Throughout his life, Abraham Lincoln enjoyed humor and he liked a good story. Whether he was telling (or re-telling) a story or listening to others, he would laugh long and out-loud, slapping his knees, sometimes even with tears in his eyes. As a young man, he considered humor a form of entertainment, whether it was a farcical letter to a local newspaper, a full blown “yarn” or just a quick comeback in repartee with his friends. As he grew older, he learned that humor could also be used to make a point more clear to others, to diffuse tension, and to satirize another point of view; although, with a few exceptions, he did not use satire or sarcasm to humiliate another person. He effectively used humor in positive ways as a lawyer pleading his case, as a politician seeking votes, and as a President pressing for policies in which he believed. On the other hand, he seemed to reserve biting sarcasm for those who he thought deserved to be “brought down a notch” as too arrogant, untruthful, uncaring, lazy, or disrespectful.
During Abraham Lincoln’s lifetime, when friends gathered, the entertainment often consisted of someone who would play the piano or other instrument, another might sing popular songs, others would quote poetry and prose, and someone else might tell humorous stories. While Lincoln could not play an instrument, and he certainly could not sing as one friend said his voice “could frighten the angels in church,” Abraham Lincoln loved social gatherings with his friends, he was a popular guest, and was regularly called upon to add his own style of entertainment. Lincoln memorized long poems, passages from the Bible, and quotations from respected literature including Shakespeare soliloquies, which he often shared with other guests. But from the time he was a young man, he was best known for his humorous stories, especially his “yarns” which were tall tales often stretched out and with expressive gestures by Lincoln; and some said his delivery was as funny as the story. In such a social setting, he was a master entertainer and the following are yarns he told, as recalled by friends.
“There was a Governor who was visiting a jail on Christmas Eve, as it was his custom to pardon one or more convicts on that day who he determined had learned their lesson. Each prisoner spent a few moments with the Governor as he asked them to explain why they were in such a place. One by one the men who entered were exceedingly polite, their appearance fussed over to make them look as respectable as possible, every one said they had committed no offence against society, and that they were good men, wrongly confined. The Governor took careful notes of each man. But, when the last prisoner came before the Governor, the man had apparently made no effort to improve his appearance, which was as unkempt as ever seen, stood with a scowl that would make the devil proud, and stared at the Governor. When asked about his crime, the man admitted that he had caused mayhem for no good reason, deserved the punishment, and would likely do it again if given the opportunity. The governor was shocked, as you can imagine. He called in the warden and proclaimed he had never seen such a righteous group of men as those who had first come before him. Then, said the Governor, to see the last man, a man so bad as to make the Governor tremble, his decision on pardons was reached. He could not let that obviously evil man influence the more virtuous men and lead them astray, so the Governor said that the only way to protect the ten ‘innocents’ was to pardon the vile confessed criminal and leave the others in the safe confines of the jail.”
This second example of a yarn is found in the book “Abraham Lincoln, an Uncommon, Common Man” but deserves repeating.
Exhibitions of hot air balloons were popular in the late 1850s and Lincoln loved to tell this story. “There was a hot air balloon show, in the deep south, where many people came, and were willing to pay good money, to witness the spectacle. The balloonist was dressed in beautiful silk robes, had flowing long hair and a great beard, and was certainly a sight to behold. He intended to rise into the sky, tethered to the ground by a long rope, for the amusement of the patrons. However, as he rose from the earth, waving to those below, a gust of wind snapped the tether and, to the horror of the gathered crowd (and certainly the occupant as well), the balloon and its basket, with the poor aerialist trapped inside, floated away. Some-time later, the balloon and its passenger began to float down over a large cotton field being worked by several slaves. Of course, none of the slaves had ever seen a balloon descending, or ascending for that matter, and were justly in awe of the sight. All of them ran from the field in fright except one elderly slave who just watched with sincere interest as the balloon slowly descended and finally landed. The elaborately costumed balloonist with his long hair and beard, and his robes flowing in the wind, stepped out. Reflecting on what he had just seen, the old slave walked up, took off his hat, bowed slightly and said, ‘Mornin, Massa Jesus. How’s your Pa’?”
Lincoln would often start laughing before he finished this and most other yarns because, he said, “I already start thinking about the ending.”
He often joked about his own appearance. He said a woman accosted him on the street saying, “Mr. Lincoln, you are so ugly it spoils my walk”. Lincoln, said “I am sorry madam but there is nothing I can do.” “Yes there is”, she said, “you could stay indoors more.” In telling this joke on other occasions, he would say that woman had told him “It is a shame God made you so ugly.”
Lincoln was no prude and his jokes could occasionally be on the “earthy” side but he always seemed to be mindful of the propriety depending on his audience. Further, although some of the stories might have been risqué, there was none of the vulgarity that we sometimes find in today’s attempts at humorous entertainment.
In addition to simple entertainment, he would often use a yarn or anecdote to further explain a point he was trying to make. He would usually start by saying, “That reminds me of a story” and begin his example. Most of his acquaintances appreciated his wit as part of a policy discussion, but certainly not everyone. Edwin Stanton, a Democrat, who became Lincoln’s second Secretary of War, had little sense of humor and no patience for Lincoln’s stories. Stanton said that he always understood Lincoln’s point without the necessity for another allegory, but Stanton’s objections never deterred the President. Once Lincoln was making the point to Stanton that Union Generals needed to better use their strengths against a deadly enemy, and said: “Mr. Stanton, that reminds me of a story.” As usual, Stanton said he did not want to hear another story, but Lincoln kept on talking anyway, saying: “A farmer was attacked by his neighbor’s dog and he killed the dog with a pitchfork he was carrying. The neighbor demanded to know why the farmer didn’t just hit the dog with the other end of the pitchfork. The farmer said, ‘Well, I would have, if I had been attacked by the other end of your dog”. While Stanton never learned to appreciate Lincoln’s humor, he did, over time, develop sincere respect for the President.
Before the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, a contingent of Senators with close ties to the South, urged President Lincoln to simply abandon federal forts, and other installations such as courthouses, located in the southern states. They believed that if the Union forfeited these properties, the Confederate government might be willing to keep some form of alliance with the rest of the United States. Lincoln argued that the Southern leaders would not be satisfied, that the Union would be in a weaker position after the forfeitures, and the likely result would be permanent break-up of the United States. Lincoln said that he could not permit that outcome.
He said: “I am reminded of a story about a farmer whose daughter was receiving the attention a young man. The younger man was always accompanied by a large dog, so the farmer had some reason to fear the young man and his dog. When the young man, along with his dog, approached the father to express his romantic interest in the daughter, the farmer told the young man that he would consider the matter but that the dog would frighten the daughter. He suggested that most of the dog’s sharp teeth be removed to assuage the father’s concerns for his daughter’s safety. The young man asked the town’s doctor to extract some of the dog’s teeth and file down others; and returned the next day. The farmer agreed that the now near toothless dog was less of a threat than before, but said that the dog’s claws could still frighten the daughter. By now the young man was hopelessly enamored and desperate to begin what he hoped would be a brief courtship and early marriage, so he went back to the town doctor and had the animal’s nails removed from its paws. Running back to the farmer, the young man showed the farmer the impaired dog, with few teeth and only soft paws, and said he now expected the father to be accept the young man as his new son-in-law. Instead, the farmer, now with no fear of the man’s dog, rose up and told him he would never be a part of his family.” Lincoln said; “Would it not be so for the Union, if, like the young man, I give in to all that is asked by the South, and can no longer press our case with vigor.” Like many of Lincoln’s yarns, this one is not original and is actually a variation of an Aesop’s fable about a lion seeking a maiden. When another Congressional delegation later approached Lincoln on the same matter, he told Aesop’s version about the lion, instead of the illustration of the young man and his dog. But, his point was exactly the same!
When another delegation suggested that he should just turn away from the Southern states and let them depart, Lincoln replied that “If you turn your backside to the fire, when it flares up because you are not watching, you will have to sit on the blister.”
Lincoln also found that a bit of humor could diffuse a tense situation. In one instance, he and his Secretary of State, William Seward, were riding in a carriage when the horse bolted and the wheels of the carriage were pulled over rough ground, violently throwing about the driver and his passengers. The driver eventually regained control but not before screaming an extensive (maybe historic) string of curse words; and Secretary Seward also contributed a few choice epithets during the ordeal. As the men gathered their breath, Lincoln said: “Driver are you an Episcopalian?” The driver, at first startled, replied, “No sir, more of a Methodist, if anything.” Lincoln then said, “Interesting, you swear just like Secretary Seward and he is an Episcopalian.”
In another instance, Lincoln visited an observation platform about five miles from Washington DC, that overlooked Fort Stevens, which at the time was being harassed by Confederate forces. Despite polite cautions from senior officers, including a General, Lincoln suddenly climbed a short ladder to better see the rebel lines. With his tall hat an obvious target, bullets started whizzing past the President, and a young Captain grabbed Lincoln’s coat and pulled him back, shouting, “Get down you fool, before you get shot.” Lincoln landed on his haunches, and with other officers looking on horrified at the Captain’s forcefulness, Lincoln rose, dusted himself off and said, “Well, Captain, I have finally met someone who knows how to speak straight to this President.” The others relaxed as Lincoln laughed and shook hands with the Captain. The tension was definitely eased. Interestingly, the Captain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, later became an honored Supreme Court Justice.
While Lincoln enjoyed humor under most circumstances and certainly teased others as part of his give and take among friends, he was very cautious about using humor to embarrass someone. But he was willing to use both humiliation and sarcasm whenever he found himself dealing with arrogance, disrespect, or callousness toward others; and often his targets were lawyers, Generals, and politicians; as in these examples.
Rather than say an opposing lawyer was lying, Lincoln said, “My opponent has such a great regard for the truth that he has spent much of his time embellishing it.”
One day the Postmaster of Washington DC suddenly died and a Congressman ran to Lincoln to inform him. Lincoln knew the postmaster and was shocked and saddened by the news. Before Lincoln could even reply, the Congressman said, “Mr. Lincoln, I would like to take his place.” A disgusted Lincoln said, “Well, Congressman, that will be fine with me, if it is alright with the undertaker.”
Lincoln would also use sarcasm to point out the absurd egos of certain Generals. Of one he said, “The General is the only man I know who can strut sitting down.” As he often did, Lincoln may have “borrowed” that phrase from Secretary of State William Seward, himself a great wit. One of Lincoln’s regular foils was General George McClellan, whose arrogance was legendary, who was notorious for military delays, and who was repeatedly disrespectful to his Commander-in-Chief. Lincoln once sent McClellan this telegram, “General, if you are not going to use your Army, may I borrow it for a while.” Then, after McClellan complained that he could not advance because his horses were “tongue tired”, Lincoln responded with, “Pardon me for asking, General, what have your horses done lately that would tire anything”. McClellan obviously grew tired of Lincoln’s constant press for details of his “progress” and sent this telegram; “Mr. President, today my army captured two cows. What would you have us do with them?” Lincoln, not willing to waste any more time, immediately responded, “General, milk them!” Within days, Lincoln finally replaced McClellan as the Commanding General.
Lincoln biographers do not believe the following example of sarcasm actually occurred, but as he often did, Lincoln placed himself in the story for effect. “A congressman who was also a lawyer, and not very good at either, came to me and asked to be given a federal judgeship. Fortunately, I knew of no vacancy at the time so I was able to truthfully tell him that I could not help him, for that reason. Several days later the Congressman happened upon a scene where a body was pulled from the Washington canal, and saw that it was one of the sitting Federal Judges. He must have ran directly to me because, while panting heavily, he blurted out his request to fill the new vacancy. I told him he was too late because I had already appointed another lawyer,…one who saw the poor judge fall in.”
Lincoln rarely used such harsh forms of sarcasm, even on those who used direct and/or angry attacks on him personally. He once said that “It is better to use a poke, instead of a stab.” Lincoln seemed to have always wanted to leave room for a settlement of any disagreement and tried to not let vicious sarcasm, even when directed at him by others, stand in the way; and he knew that insults and ridicule hurled during political debate would be impediments to future cooperation.
As an example of his more “gentle” satire, he had this exchange with Stephen A. Douglas during a political debate. Douglas, who was very wealthy, was attempting to illustrate his common roots and said that his father had been a fine woodcraftsman and barrel maker (a prized skill in those days). Lincoln countered that, “I concede that my friend Douglas’s father was indeed a fine barrel maker.” And then, looking over at his opponent’s short and rotund figure, continued, “And here stands one of the finest barrels his father ever made!” Douglas laughed too.
Lincoln was also keenly aware that successful governance in a Republic required a dialogue between those with opposing views, and usually some compromise was necessary to effect positive change and/or to prevent irreversible breeches. He found humor to be an effective way to advance the conversations, or sometimes even more importantly to keep a dialogue from collapsing, and he was often able to sway the opposition closer to his position.
Judging from the personal attacks, excesses in sarcasm, and attempts at humiliation which we hear today, many of our current politicians could benefit from the study of Abraham Lincoln’s example.
But, for some of them, that is probably a bridge too far!
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org