.

However, Lincoln does not tell the story about a dog — he uses a calf.

Rice’s book is a collection of reminiscences of others, exactly as the title suggests. Among those doing the reminiscing are ex-president and Gen. U. S. Grant, Massachusetts Gov. Benjamin Butler (also a former Member of Congress), Charles A. Dana the editor and former Assistant Secretary of War, and several others. In describing Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, George W. Julian relates the story. Julian was a Free-Soil Party leader and a Member of Congress during Lincoln’s administration. Julian’s story begins on page 241:

Few subjects have been more debated and less understood than the Proclamation of Emancipation. Mr. Lincoln was himself opposed to the measure, and when he very reluctantly issued the preliminary proclamation in September, 1862, he wished it distinctly understood that the deportation of the slaves was, in his mind, inseparably connected with the policy. Like Mr. Clay and other prominent leaders of the old Whig party, he believed in colonization, and that the separation of the two races was necessary to the welfare of both. He was at that time pressing upon the attention of Congress a scheme of colonization in Chiriqui, in Central America, which Senator Pomeroy espoused with great zeal, and in which he had the favor of a majority of the Cabinet, including Secretary Smith, who warmly indorsed the project. Subsequent developments, however, proved that it was simply an organization for land-stealing and plunder, and it was abandoned; but it is by no means certain that if the President had foreseen this fact his preliminary notice to the rebels would have been given. There are strong reasons for saying that he doubted his right to emancipate under the war power, and he doubtless meant what he said when he compared an Executive order to that effect to “the Pope’s Bull against the comet.” In discussing the question, he used to liken the case to that of the boy who, when asked how many legs his calf would have if he called its tail a leg, replied, ” Five,” to which the prompt response was made that calling the tail a leg would not make it a leg.

I believe it is fair to call the story “confirmed.” It’s not an exact quote, but it’s an accurate story.

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27 Responses to Lincoln quote sourced: Calf’s tail, not dog’s tail

  1. random observer says:

    Ed Darrell of 2013 raises an important issue in this vein.

    For those to whom ‘marriage’ is a civil, legal institution wholly defined by legislation, that is to say the positive law, it is and should be impossible to challenge the definition or to define anyone the law considers within it to be outside it.

    There is excellent historical support for this- the legal tradition on marriage in the post-1700s west has heavily relied on the idea of civil marriage defined by law. The French went whole hog, separating civil marriage by officials altogether from religious marriage by clergy, and making only the former recognizable by law. The English-speaking world also went for the civil marriage approach, it just licensed clergy to perform a civil [typically dual] ceremony. This confuses matters now.

    While I have native sympathy for any argument on any subject that defines some institutions as outside or above positive law or government, or relies on common law or some other customary tradition, and would argue that married in Euro-based societies has now been radically redefined, in the end there is weak basis for maintaining this contention other than for historical purposes. It has always, in the end, been defined by some kind of law.

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  2. random observer says:

    One thing I have always liked/disliked about this quote is how well it can be used to illustrate the divide between more traditional modes of analysis in history & linguistics &, to use the loaded term, postmodern ones.

    One might argue that “leg” is just a word in English and can be redefined as one wishes. It is convention that it refers to “limb with bone and muscle tissue used for locomotion”, and, for example, “arm” refers to “limb with bone and muscle tissue used for manipulation and not, normally, for locomotion”. Especially when you get into animals that have prehensile tails that can be used for propulsion.

    Arguably, therefore, if society decided to redefine “leg” as “projecting musculature limb”, a tail would be a leg.

    Of course, I find that gut-churningly annoying, but mileage varies.

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  3. random observer says:

    Thank you for this sourcing. I love that quote and had lately wondered about its accuracy. Lincoln [& Churchill] quotes are an absolute nightmare for this sort of thing unless from a published speech or written work.

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  4. Stephen Newman says:

    What is most interesting about the full discussion is that Lincoln inadvertently proves the little boy’s point. Lincoln argues that the Emancipation Proclamation was drafted very narrowly, and that it shouldn’t be read as something other than what it is: a limited order meant to be applied to just those specific areas in rebellion against the Union, and solely for the purpose of aiding the war effort. “Calling” it a fifth leg, i.e., a more broadly significant statement of support for the abolitionist cause, Lincoln argued, did not make it so. (Slippery politician, that one!!) We now know through the lens of history that the Emancipation Proclamation was in fact that fifth leg of freedom for all, and that its issuance made the Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment and full abolition inevitable.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] Fourth Amendment does not allow it, and any judicial decisions that claim otherwise are corrupt. There's a saying that seems to apply here. "How many legs does a calf have, if you call a tail a leg?" "Four. Calling a tail a leg does not […]

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] is by definition exclusive. Abraham Lincoln is alleged to have demonstrated this by rhetorically […]

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  7. […] “Abraham Lincoln reportedly asked, ‘If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?’” wrote Trott, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan. “His answer was, ‘Four. Calling a dog’s tail a leg does not make it a leg.’” (Exactly what Lincoln said, it should be noted, is a matter of dispute.) […]

    Like

  8. […] “Abraham Lincoln reportedly asked, ‘If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?’” wrote Trott, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan. “His answer was, ‘Four. Calling a dog’s tail a leg does not make it a leg.’” (Exactly what Lincoln said, it should be noted, is a matter of dispute.) […]

    Like

  9. […] “Abraham Lincoln reportedly asked, ‘If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?’” wrote Trott, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan. “His answer was, ‘Four. Calling a dog’s tail a leg does not make it a leg.’” (Exactly what Lincoln said, it should be noted, is a matter of dispute.) […]

    Like

  10. […] “Abraham Lincoln reportedly asked, ‘If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?’” wrote Trott, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan. “His answer was, ‘Four. Calling a dog’s tail a leg does not make it a leg.’” (Exactly what Lincoln said, it should be noted, is a matter of dispute.) […]

    Like

  11. […] “Abraham Lincoln reportedly asked, ‘If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?’” wrote Trott, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan. “His answer was, ‘Four. Calling a dog’s tail a leg does not make it a leg.’” (Exactly what Lincoln said, it should be noted, is a matter of dispute.) […]

    Like

  12. […] "Abraham Lincoln reportedly asked, 'If you call a dog's tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?'" wrote Trott, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan. "His answer was, 'Four. Calling a dog's tail a leg does not make it a leg.'" (Exactly what Lincoln said, it should be noted, is a matter of dispute.) […]

    Like

  13. […] Lincoln used to tell a story about a calf’s tail, which has been adopted today to be about a dog’s […]

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  14. Ed Darrell says:

    Cited at Free Republic: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2989778/posts

    And, similarly, calling a married couple something other than a married couple doesn’t make them not married.

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  15. […] Lincoln probably had it right, as we noted here many months ago.  So, an encore post: […]

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  16. […] a famous story of Abraham Lincoln posing the question, “How many legs does a dog have, if you call a tail a leg?” And the […]

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  17. […] to which the prompt response was made that calling the tail a leg would not make it a leg. (source, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln)“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous […]

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  18. […] to which the prompt response was made that calling the tail a leg would not make it a leg. (source, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln) “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous […]

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  19. […] Lincoln likened the case to that of the boy who, when asked how many legs his calf would have if he called its tail a leg, replied, “Five,” to which the prompt response was made that calling the tail a leg would not make it a leg. (source, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln) […]

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  20. […] Lincoln likened the case to that of the boy who, when asked how many legs his calf would have if he called its tail a leg, replied, “Five,” to which the prompt response was made that calling the tail a leg would not make it a leg. (source, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln) […]

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  21. […] This very cool article seems to set the record straight about Lincoln’s quote. And from that blog post you can find the original book from the 1800′s that includes this story on pages 241-242. […]

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  22. […] The author acknowledged it, but we now know it was a calf’s tail, not a dog’s tail. […]

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  23. […] accuracy in history, economics, geography, education, and a little science” which houses a post about this quotation. An excerpt […]

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  24. […] to admired, famous people. So in business presentations across the world today, someone will quote Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Franklin, Einstein and Churchill, as saying things they never […]

    Like

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