It’s a good question, I guess. I’m not familiar with the saying, actually, but I’ll take a stab at it. I mean, I know it’s a twist on that old saw that says “All things come to him who waits”, but I don’t think I’ve ever run into the bit about hustling. Come to think of it, it’s kind of a wretched proverb, extolling pushy behavior by those disinclined to wait their turns. All things come to him who gets there first, and to hell with fairness, sharing, and all that crap. With an attitude like that, why bother with civilization?
I doubt very much that Abraham Lincoln ever said it. It doesn’t sound like him. It does sound like something somebody might say—if that somebody was alive at the very end of the nineteenth century or early in the twentieth. (Abraham Lincoln, for the history-challenged, was assassinated at the end of the Civil War.) The word “hustle” is the giveaway. I suppose it could have been used in this sense in Lincoln’s time, but I didn’t find any example of it. “Hustle” (in this sense) belongs to the era of Teddy Roosevelt, Carnegie and Rockefeller, Horatio Alger and Edward Stratemeyer. The time when wake-awake bright-eyed young lads full of grit and drive set out to pull themselves out of the gutter by their own bootstraps, maybe with the aid of some wealthy elderly gentleman whose runaway horse they stopped before his coach got smashed to flinders.
Those guys were full of hustle; it was like a watchword for them. And in fact the earliest version of this saying I could find in an all-too-casual search appeared in the December 1895 issue of Railway and Locomotive Engineering, p. 772, as part of a reply to a railroad worker concerned about the rights of workers:
I believe, however, that our employers, if left free to act, will fittingly recognize all of us according to the measure of our faithfulness and capacity. I do not see how they can do otherwise. Industry and study surely make the road to preferment. When we do not progress as fast as we think we should, more and better work is generally necessary. There is no other way to succeed.
The length of time we have served and the fidelity that has characterized our service will influence (and very properly) our advancement.
A hundred men may start in the railroad service to-day, all on an equality. Ten years’ service, and what then? You will no doubt find ten, or less, of them near or at the top round of the ladder. The balance of the hundred will, in all probability, be about where they started or out of a job, quarreling among themselves as to the most deserving or who has been most sadly treated by Dame Fortune. The boys high up on the ladder, who carefully guarded the interest of those they served, who depended upon themselves and their own effort, have nothing to regret. The balance of the gang at the bottom of the ladder, who sought success by an easier and shorter road, will no doubt all agree that they “have a kick coming.” Have they?
A little time, my friend, will tell the story. In the meantime, remember that all things come to those who “hustle” while they wait.
And in an April 1897 issue of The Insurance Economist (p. 17) we read the following:
All things come to those who wait, is an ancient and much quoted proverb. But for our part we prefer the one which we've seen hanging in General Manager Moss's office (which, by the way, he lives up to), which says: “All things come to those who hustle while they wait.” This latter motto is more suited to the spirit of our age than the first, and the man who follows it is pretty sure to “get there,” whereas there are doubts about the other one.
The modification that presents it in a form like “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle” seems to be much more modern—the only examples Google Books produced were from the twenty-first century—but the sense is much the same, and the derivation apparent.
Personally I doubt that Lincoln could have said it for another reason—are there any grounds for believing that the old saw about all things coming to him who waits was even around in his time? I mean, obviously, it could have been. But the only examples of it I see cited (at least in English) come from the 1870s and 1880s. It appears in an 1880 short story by Susan Coolidge (“The Boy and the Giant”, St. Nicholas Magazine, May 1880), for example, as “’All things come to him who waits,’ says the old proverb”, and as “All things come to those who wait” in an 1872 poem by “Violet Fane”. But the oldest use of it anybody cites is from the very year Lincoln died; it appears in the second volume of an 1865 novel by Annie Hall Cudlip entitled On Guard. It is part of a long passage of authorial comment on a character’s feelings:
We have probably all heard that the merry, merry sunshine makes the heart so gay. It is an axiom that has been set to music, and harmony always imparts an appearance of truth to a statement. When the sentiment is trilled out by a songstress in satin under a glaring gaselier, it naturally strikes us as veracious. The heat of the sun in the open—anything, anywhere!—is sure to be regarded as enviable, even as gaiety provoking, when our heads are throbbing from artificial heat, strongly impregnated with patchouli.
But there are certain conditions of mind when the merry, merry sunshine stabs rather than soothes. When we are unappreciated, unsuccessful, uncared for. When the light of love has gleamed over us, and for some reason gleams over us no longer. When the present is very dark and dull, and there seems to be nothing better in store. When all the hopes we ever had, lowly as they may have been, are fading fast. When the sense of our own inability is upon us crushingly, and we perceive the wounding truth that we are powerless of ourselves to help ourselves. When we feel left behind—not alone that, but trampled down by Fate, against whom we sulkily acknowledge that it is useless to struggle. When any or all of these things are, how terrible is the sunshine!
I suppose that we have all felt the terror of it—all of us, at least, who have temporal hopes, fears, and aspirations beyond the day. The brightness of it mocks, and the warmth of it burns us, and the glory of it irradiates each one but ourselves. We lose sight of the fact, that all these sensations are born of our own sense of defeat, perhaps—or of dyspepsia, or disappointment—therefore we do not look further back for causes, and discern that each one of these things is probably the offspring of incompetence, unworthiness, or—more likely still—of a weakness of will, a faltering of purpose which prevented our grasping and retaining firmly that which we desired to have. All things come to him who knows how to wait. All things are to be had by him who knows how to take.
Here it doesn’t appear in quotation marks, nor is there any reference to it being an old saw or well-known saying. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t—the whole passage reeks with cliché, and this could well be one of them. But if I weren’t specifically looking for those particular words, there is nothing about them that would make me think Annie Cudlip was quoting anybody else. All of which makes me wonder—is this the spring from which the trite river flows?
In any case, the many references to the saying in the 1870s and thereafter, and the complete absence of references before this make me wonder. Is it an old saying—or simply a passage from a novel that passed into proverb?
It is sometimes cited as a French proverb (Tout vient à qui sait attendre) as for example in this 1875 Punch cartoon. The French phrase is the title of the “Violet Fane” poem as well. Is there any evidence for a French connection?
Well, yes, there is. François Rabelais in his classic Fourth Book of Pantagruel (chapter XLVIII) has it in the form “Tout vient à poinct à qui peult attendre” meaning (more or less) everything comes to him who is able to wait. As the book was published in 1552 the saying clearly antedates Lincoln by some three centuries. At least in French.
I’m still dubious. Nobody cites any evidence to show that the saying circulated in English in Lincoln’s time—which is not the same thing as saying that no evidence exists. In any case there is no particular reason to suppose that Lincoln is responsible for the nineteenth-century twist on the saying, or for the twenty-first century take either. And I personally doubt that he ever said the original, either, though it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility.