Lincoln's Humor: An AnalysisSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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In attempting an analysis of Lincoln's humor one is immediately confronted with two difficulties. In the first place, many stories attributed to Lincoln were never told by him. J. B. McClure's Lincoln Stories is recognized as the most reliable collection, yet Isaac N. Arnold, an intimate friend of Lincoln's, wrote on the fly-leaf of his copy of this book that Lincoln probably told no more than half the stories with which McClure credited him. To prove that Lincoln did or did not tell a particular story is often impossible, for in most cases one must rely upon hearsay evidence or reminiscences.
The second difficulty lies in the fact that the effectiveness of a joke depends in large measure upon the manner of its telling. We may not be at all amused by reading some of Lincoln's jokes or hearing them at second-hand; whereas we might have split our sides had we heard them as he told them. For Lincoln was a master of the story-telling art; and when told by a master, even a dull joke may be irresistible.
"His stories may be literally retold," wrote Henry C. Whitney, "every word, period and comma, but the real humor perished with Lincoln"; for "he provoked as much laughter by the grotesque expression of his homely face as by the abstract fun of his stories." Page [End Page 29]
His manner of recital, declared Judge David Davis, was "in many respects unique, if not remarkable. His countenance and all his features seemed to take part in the performance. As he neared the pith or point of the joke or story every vestige of seriousness disappeared from his face. His little gray eyes sparkled; a smile seemed to gather up, curtain like, the corners of his mouth; his frame quivered with suppressed excitement; and when the point—or 'nub' of the story, as he called it—came, no one's laugh was heartier than his."
His humor had a general appeal. Not only the circuit lawyers and the Western villagers and farmers, but even urbane Easterners readily succumbed to it. In 1842, Ex-President Van Buren, making a tour of the West, stopped one night at the village of Rochester, a few miles from Springfield. The Democratic politicians of Springfield went out "en masse" to meet and entertain him, taking Lincoln and a few other Whigs along. Van Buren related several amusing incidents of New York politics, while others told tales of early life on the frontier. But all yielded at last to Lincoln, who kept them in an uproar far into the night with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of yarns, until Van Buren insisted that "his sides were sore with laughing."
In many cases the stories Lincoln told were not original, although he often enbellished and improved them. He himself repeatedly disclaimed credit for authorship and described himself as merely a retail dealer. He proficiency lay rather in a retentive memory, an uncanny power of association and histrionic skill. "He did not forget the good things that he heard," wrote Charles Sumner, "and was never without a familiar story to illustrate his meaning. When he spoke, the recent West seemed to vie with the ancient East in apologue and fable. His ideas moved, as the beasts entered Noah's ark, in pairs. At times his illustrations has a homely felicity, and with him they seemed to be not less important than the argument, which he always enforced with a certain intensity of manner and voice." Page [End Page 30]
Much of Lincoln's success as a story-teller was due to a talent for mimicry. "In the rôle of story-teller," said T. G. Onstot, son of the New Salem cooper, "I never knew his equal. His power of mimicry was very great. He could perfectly mimic a Dutchman, Irishman or Negro." F. B. Carpenter, who spent several months in the White House painting Lincoln's portrait, recalled a half-hour's entertainment given there by Stephen Massett, better known as "Jeems Pipes of Pipesville." His repertoire included a series of comic imitations, one of which, a take-off on a stammering man, was especially amusing to the President. After the "lecture" Lincoln, in congratulating "Pipes," ventured a suggestion. "I once knew a man who invariably 'whistled' with his stammering," he said—and gave an imitation. "Now if you could get in a touch of nature like that it would be irresistibly ludicrous." "Pipes" approved the idea, rehearsed the whistle until he had mastered it to Lincoln's satisfaction, and used it in subsequent performances.
On one occasion—in the campaign of 1840—Lincoln used his skill as a mimic to discomfit a political antagonist. Jesse B. Thomas, in a speech at the courthouse in Springfield, made some sarcastic allusions to the "Long Nine" and particularly to Lincoln; and at the conclusion of his speech, Lincoln replied. "He felt the sting of Thomas' allusions," said Herndon, "and for the first time on the stump or in public, resorted to mimicry for effect. In this ... he was without a rival. He imitated Thomas in gesture and voice, at times caricaturing his walk and the very motions of his body. Thomas, like everybody else, had some peculiarities of expression and gesture, and these Lincoln succeeded in rendering more prominent than ever. The crowd yelled and cheered as he continued. Encouraged by the demonstration, the ludicrous features of the speaker's performance gave way to intense and scathing ridicule. Thomas, who was obliged to sit near by and endure the pain of the unique ordeal, was ordinarily sensitive; but the exhibition goaded him to desperation. He ... actually gave way to tears.... The next day it was the talk of the town, and for years afterwards it was called the 'skinning' of Thomas.... I heard him [Lincoln] afterwards say that the recollection of his conduct that evening filled him with the deepest chagrin. He felt that he had gone too far and to rid his good nature of a load, hunted up Thomas and made ample apology." Never again did he go to such lengths in a public address. Page [End Page 31]
In thinking through a proposition Lincoln's mental processes were cautious and deliberate; yet he was ready with an instant witticism or retort under almost any circumstances. During the Hampton Roads conference, when he refused to enter into any agreement with persons in arms against the government, R. M. T. Hunter, one of the Confederate commissioners, tried to prove that such agreements were sanctioned by precedent by citing repeated instances of agreements between Charles I of England and those in arms against him. But Lincoln waved the argument aside. "I do not profess to be posted in history," he said. "On all such matters I will turn you over to Seward. All I distinctly remember about the case of Charles I is that he lost his head."
His quick wit and power of association were again evidenced when he was informed that the Cleveland Convention of dissatisfied Republicans had nominated John C. Frémont to oppose him in the election of 1864. His informant told him that instead of the thousands who were expected to attend the convention, only about four hundred had appeared. Struck by the number, Lincoln reached for a Bible on his desk, and after thumbing through a few pages, found and read these words: "And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men."
In general, Lincoln's humor was the humor of his time. In Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois he became familiar with the gargantuan exaggeration and calm-faced falsehood—the "tall tales"—for which the West was famous, and which had their origin in the early settlers' imaginative accounts of frontier life.
He appreciated the unconventional, earthy humor and homespun philosophy of the farmers and frontiersmen. He contended in later life that country people were the originators of most good stories; and it was to them and to the experiences of his own rural life that he went for many of his best yarns.
Shortly after Simon Cameron's retirement from his cabinet, for example, some gentlemen called on Lincoln, expressed gratification at the change, and suggested the advisability of further cabinet replacements. Lincoln heard them through; then slowly shook his head. Their suggestions, he said, brought to mind a certain Joe Wilson, who built a shed and raised a flock of chickens. Page [End Page 32] The chickens were so bothered by skunks, however, that one night Joe went out with his shotgun to keep watch. He soon saw six or seven skunks running in and out of the hen-house. Loading his gun with a double charge, he blazed away, hoping to kill the whole "tribe" with one shot. But he hit only one, and the rest ran off across a field. Being asked why he didn't follow and kill the rest, he said: "Why, blast it, it was eleven weeks before I got over killin' one. If you want any more skirmishing in that line you can just do it yourselves."
On another occasion, talking to a friend who was concerned about Salmon P. Chase's ambition for the presidency, and who thought Lincoln should ask Chase to resign, Lincoln observed that Chase's department was functioning very well, and as long as it continued to do so he would not worry about Chase's presidential aspirations. The situation reminded him of a time when he and his step-brother were plowing a corn field in Indiana, he driving the horse and his step-brother guiding the plow. The horse, naturally lazy and slow, suddenly rushed across the field so fast the boys could hardly keep pace with him. On reaching the end of the furrow, Lincoln discovered an enormous chin fly fastened to the horse and knocked it off. His step-brother asked why he did that; whereupon Lincoln explained that he didn't want the horse bitten. "But," protested his step-brother, "that's all that made him go!" "Now," said Lincoln, "if Mr. Chase has a presidential chin fly biting him, I'm not going to knock it off if it will only make his department go."
Again, in the Hampton Roads conference, when Hunter raised the point that slaves, accustomed to working under overseers, would be unable to get along without them, while on the other hand, the whites, deprived of their slaves, would be unable to make a living, and both would starve, Lincoln was reminded of an old Illinois farmer who hit upon the expedient of planting potatoes and turning his hogs into the patch to root, thereby saving the labor of feeding the hogs and digging the potatoes. A neighbor, happening by, asked him what the hogs would do when the ground froze. The farmer had not thought of that; but after several moments of rumination he observed: "Well, it may come pretty hard on their snouts, but I guess it will be 'root, hog, or die!'"
Lincoln's conversation was interlarded with rural analogies. "I will pitch into that like a dog at a root," he exclaimed when Page [End Page 33] presented with a legal problem. "Well, I have got that job husked out," he sighed with relief on completing a perplexing presidential task. The sight of the diminutive Alexander H. Stephens divesting himself of voluminous wraps moved him to comment: "That is the largest shucking for so small a nubbin that I ever saw." He referred to the Post Office Department's "cutting its own fodder." In reviewing some court martial proceedings he came upon the case of a condemned deserter who had escaped to Mexico; and apparently relieved that the man had gotten away, he observed: "We will condemn him as they used to sell hogs in Indiana—as they run." His notion of the plan of exerting simultaneous pressure at all points of the Confederate line to prevent reinforcements being sent to the main point of attack, was that "those not skinning can hold a leg." When he prevented a threatened disruption of his cabinet by securing the resignations of both Seward and Chase, he exulted: "Now I have a pumpkin in each end of my sack. Now I can ride!" His exasperation at McClellan's underestimates of the number of his men in the face of repeated reinforcements vented itself in the observation that "sending men to his army is like shovelling fleas across a barnyard—not half of them get there."
Lincoln's return to the "grass roots" for the gems of his wit is not without significance. For a sense of humor connotes an intimate acquaintance with human nature and life, a sense of proportion, and thus of disproportion, a realization of the petty conceits, the affectations, the foibles and weaknesses of men. It implies, in other words, the possession of the qualities of "horse sense" and discernment. And Lincoln's preference for the humor of the common people, evincing a recognition of the fact that they possessed these qualities, was an attestation of his confidence in the fundamental soundness of their judgment.
The keenness of Lincoln's own sense of humor was due in large degree to his intimate knowledge of men. Acquired in considerable measure at New Salem, where he lived on common terms with the villagers, this knowledge was broadened by his practice of the law and his experiences on the old Eighth Circuit. In no other occupation or setting would he have had a better opportunity to study life. On the circuit Lincoln not only studied human nature at first hand, but also developed to the full his story-telling art. Free from the cares and worries of home, in the company of Page [End Page 34]Page [End Page 35] exclaimed Usher F. Linder, himself a noted humorist. "Any remark, any incident brought from him an appropriate tale." "In our walks about the little towns where courts were held," said Whitney, "he saw ludicrous elements in everything, and could either narrate some story from his storehouse of jokes, else he could improvise one.... In anything and everything Lincoln saw some ludicrous incident." Judge Davis recalled having seen him many times, surrounded by a crowd, all deeply interested in the outcome of a story which, when finished, speedily found repetition in every grocery and lounging place within reach.
Many stories which Lincoln told during his presidency originated on the circuit. In discussing the advisability of pardoning a condemned deserter, he recalled the time that Usher F. Linder saved a client who had stolen a hog by advising him to go get a drink, suggesting that the water was better in Tennessee. Another time he told of John Moore, one-time State Treasurer of Illinois, who confessed that on one occasion in the early days he came to Bloomington on Saturday to get supplies, and having purchased them, filled up with liquor and started home. He drove a cart drawn by two red steers. Passing through a grove, the cart struck a tree stump and the steers broke loose and ran away. Moore, who had fallen asleep, did not even waken, but slept on until morning. Opening his eyes finally, he looked about in bewilderment. "If my name is John Moore," he exclaimed, "I've lost a pair of steers; if it is not John Moore, I've found a cart!"
On another occasion, while discussing with Benjamin F. Butler and John W. Forney the treatment to be accorded the secession leaders, Lincoln recalled an old drunkard he had known in one of the county towns of Illinois, who had been induced several times to sign the temperance pledge. At last he was told that if he broke his pledge once more he would be given up as a hopeless vagrant. Wandering into a saloon one day shortly afterward, he called for lemonade. Then drawing the bartender aside he asked: "Couldn't you put just a drop of the 'cratur' in it unbeknownst to me?" Lincoln remarked that if Jeff Davis and the other leaders could be permitted to get out of the country "unbeknownst to him," it would save him a "deal" of trouble.
Lincoln's stories ran the whole gamut of humor from cheap puns to subtle aphorisms. He could perpetrate such atrocities as that recounted by Governor Saunders, whose mention of a river in Page [End Page 36] Nebraska named Weeping Water provoked the President to ask: "I suppose the Indians out there call it Minneboohoo, don't they, since Laughing Water is Minnahaha in their language?" Or, on the other hand, as Emerson observed, he could utter sage thoughts "so disguised as pleasantries that it is certain they had no reputation at first but as jests, and only later, by the very acceptance and adoption they find in the mouths of millions, turn out to be the wisdom of the hour."
At times he liked sheer nonsense. On one of his frequent visits to the War Department Telegraph Office, he was informed that the Federal pickets still held a certain position and that no firing had been heard since sunset. Inquiring if there had been any before sunset, he was informed that there had not. "That reminds me," said he, "of the man who described a child, supposedly a freak of nature, as being black from the hips down. And upon being asked its color from the hips up, he said, "Why, black, of course.'"
McClure recalled that once when he left Lincoln's office at the conclusion of an interview during the period of Sherman's march to the sea, when for days the North had heard nothing of the position or fate of Sherman's army, the President called after him and asked: "McClure, wouldn't you like to hear something from Sherman?" Tense with eagerness, McClure replied that he surely would. "Well," said Lincoln, resuming his work, "I'll be hanged if I wouldn't myself."
"Bulls" were a form of humor in which Lincoln frequently indulged. Witness, for example, his unwillingness to apply the death penalty to soldiers who deserted because of cowardice for the reason that "it would frighten the poor devils to death to shoot them"; and his tale about the Irishman with the new boots who was afraid he would not be able to get them on until he had worn them a day or two to stretch them.
Occasionally Lincoln's jokes had a touch of the practical. Colonel "Dick" Taylor, one of Lincoln's earlier Democratic political opponents, could readily have vouched for this. Colonel Dick was wont to denounce the aristocratic proclivities of the Whigs and to extol the Spartan simplicity of himself and his Democratic conferrees. One day, when he was expatiating in his usual style, Lincoln slipped up to his side, caught hold of the bottom of his vest and suddenly pulled it open, revealing to the astonished crowd a ruffled shirtfront adorned with a massive gold watch-chain, seals Page [End Page 37] and other jewelry. The exponent of Democratic simplicity was dumbfounded, while the audience roared with laughter.
James Shields did not see the practical humor in Lincoln's choice of weapons—"cavalry broadswords of the largest size"— when he challenged Lincoln to a duel; but we can picture, as Lincoln undoubtedly could, the ludicrous figure the diminutive Shields would have cut in a combat with such weapons with the long-armed railsplitter. Nor did Clement L. Vallandigham, the Ohio Copperhead, appreciate the ironic practicality of Lincoln's order which released him from jail and deported him across the Southern lines.
Mild-mannered to an unusual degree, Lincoln could nevertheless resort to scathing sarcasm and ridicule. One of his earlier efforts in this line almost precipitated the duel above referred to. The cause of the challenge was an anonymous letter written by Lincoln and published in the Sangamo Journal of September 2, 1841. Purporting to come from Aunt 'Becca, in the "Lost Townships," and written in the colloquial idiom, it satirized James Shields, the state auditor, and other Democratic officials so effectively that it was only with difficulty that a meeting was averted.
Lincoln's speeches, prior to 1854, are replete with ridicule. In 1848, in a speech in Congress, he belittled the military record of Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate for president, by comparing it with his own experiences in the Black Hawk War. In 1852 he did the same sort of thing with reference to Franklin Pierce with a burlesque description of the old Illinois militia musters. "We remember one of the parades ourselves here," he said, "at the head of which, on horseback, figured our old friend Gordon Abrams, with a pine wood sword about nine feet long, and a pasteboard cocked hat, from front to rear about the length of an ox-yoke, and very much the same shape of one turned bottom upwards; and with spurs having rowels as large as the bottom of a teacup, and shanks a foot and a half long. That was the last militia muster here. Among the rules and regulations, no man is to wear more than five pounds of codfish for epaulets, or more than thirty yards of bologna sausages for a sash; and no two men are to dress alike, and if any two should dress alike the one who dresses most alike is to be fined (I forget how much). Flags, they had too, with devices and Page [End Page 38] mottoes, one of which latter was, 'We'll fight till we run, and we'll run till we die.'
"Now, in the language of Judge Douglas, 'I submit to you gentlemen,' whether there is not great cause to fear that on some occasion when Gen. Scott suspects no danger, suddenly Gen. Pierce will be discovered charging upon him, holding a huge roll of candy in one hand for a spy-glass; with B-U-T labelled on some appropriate part of his person; with Abrams' long pine sword cutting the air at imaginary cannon balls ... and over all streaming the flag, with the motto, 'We'll fight till we faint, and I'll treat when it's over.'"
Numerous other instances could be given. Indeed, prior to 1854 humor and ridicule were among Lincoln's chief reliances on the stump.
But 1854 marks a turning point. After that his speeches became Page [End Page 39] intensely serious. There were occasional flashes of humor, it is true, but the humor was merely incidental to the argument which it elucidated.
During his presidency Lincoln appreciated the humor that pointed out the shortcomings of the members of his cabinet, and often called their attention to comic newspaper comments on their personal idiosyncrasies and administrative acts. Sometimes he indulged in gentle thrusts at them himself. He asked a certain man if he was an Episcopalian, explaining that he thought he must be because he swore just like Seward, who was of that faith. To the meticulous Stanton he sent an order to appoint a certian man colonel of a colored regiment, "regardless of whether he could tell the exact shade of Julius Caesar's hair."
In fact, his sense of humor greatly facilitated his sustained relations with the testy Stanton and the pompous Chase. For instance, when a delegation, which he had sent to Stanton with orders to grant their request, returned and reported that not only had Stanton refused to do so, but had actually called Lincoln a fool for sending such an order, Lincoln, with mock astonishment, inquired: "Did Stanton call me a fool?"—and, upon being reassured upon that point, remarked: "Well, I guess I had better go over and see Stanton about this. Stanton is usually right." To have got along at all with such a cabinet would have been impossible without a sense of humor as a saving grace.
While Lincoln liked to tell a joke on others, he also had the rare faculty of being able to appreciate one on himself. He could both give and take. In fact, he made himself the butt of many of his own best jokes. He had no illusions about his personal appearance and joked about it so often that there is reason to believe that he deliberately tried to capitalize upon his homeliness. Speaking at a banquet held by Anti-Nebraska editors at Decatur, on February 22, 1856, he apologized for being present, explaining that not being an editor he felt out of place. He illustrated his feelings by telling of an extremely ugly man who, riding along a narrow road, was met by a woman. As she passed the woman looked at him intently and finally observed: "Well, you are the ugliest man I ever saw." "Perhaps so," admitted the unfortunate fellow, somewhat crestfallen, "but I can't help that, madam." "No, I suppose not," agreed the woman, "but you might stay at home."
In a reply to Douglas at Springfield, on July 17, 1858, Lincoln Page [End Page 40] referred to the politicians seeing in Douglas' "round, jolly, fruitful face, post-offices, landoffices, marshalships and cabinet appointments, chargéships and foreign missions, bursting and sprouting out in wonderful exuberance, ready to be laid hold of by their greedy hands"; whereas in his own "poor, lean, lank face" nobody had ever seen "that any cabbages were sprouting out."
Lincoln frequently told of the man who accosted him on a train, saying: "Excuse me, sir, but I have an article in my possession which rightfully belongs to you." "How is that?" asked Lincoln in amazement. Whereupon the stranger produced a jack-knife and explained: "This knife was placed in my hands some years ago, with the injunction that I was to keep it until I found a man uglier than myself. Allow me now to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to it."
Lincoln also derived great pleasure from telling of an experience he had on his way from Springfield to Washington in 1849. He traveled as far as Indianapolis by stage, the only other passenger being a grizzled Kentuckian. In the course of the journey the Kentuckian offered Lincoln a drink, a smoke and a chew, each of which was in turn refused. As he left the stage the Kentuckian turned to Lincoln and remarked: "See here, stranger, you're a clever but strange companion. I may never see you again, and I don't want to offend you, but I want to say this: my experience has taught me that a man who has no vices has damned few virtues."
Cognizant of his personal deficiencies, Lincoln was also aware of the vulnerable points of his administration. This is well illustrated by his reply to a request for a suggestion of a suitable motto to be engraved on the new greenback currency. "How would it do," he whimsically inquired, "to say silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee?"
The complacency of humor which manifests a willingness to laugh at one's own weaknesses and shortcomings indicates a total absence of false pride, a calm self-assurance untinctured by conceit.
There is too much evidence to the contrary to insist that Lincoln did not tell broad stories. In many instances, however, his stories have been coarsened in the re-telling and he has been accused of telling others which he never would have uttered. He was quite capable, however, of telling the story of the man in the theatre who placed his high hat on the adjoining seat, open side up, and Page [End Page 41] becoming interested in the play, failed to note the approach of a fat dowager until she had plumped down upon it. Then gazing ruefully at the ruin of his top-piece, he reproachfully observed: "Madam, I could have told you the hat wouldn't fit before you tried it on." Nor is there reason to doubt the story of the cabinet member who, returning from New York, informed the President of the discouraging state of politics there. Pacing grimly back and forth across the room, Lincoln finally observed: "Well, it is the people's business,—the election is in their hands. If they turn their backs to the fire and get scorched in the rear, they'll find they have got to sit on the blister."
Leonard Swett declared that while Lincoln's stories were sometimes broad, he did not tell them for that reason. "When hunting for wit he had no ability to discriminate between the vulgar and refined substances from which he extracted it. It was the wit he was after, the pure jewel, and he would pick it up out of the mud or dirt just as readily as he would from a parlor table."
Many explanations of why Lincoln indulged in humor have been offered. David Davis remembered how, on the circuit, "if the day was long and he was oppressed, the feeling was soon relieved by the narration of a story. The tavern loungers enjoyed it, and his melancholy, taking to itself wings, seemed to fly away." And many others noted how he would suddenly emerge from the deepest dejection with a quick sally or a brilliant yarn.
But humor was more to Lincoln than a psychological reaction. It served many useful purposes.
For one thing it provided him with a means of getting on good terms with people. In Indiana his fun and wit lightened the toil in fields and woods and won him many friends at the social gatherings. When he came to New Salem, on election day in 1831, he established himself in the good graces of villagers by entertaining them with stories as they lounged about the polls. And many a visitor at the White House was put at his ease by the President's narration of an anecdote.
At times Lincoln found in humor a necessary safety-valve to his overburdened mind. In cabinet meetings he frequently read passages from his favorite humorists—Charles Farrar Browne, R. N. Newell and David Ross Locke, better known respectively as Artemus Ward, Orpheus C. Kerr (office-seeker) and Petroleum V. Nasby—to ease his mind before tackling a difficult problem or Page [End Page 42] When he read Browne's description of a "High-handed Outrage at Utica" before opening a cabinet meeting he could not understand why the cabinet failed to appreciate the humor as he did. "Gentlemen," he is reported to have reproached them, "why don't you laugh? With the fearful Page [End Page 43] strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh occasionally I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do." 
In the brief moments of leisure which his official duties permitted, Lincoln found his chief relaxation in reading these contemporary wits. Often they were content with the externals of humor— bad grammar, misspelling, buffoonery and impudence—and much of what they wrote has little appeal to readers of today; but to Lincoln it afforded great amusement; for his taste in humor, like the humor he purveyed—was simply that of his time. Moreover, all three of these humorists were whole-heartedly loyal, and were doing all in their power to arouse public opinion to the support of the Union cause. So great was Lincoln's admiration of Locke that he invited him to the White House, and is reported to have told him that he would almost trade places with him for the ability to write as he could.  And when General Meigs confessed that he was unfamiliar with Newell's Orpheus C. Kerr Papers, Lincoln opined that "anyone who has not read them is a heathen."  Page [End Page 44]
Besides employing humor to ingratiate himself, to put people at ease, and to relieve his troubled mind, Lincoln often turned to it as a means of escaping from a difficult position or avoiding an embarrassing commitment. John Hay tells of a gathering at Seward's where a Captain Schultz showed very bad taste in alluding to Seward's defeat in the Chicago convention. "The President," said Hay, "told a good yarn." Herndon recorded that Lincoln was most adroit in outwitting people who came to him to get information which he did not wish to divulge. In such cases Lincoln did most of the talking, "swinging around what he suspected was the vital point, but never nearing it, interlarding his answers with a seemingly endless supply of stories and jokes." The inquisitive visitor would leave in high good humor; but after walking a few blocks would realize that he had learned nothing whatsoever. "Blowing away the froth of Lincoln's humorous narratives," said Herndon, "he would find nothing left."
Often the use of a story enabled him to soften a refusal or rebuke. General Creswell once came to Lincoln to request the release of an old friend who had been captured and imprisoned. "I know the man has acted like a fool," admitted Creswell, "but he is my friend, and a good fellow; let him out; give him to me, and I will be responsible that he will have nothing further to do with the rebels." Lincoln pondered the matter. The request brought to his mind a group of young people who went "Maying." In the course of their rambles they crossed a shallow stream in a flatboat, but on their return they discovered that the boat was gone. So each boy Page [End Page 45] picked up a girl and carried her across, until the only ones remaining were a little short chap and a great "Gothic-built" old maid. "Now Creswell," complained Lincoln, "you are trying to leave me in the same predicament. You fellows are all getting your friends out of this scrape; and you will succeed in carrying off one after another, until nobody but Jeff Davis and myself will be left, and then I won't know what to do. How should I feel? How should I look, lugging him over?"
"He can rake a sophism out of its hole better than all the trained logicians of all schools," wrote John Hay in admiration, during the third year of the war. And this faculty, used in conjunction with his wit, enabled Lincoln to reduce an argument to absurdity with a jest directed at its flaw. When the supporters of an applicant for the position of commissioner of the Hawaiian Islands urged that their man was not only competent for the post but also needed it because the climate would benefit his health, Lincoln retorted: "Gentlemen, there are eight other applicants for that position and they are all sicker'n your man." "What would you do in my position?" he asked a Southerner who complained of the hardships his policy was working upon the Southern loyalists. "Would you drop the war where it is? Or would you prosecute it in future with elder-stalk squirts charged with rose water?"
But the most frequent use to which Lincoln put his wit was as an aid to clarity of meaning. His conversation was as heavily freighted with stories as were his letters with similes and metaphors. For as Herndon explained, "Mr. Lincoln was often perplexed to give expression to his ideas.... He was frequently at a loss for a word, and hence was compelled to resort to stories, maxims, and jokes to embody his idea."
On the circuit an apt yarn frequently put across his point to the jury in a clearer manner than hours of argument could have done. And in his presidency he found his stories no less useful. "I have found in the course of a long experience," he explained to Chauncey M. Depew, "that common people—common people—take them as they run, are more easily influenced and informed through the medium of a story than in any other way." Thus we see in this habit of expression another instance of his continual search for a point of meeting with the common mind. "His quaint wit," as Punch expressed it, "made home truth seem more true." Page [End Page 46]
Yet while many of Lincoln's stories had a purpose, others were told for sheer fun. He often stopped work to enjoy fun, then, relaxed and refreshed, went back to work again. John H. Littlefield, a clerk in the Lincoln-Herndon office, testified that no matter how busy or how deeply engrossed in his work he might be, whenever anyone came in he would greet him with a pleasant or humorous remark, and before he left would inevitably tell a joke or anecdote. Sometimes he told the same story to four or five different persons in the course of a day, and each time laughed as heartily as anyone. In the White House in the midst of a tense discussion he would frequently digress upon a story. "And much as his stories were enjoyed by his hearers," said McClure, "none enjoyed them more than Mr. Lincoln himself."
But his was not merely an egotistical enjoyment. He loved to pass along the good things he picked up. His own pleasure was enhanced by the pleasure he gave others. Yet despite his good-fellowship, Lincoln's innate reserve protected him from undue familiarity. He could unbend and still preserve a simple dignity.
Lincoln's humor, in its unrestraint, its unconventionality, its use of back-country vernacular, its willingness to see things as they were, its shrewd comments in homely, earthy phrase, its frequent contentment with externals, typified the American humor of his time. Two strains—pioneer exaggeration and Yankee laconicism—met in him. In his humor, as in his rise from obscurity to fame and in his simple, democratic faith and thought, he epitomized the American ideal. Page [End Page 47]
- Lincoln's skill as a raconteur may have been to some extent hereditary. "From his father came that knack of story-telling, which has made him so delightful among acquaintances, and so irresistible in his stump and forensic drolleries," wrote William Dean Howells in his campaign biography of Lincoln. And Lincoln, when he corrected a copy of this book for his friend Samuel C. Parks, let the statement stand.
- From his youth Lincoln enjoyed humorous articles and books. In Indiana he and other boys would retire on Sundays to the woods where he would read from a book called Quinn's Jests. In later life he derived much pleasure from J. G. Baldwin's Flush Times in Alabama. Written by a frontier circuit lawyer, its characters and settings similar in many respects to those which Lincoln knew so well in Illinois, this book had a powerful appeal. Lincoln liked especially Baldwin's characterization of Cave Burton who, far from being a liar, "had such great regard for the truth that he spent most of his time embellishing it," and who was so gluttonous that "he was not satisfied that Esau made as foolish a bargain with his brother Jacob as some think. Before committing himself, he should like to taste the pottage, and see some estimate of the net value of the birthright in the beef ... market." Another character was Jonas Sykes, a most valiant man—"a very Samson in a fight, but who, like Samson, preferred to do his fighting with the jaw bone."
- In his description of the troubles of the itinerant showman, Artemus Ward, Browne is at his best. Ward takes his wax "figgers" of the Lord's Supper to Utica, and in the midst of his ballyhoo sees a big burly fellow seize Judas Iscariot by the feet, drag him out on the ground, and commence to pound him lustily. When Ward protests, the fellow demands to know how he had the effrontery to "bring this pussylanermus cuss here," and despite Ward's expostulations that Judas is merely a wax "figger," he continues to belabor him until he bashes in his head, declaring that "Judas Iscarrott can't show hisself in Utiky with impunerty by a darn site."
- David Ross Locke's character, Petroleum V. Nasby, was an indolent, besotted "Dimekrat," who was a continual applicant for a postoffice. "No man," said he, "hez drunk more whiskey than I hev for the party—none hez dun it moar willingly." Through the medium of this character Locke ridiculed Northern fears of negro immigration and equality, draft dodgers, secessionists, Confederate money ("Our pay is irregular, and not jest ez good quality ez cood be wished.") and Copperheads. Nasby's brother, a Democrat, who went to sea in 1849, returns during the war and is amazed to learn that the party of Jefferson and Jackson has come to regard slavery as a blessing, favors its extension into new territories and is attempting to disrupt the Union. "Ef I hed staid at home," says he, "perhaps I mite hev took these changes down, wun at a time, but at wun dose it's to much." Nasby ridicules the dilatory tactics of McClellan whom he likens to a kicking shotgun— "dangerous only to them ez held it." On one occasion Nasby has an interview with Lincoln which he concludes: "Linkin! Goriller! Ape! I hev dun."
- Newell described his own writings as a series of "unpremeditated extravagances." Written in mock-heroic style and characterized by broad exaggerations and absurdities, his humor demands an uproarious reader such as Lincoln. Replete with parodies, quips and puns—such as the veterinarian being called to mend a Colt revolver and the quartermaster who, unable to furnish rations to his men, gave them lead pencils and let them draw their own—the Papers also contain some good satire on disloyalists and office-seekers. ("Though you find me in Washington now, I was born of respectable parents.") There are some well-meant jests at the administration, such as the account of Kerr and his companions catching some chickens and deciding to eat them at once lest the President administer the oath of allegiance and let them go. Lincoln was especially fond of an allegorical poem which compared McClellan to a monkey about to fight a serpent but afraid to do so until he got a longer tail. He kept calling on Jupiter for more tail until he had so much he couldn't move.