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.
“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.