The quote appears attributed to Lincoln on several general quotation sites, but I haven't been able to find it on any Lincoln specific sites, so I would say probably false. It doesn't appear on Lincoln never said that though, which does contain the more famous questionable quote about fooling all of the people some of the time.
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The only time I ever heard it was as a quote from Lincoln. I submit that it's like the Bible verse, "A house divided against itself cannot stand": Lincoln said it, but his contemporaries knew that he wasn't claiming it as original.
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Lincoln's Collected Works are available online at http://www.hti.umich.edu/l/lincoln but a search I made there didn't produce the riddle. On the other hand it does turn up in Edward Josiah Stears' Notes on Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853) p. 46:
quote:'"Father," said one of the rising generation to his paternal progenitor, "if I should call this cow's tail a leg, how many legs would she have?" "Why five, to be sure." "Why, no, father; would calling it a leg make it one?"
All the same that doesn't prove that Lincoln never said it. If the joke was in circulation in mid-19th century America I don't see why he should have been any less likely than the next man to re-tell it in conversation.
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I think, though, that the larger quote from Stearns's work helps reinforce the use of the anecdote with respect to the issue of slavery, which is how Lincoln is said to have used it a decade later,
quote:The law treats [man, or a slave] as a person and as a thing, classing him under both categories; but were he not a thing, were there no exchangeable value in him, the law might call him one day, all day, it would not make him one. "Father," said one of the rising generation to his paternal progenitor, "if I should call this cow's leg a tail, how many legs would she have?" "Why five, to be sure." "Why, no, father; would calling it a leg make it one?"
In fact, the anecdote had been in use in the abolitionist movement itself at least as early as 1840,
quote:(From "Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Sketches of Debates at the Annual Meeting," The Liberator, 28 February 1840.)
[On 'The Church and the Ministry,' Thursday evening, Jan. 23.]
[Mr. Bradburn] This discussion reminds me of the boy who said to his father, "Father, how many legs would this calf have, calling the tail a leg? 'Why five, my son.' 'No, father, he can not. He would have only four.' 'Why, calling the tail a leg, you said, my boy.' 'Ah father! but calling the tail a leg, does not make it so, you know.' So also I would say to that gentlemen. You may call him an abolitionist any length of time you choose. It will not make him one.
It's hard to know, I think, whether Lincoln himself ever actually made use of the anecdote, but he certainly gets linked to it by sometime in October, 1862, after issuance of the first part of the Emancipation Proclamation,
quote:(Appearing in Dawsons Daily Times and Union [Fort Wayne, Indiana], 21 October 1862. Reprinted from the Albany [New York] Argus and Atlas.]
WHERE ARE THE ARMED ME? -- Greeley, Andrew, Blair of Michigan, and other Abolitionists, promised the President a million men, if he would issue his Emancipation Proclamation. In vain did Lincoln protest; in vain did he cite the stories of the Pope, who issued a bull against the comet, and the slave who told his mater that his calling a pig's tail a leg, would not make it so. He was assured that if he would but spread his edict before the people, armed men would spring out the earth at the stamp of his foot.
(From The Weekly Standard [Raleigh, North Carolina], 29 October 1862.)
OLD ABE GETS OFF ANOTHER JOKE. -- A couple of Abolitionists having called upon Old Abe to persuade him to issue his Emancipation Proclamation -- that is, before he issued it -- he got off the following good thing and knock down argument against his own act:
"You remember the slave who asked his master -- if I should call a sheep's tail a leg, how many legs would it have? 'Five.' 'No, only four, for my calling the tail a leg would not make it so.' Now, gentlemen, if I say to the slaves, 'you are free,' they will be no more free than at present."
(From "Irenaeus," "Letters from the City," The New York Observer and Chronicle, 22 January 1863.)
THE PRESIDENT AND DR. CHEEVER.
Just before the first of January, Dr. Cheever was appointed by a ministers' meeting, at which a lawyer presided and a newspaper reporter was secretary, to go to Washington and help stiffen the backbone of the President in the matter of the Proclamation. At the interview, as it is described by Dr. Cheever to his friends, the President was as usual in excellent humor . . . As the conference [with the President] continued, the President expressed his fear that the Proclamation would not amount to much of anything, and the doctor predicted great things from it. Mr. Lincoln said it reminded him of a farmer out in Illinois who asked his little boy a question in figures. "If you call a sheep's tail a leg, how many legs will you have?" "Five," said the boy. "No, it won't, you fool," said the farmer, "calling a thing so, don't make it so!"
The President seemed to feel that calling a man free and making him so were not exactly the same thing.
In any event, other early appearances of this anecdote (at least in the American press) go something like this,
quote:(From the New-Hampshire Gazette [Portsmouth], 1 July 1834.)
'If you call a sheep's tail a leg, how many legs will a sheep have?' -- 'Five.'
'Will calling a sheep's tail a leg make it a leg?' 'No.'
If then calling a sheep's tail a leg don't make it a leg, will calling a Tory a Whig make him a Whig. -- Cayuga [Patriot].
(From The Cincinnati Weekly Herald and Philanthropist, 27 December 1843.)
Says Bill to Jack, how many legs would a calf have by calling a tail one? 'Five,' answered Jack. 'No, 'twouldn't,' says Bill, 'because calling the tail one leg wouldn’t make it so, would it?'
(From The Watertown [Wisconsin] Chronicle, 30 October 1850.]
A little boy, some four or five years of age, once asked his father how many legs a calf would have, provided they called the tail one. The father, reasoning upon principles usually considered sound in those days, very naturally replied, "why, five, my son." "No," said the boy; "calling the tail a leg does not make it one."
Bonnie "okay, then, but how many calves does a leg have?" Taylor
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