Lincoln’s Humor (Article 42)

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!


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Letters Home – A Memorial Day Tribute (Article 41)

Soldiers have been writing home for centuries and some of the most poignant letters ever written are from husbands to their wives on the eve of battle. The Civil War put three million soldiers in harm’s way and their letters home left a remarkable legacy.

Some of the most touching letters were brief notes, hastily written and sometimes poorly spelled, from simple soldiers who wanted to tell their wives that they were loved. The themes in the letters are similar whether written by a Union or Confederate soldier, by an officer or enlisted man, or even if the writer was well educated or not. The letters are quoted as they were written, with spelling and grammar reflective of the times, and, since they speak for the emotions of all soldiers, with one exception, the writer is not identified.

“Dearest Emily,

I do not have much time. Surly some of us will die tomorrow. If God calls me, I am ready to go but will miss you for eternity. I think of your smile and tuch evry day. I hope I am spard and get to see you again. I love you above all others, my dear wife.




God bless you dearest for your kind and encouraging letter. It came like a sunbeam to brighten my pathway. While reading it I forgot my wounds and pain and in thought I was again with my little curly headed pet again. Do you know darling that thoughts of the happy hours spent with you are the kindest ones that seem to chase me in my hour of lonliness. Why is this? What weird enchantment is this which you surround me that scarce do my thoughts wander to my loved ere thay wander to my little tease. But I suppose that is one of your mischiefous pranks. So I will just grin and bear it. I must close, my loving kiss dearest and good night.



“Lovly Mary,

It must be God’s will that my family men fight. My pappys pappy had to fight the Englanders, and my pappy fought Indians and in Mexico. Here I am doing soldering and know I may die but I am not sorry for me but I am only sorry for you. I wish I could help you and the boys. I think about you every day. I don’t even know how long I will be gone before I can see you – to long I think. I love you and mis you.



“To my dearest Camille,

How I miss you. I thought this War would be over quick and I was very wrong. I do not see an end and I despair that I might not see you again. Some of the boys are ready to run but I will not. I pray that God gives me a lifetime at home with you but if He does not, I pray that He gives you comfort. My love is everlasting. Please tell my mother that I love her.



“Dear sweet Molly,

I lernd today that your brother Zach was kild in the fiting at Shilo. I am sorry for him and his. I fear I will be next. The war is the worst you can imagine. I wonder if any of us will come home. If I am kild, you should move down county to live with ma and sister. I hoped to send you more money but there is no pay for a month. I am sorry for the gref  and worry I cause you. I want to tell you that I love you but I can only writ the words. Your loving husband,



This last letter is one that captures the love a soldier held for his wife. However, since historians know the story of the family from other letters between the two, their names are included.

On July 14, 1861, Union Major Sullivan Ballou was stationed near Washington DC and was preparing his regiment to meet Confederate forces in what would become the first significant battle of the Civil War. He was thirty-two years old, was a successful lawyer and was serving in the Rhode Island legislature.  However, as soon as the Confederate states began to seize Federal installations in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, he recognized that war was eminent and volunteered to lead a newly formed unit. When Fort Sumter was fired upon and President Lincoln requested that Northern states assemble sufficient troops to defend Washington DC from an expected attack, Major Ballou said goodbye to his family.  The Capital city was under threat of invasion from Confederate forces massed in Virginia, only about 100 miles away. But, for a while, only minor skirmishes occurred, including Federal seizure of Arlington Virginia, just across the Potomac. In letters home, Major Ballou had told his wife that he welcomed any delay in battle because his soldiers needed time for training.  Finally, after nearly three months, as the two military forces were moving toward a confrontation, Major Ballou wrote this letter to his wife, Sarah.

My very dear Sarah,

The indications are very strong that we will move in a few days-perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing-perfectly willing-to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all those chains to the battlefield. The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And as hard as it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown to honorable manhood around us.

I have, I know but few small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me- perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults and the many pains I caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been. How gladly I would wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you, in the gladdest days, and in the darkest nights. Always, always, and if there is a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead, think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

Your dearest husband,


The next day, Major Ballou led his men to Manassas, Virginia where they engaged the Confederate army at Bull Run Creek. He was mortally wounded early in the battle, and died the following week.

Sarah received his last letter and learned of his death on the same day.

To all of the members of the military, men and women, who gave their lives in service to our country, and to their families left behind whose sacrifice and loss is immeasurable, we should all pause in remembrance and gratitude on this Memorial Day.

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