Where does the idiom to have an axe to grind come from? To have personal, selfish reasons to do or say something.
The Urban Dictionary explains it thus:
Axe to Grind
To have a grievance with someone, especially where one feels the need to seek damaging retribution.
The phrase probably originates from the act of sharpening an axe with a grinding wheel, with the intent (in this definition) to get revenge on someone by maiming or killing them. ;) "Five years ago that guy stole my idea for an invention and made tons of money off it! I've had an axe to grind with him ever since. My latest invention will put him out of business for sure, you'll see! Muwahahahaha!!"
Edit 26/7/15. Following a comment from @Hot Licks, I checked the OED, which does confirm the idea that having an axe to grind, means having a hidden agenda. There is no suggestion of it being the result of a grievance. However, my personal impression from the way the term is used in Britain is that the Urban Dictionary is right when it says that it frequently suggests the satisfaction of a grievance.
P2. to have axes to grind (orig. U.S. Polit.): to have private ends to serve [in reference to a story told by Franklin] ; now more commonly to have an axe to grind .
By Benjamin Franklin (1706 to 1790)
When I was a little boy, I remember, one cold winter morning, I was accosted by a smiling man with an ax on his shoulder. "My pretty boy," said he, "has your father a grindstone?"
"Yes sir," said I. "You are a find little fellow!" said he. "Will you let me grind my ax on it?"
Pleased with the compliment of "fine little fellow," "Oh, Yes, sir," I answered. "It is down in the shop." "And will you, my man," said he, patting me on the head, "get me a little hot water?" How could I refuse? I ran, and soon brought a kettleful.
"How old are you-and what's your name?" continued he, without waiting for a reply. "I'm sure you are one of the finest lads that I have ever seen. Will you just turn a few minutes for me?"
Tickled with the flattery, like a little fool, I went to work, and bitterly did I rue the day. It was a new ax, and I toiled and tugged till I was almost tired to death. The school bell rang, and I could not get away. My hands were blistered, and the ax was not half ground. At length, however, it was sharpened, and the man turned to me with, "Now, you little rascal, you've played truant! Seud to school, or you'll rue it!" "Alas!" thought I, "it was hard enough to turn a grindstone this cold day, but now to be called a little rascal is too much."
It sank deep into my mind, and often have I thought of it since.
Source: The Elson Readers, Book Five, pp.295, Copyright©1911
EDITOR'S NOTE: The moral behind Benjamin Franklin's story is this, don't be sucked in by those who work to flatter you so to gain some advantage. Such selfish intentions do not deserve your attention. (2002)
Allan B. Colombo, publisher
As others have observed, an "axe to grind" is simply an ulterior motive—often, but not always, a concealed one.
Most authorities cite as the source of the phrase the cautionary tale of the boy, the stranger, the axe, and the grindstone, which they generally attribute either to Charles Miner (1780–1865) or to Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). As I've noted on other occasions, Benjamin Franklin is part of a troika of historical figures—the other two are Abraham Lincoln and Confucius—whom Americans tend to credit with authorship of any piece of homespun wisdom that has been around for a while and isn't firmly nailed down to someone else's floor.
Early anonymous instances of the phrase and the first Franklin attribution
I ran Google Books searches for "axe to grind" and "ax to grind" for the years 1700 through 1900. The earliest match for the phrase that these searches found is to a copy of the story reproduced in ron grimes's answer above, but titled "Who'll Turn the Grindstone?" from The [Charleston, South Carolina] Sunday Visitant, or Weekly Repository of Christian Knowledge (February 6, 1819). On the same page of that newspaper are items attributed to [Jeremy] Taylor's Holy Living, Bishop [Thomas] Wilson, and Senex [that is, "sage"]; but the authorship of "Who'll Turn the Grindstone?" goes uncredited—a rather surprising omission if Franklin was known to be the author.
The story reappears (under the same title) in The [Hudson, New York] Rural Repository (February 1, 1834). It also appears with ax in place of axe in The [Philadelphia] Visiter (March 1836), this time with no title and no named author.
The earliest attribution of the vignette to Franklin in a Google Books match is from The [Charleston, South Carolina] Southern Agriculturist and Register of Rural Affairs (March 1836), this time under the title "Who'll turn the Grindstone."
Miner v. Franklin
According to the Wikipedia article on Charles Miner, Miner was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives during 1807–1808 and later served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Outside his political career, he worked as a writer and publisher. The article then states
Miner's essay "Who'll turn Grindstone?" published in The Centinel 1810 coined the phrase "an axe to grind" as a metaphor for having ulterior personal motives.
The Library of Congress Chronicling America site confirms that The Centinel was a newspaper published in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from 1805 to 1813, but unfortunately it does not offer searchable copies of newspapers from before 1832, so I can't confirm the claim that the article appeared in The Centinel in 1810 and that Miner wrote it. However, Miner was already involved in newspaper work in the early 1800s as publisher of the [Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania] Luzerne County Federalist, according to Wikipedia, and he was 30 years old in 1810.
Franklin, meanwhile, had been dead for 20 years when 1810 rolled around. And none of the Google Books matches that associate "axe to grind" with Franklin identify where it appears in his writings. This is a frequent—and one may say tell-tale—sign of false attribution of a particular quotation to a famous and prolific source.
The strongest evidence that Miner is the original source of the phrase is provided by Charles Richardson & Elizabeth Richardson, Charles Miner, a Pennsylvania Pioneer (1916), which prefaces its reproduction of the text of "Who'll Turn Grindstone" with this background information:
To the Luzerne Federalist for September 7, 1810, when still "printed by Tracy and Butler," Charles Miner contributed a little story which was destined to be copied from one end of the country to the other, to reappear in school reading-books down to the present year, 1913, and to furnish America, as has been said, with its most frequently used familiar quotation—"to have an axe to grind." The story—"Who'll Turn Grindstone?" afterwards became the first in the series entitled "Essays from the Desk of Poor Robert the Scribe," the title of which so closely resembled Franklin's Poor Richard that the famous quotation has sometimes been assigned to the elder philosopher.
Corroborating this account is the fact that Charles Miner, Essays from the Desk of Poor Robert the Scribe, containing Lessons in Manners, Morals, and Domestic Economy. Originally Published in the Gleaner (reprinted 1980) finds matches for "Who'll Turn Grindstone?" and for the opening sentence of the story that appears in ron grimes's answer—as does a 1930 reprint of the same collection of newspaper pieces.
So we have an exact date of publication for the story attributed to Miner, a date of publication that matches his early years in publishing, and an explanation of why people might have mistakenly begun to think that Franklin was the author. In contrast, we have a first attribution of the story to Franklin in 1836, and no suggestion of where the tale is to be found among Franklin's writings. I think that the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the inspiration for "axe to grind" was Miner's story published on September 7, 1810, in The [Gettysburg, Pennsylvania] Centinel.
The Phrase Finder's argument for Franklin
The Phrase Finder's article on "axe to grind" (cited in Canis Lupus's comment above) offers these details about Benjamin Franklin's possible influence on the phrase:
Franklin sent a story called 'The Whistle' to a friend in 1779. This concerns a child who paid more than he should have for a whistle and later regretted his lack of caution. Franklin's autobiography, which was written between 1771 and his death in 1790 and first published in 1791, also contains an anecdote concerning a man who asked a smith to sharpen his ax especially well and ended up doing the work of turning the grindstone himself. Neither story mentions the phrase an ax to grind.
But more serious than the omission of the phrase itself is the poor fit between the two cited anecdotes and the sense of the popular saying. "The Whistle" doesn't involve an axe at all, which makes bringing it up relevant only if we are to suppose that it inspired Miner to make a connection that Franklin hadn't.
As for the man who brings an axe to be sharpened and ends up doing the work himself, it unfolds at cross purposes to the narrative in Miner's story. If your point is to tell a cautionary tale about people who have ulterior motives, why would you set up the story so that the person who introduces the task to be done becomes the dupe who does the task? In Franklin's presentation, the man who has the axe to grind is the one who doesn't try to take advantage of someone else. That anecdote doesn't make sense as the source of an idiom centrally about hidden agendas.
Update (July 31, 2016)
In conducting an Elephind search of early U.S. newspapers, I turned up an article in the [Montrose, Pennsylvania] Independent Republican (December 9, 1858) that addresses the disagreement over the original source of "an ax to grind":
"AN AX TO GRIND."—A late number of the Bucks County [Pennsylvania] Intelligencer enters the name of another claimant to the honor of having first given currency to this common colloquial phrase. That journal says:
"It was not Dr. Franklin who gave to the world this convenient and expressive phrase. It would be a grievous wrong to attempt to rob him of any of his honors, or to call in question his authorship of any of the sayings of 'Poor Richard,' but the story of the man who had the ax to grind, from which the present story in garbled, was written by Charles Miner, under the nom de plume of 'Poor Robert the Scribe.' Those articles were afterward published in a small volume, and were printed at 'Miner's Press, Doylestown.' The book was entitled 'Essays from the Desk of Poor Robert the Scribe.' The first piece was headed, 'Who'll Turn Grindstone?' And from this the phrase 'an ax to grind' has obtained more than a land-wide circulation."
The Boston Weekly Messenger (July 30, 1818) includes a full version of "Who'll Turn Grindstone?" which it credits as coming originally from the Luzerne Federalist. A note on the phrase "an axe to grind" in American Notes and Queries (June 2, 1888) likewise credits the phrase to Charles Miner in "Who'll Turn the Grindstone?" and then concludes with this remark:
But the whole story has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin and may be found, so attributed, in Sergeant and May's and other Readers. It would be interesting to know on what authority this is done.
Further update (April 6, 2019)
The punchline about "having an axe to grind" arises in somewhat different contexts in two very early print occurrences of the anecdote. In the version that appears in the Boston Weekly Messenger (July 30, 1818), the conclusion appears as follows:
When I see a merchant overpolite to his customers, begging them to taste a little brandy and throwing half his goods on the counter—thinks I, that man has an axe to grind.
When I have seen a young man of doubtful character, patting a girl on her cheek, praising her sparkling eye and ruby lip, and giving her a sly squeeze—Beware my girl, thought I, or you will find find to your sorrow that you have been turning grindstone for a villain.
The ulterior motives in these instances are commercial and sexual. But in the version of the story that appears in the [Richmond, Virginia] Genius of Liberty (September 9, 1823), the objectives of cited axe grinders go in a somewhat different direction:
When I have saw a man of doubtful character, patting a girl on the cheek, praising her sparkling eye and ruby lip, and giving her a sly squeeze—beware my girl, thinks I, or you will find find to your sorrow, that you have been turning a grindstone for a villain.
When I see a man flattering the people, making great profession of attachment to liberty, who is in private life a tyrant, methinks, look out out good people, that fellow would set you to turning grind stones.
When I see a man holding a fat office 'sounding the horn on the borders' to call the people to support the man on whom he depends for his office, well thinks I, no wonder the man i zealous in this case, he evidently has an axe to grind.
Here the axe grinders are a sexual seducer (as in the earlier version), a political hypocrite, and a sycophantic sinecure holder. The sweet-talking commercial salesman in the Boston Weekly Messenger version of the anecdote is supplanted by two types of political deceivers. Both versions of the anecdote appear multiple times in newspapers in ensuing decades.
to have a strong personal opinion about something that you want people to accept and that is the reason why you do something
to have a strong opinion about something, which you are often trying to persuade other people is correct
- an ulterior motive
- a grievance
- a pet subject
Note that only Collins refers to a grievance, and that is only one of three definitions. And "ulterior motive" probably best captures the meaning as commonly used in the US.
The Benjamin Franklin story discussed here (and in Ron Grimes' answer) is a likely source of the idiom.
"I've got an axe to grind" (with you/him). Means you have a problem to work out with someone, or you need to 'set someone straight' as in put a fine edge on an axe when sharpening it. It takes some time to sharpen the edge of an axe, and it used to require two people working together, one to spin the grinding stone, one to hold the axe. It creates friction, and heat, but the end result is a sharp axe. Both parties understand where the other stands.