Abraham Lincoln’s Stories and Humor
The Gilder Lehrman Collection, New York
When Ohio Congressman James Ashley disapproved of a story Abraham Lincoln had just told, the President responded: “Ashley, I have great confidence in you and great respect for you, and I know how sincere you are. But if I couldn’t tell these stories, I would die.” On another occasion the President prefaced a discussion of the draft Emancipation Proclamation by reading aloud from a favorite humorist. In response to the disapproval of some members of his cabinet, Mr. Lincoln said: “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.” 1
The Civil War presented a dark background for Mr. Lincoln’s stories. Ohio journalist David R. Locke, himself one of Mr. Lincoln’s favorite humorists, recalled: “His flow of humor was a sparkling spring gushing out of a rock – the flashing water had a somber background which made it all the brighter. Whenever merriment came over that wonderful countenance it was like a gleam of sunshine upon a cloud – it illuminated, but did not dissipate.” 2 An Indiana Congressman, George W. Julian, recalled that President Lincoln “entered into the enjoyment of his stories with all his heart, and completely lived over again the delight he had experienced in telling them on previous occasions. When he told a particularly good story, and the time came to laugh, he would sometimes throw his left foot across his right knee, and clenching his foot with both hands and bending forward, his whole frame seemed to be convulsed with the effort to give expression to his sensations…I believe his anecdotes were his great solace and safeguard in seasons of severe mental depression.” 3
Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “He knew that the jokes and stories put people off, and he also grew aware over time that he was acquiring a public reputation as a jokester. But he needed ‘these stories – jokes’ jests’ as the ‘the vents of my moods and gloom’; and he assured onlookers that his ‘moods and gloom’ were matters of temperament, not signs of despair. ‘You flaxen men with broad faces are born with cheer, and don’t know a cloud from a star,’ Lincoln explained to the anti-slavery congressman Josiah Grinnell. ‘I am of another temperament.’” 4
Stories and humor were nearly as important to Lincoln as oxygen and water. They were part of his life blood. Humor helped offset his natural sadness. It was literally an escape from the internal and external pressures and events of his life. Journalist Henry Villard noted that Lincoln could find a story “to explain a meaning or enforce a point, the aptness of which was always perfect.” 5 Treasury Secretary Hugh McCullough wrote:
“The habit of story-telling…became part of his nature, and he gave free rein to it, even when the fate of the nation seemed to be trembling in the balance. Some eight or ten days after the first battle of Bull Run, when Washington was utterly demoralized by its result, I called upon him at the White House, in company with a few friends, and was amazed when, referring to something which had been said by one of the company about the battle which was so disastrous to the Union forces, he remarked, in his usual quiet manner, ‘That reminds me of a story,’ which he told in a manner so humorous as to indicate that he was free from care and apprehension. This to me was surprising. I could not then understand how the President could feel like telling a story when Washington was in danger of being captured, and the whole North was dismayed; and I left the White House with the feeling that I had been mistaken in Mr. Lincoln’s character, and that his election might prove to have been a fatal mistake. This feeling was changed from day to day as the war went on; but it was not entirely overcome until I went to Washington in the spring of 1863, and as an officer of the government was permitted to have free intercourse with him. I then perceived that my estimate of him before his election was well grounded, and that he possessed even higher qualities than I had given him credit for; that he was a man of sound judgment, great singleness and tenacity of purpose, and extraordinary sagacity; that story-telling was to him a safety-valve, and that he indulged in it, not only for the pleasure it afforded him, but for a temporary relief from oppressing cares; that the habit had been so cultivated that he could make a story illustrate a sentiment and give point to an argument.” 6
According to McCulloch, “Story-telling with him was something more than a habit. He was so accustomed to it in social life and in the practice of his profession that it became a part of his nature, and so accurate was his recollection, and so great a fund had he at command, that he had always anecdotes and stories to illustrate his arguments and delight those whose tastes were similar to his own; but those who judged from this trait that he had lacked deep feeling, or sound judgment, or a proper sense of the responsibility of his position, had no just appreciation of his character. He possessed all these qualities in an eminent degree.” 7
As President, Mr. Lincoln had a new forum for stories he had been telling and retelling for years. Keith W. Jennison wrote in The Humorous Mr. Lincoln: “Mr. Lincoln’s use of humor changed. During the wilderness years he told jokes and stories without trying to prove anything at all; he told them simply because it was natural for him to do so. After he became a lawyer he found that his wit and his acute sense of the ridiculous were effective courtroom tools. As a politician he handed the weapon of satire as a stiletto or a broadax as the occasion demanded. During the first few months of his Presidency he used humor many times as a roundabout way of saying ‘no.’ As his responsibility grew and became almost unendurable he took to telling jokes again, trying to lessen the tensions in himself and those around him.” 8
Jokes were a weapon in a different war. Stories were an evasive tactic for Mr. Lincoln in dealing with people or topics he preferred to avoid. Henry Clay Whitney related about a self-important individual who called on President Lincoln to give him unsolicited advice. “As soon as he broached his subject, Lincoln interrupted him by the most silly, grotesque and inapplicable anecdote – as far away from the subject of conversation as possible. The visitor was shocked and indignant; he had thoroughly matured a plan to expedite the return of peace and save thousands of human lives, as well as the nation, and had traveled a thousand miles at his own expense to impart it to the President and to make it personally certain that it would be adopted; and then, in that solemn crisis of the nation’s fate, to behold the President assume the role of a clown and turn grotesque somersaults; why, it was worse than Nero fiddling at the conflagration of Rome! The result was that he retired, utterly astounded and discomfited, from the presence of the jester who sat in the presidential chair, and went to one of the secretaries, who was a neighbor, and narrated the incident. But instead of receiving condolence, his neighbor burst into a long and boisterous fit of merriment. The astonished and discomfited patriot exclaimed: ‘Now, you say that Lincoln’s stories always have some object or moral; please tell me what object or moral such an absurd, irrelevant, clownish story could possibly have?’ ‘What object?’ exclaimed the cabinet minister. ‘The most necessary object in the world at that time: to get rid of you and get to his business, and, according to your own story, he did it.” 9
Poet Walt Whitman wrote: “As is well known, story-telling was often with President Lincoln a weapon which he employ’d with great skill. Very often he could not give a point-blank reply or comment-and these indirections, (sometimes funny, but not always so,) were probably the best responses possible. In the gloomiest period of the war, he had a call from a large delegation of bank presidents. In the talk after business was settled, one of the big Dons asked Mr. Lincoln if his confidence in the permanency of the Union was not beginning to be shaken-whereupon the homely President told a little story: “When I was a young man in Illinois,” said he, “I boarded for a time with a deacon of the Presbyterian church. One night I was roused from my sleep by a rap at the door, and I heard the deacon’s voice exclaiming, ‘Arise, Abraham! the day of judgment has come!’ I sprang from my bed and rushed to the window, and saw the stars falling in great showers; but looking back of them in the heavens I saw the grand old constellations, with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places. Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.” 10
President Lincoln also used stories to change the mood of those around him. British journalist William Howard Russell wrote after attending a White House state dinner in 1861 that he “was amused to observe the manner in which Mr. Lincoln used the anecdotes for which he is famous. Where men bred in courts, accustomed to the world, or versed in diplomacy would use some subterfuge, or would make a polite speech, or give a shrug of the shoulders as the means of getting out of an embarrassing position, Mr. Lincoln raises a laugh by some bold west-country anecdote, and moves off in the cloud of merriment produced by this joke.” 11
Longtime friend Joshua Speed recalled being present when a delegation of midwestern leaders called upon President Lincoln: “The committee was composed of able and distinguished men. Senator Lane opened for Indiana, Garrett Davis followed for Kentucky, and other gentlemen for Ohio and Illinois. They all had complaints to make of the conduct of the war in the West. Like the expression in the prayer-book, the Government was doing every thing it ought not to do, and leaving undone every thing it ought to do. The President sat on a revolving chair, looking at every one till they were all done. I never saw him exhibit more tact or talent than he did on this occasion. He said, ‘Now, gentlemen, I am going to make you a curious kind of speech. I announce to you that I am not going to do one single thing that any one of you have asked me to do. But it is due to myself and to you that I should give my reasons.’ He then, from his seat, answered each man, taking them in the order in which they spoke, never forgetting a point that any one had made. When he was done, he rose from his chair and said, ‘Judge List, this reminds me of an anecdote which I heard a son of yours tell in Burlington, Iowa. He was trying to enforce upon his hearers the truth of the old adage that ‘three removes are worse than a fire.’ As an illustration, he gave an account of a family who started from Western Pennsylvania, pretty well off in this world’s goods when they started. But they moved and moved, having less and less every time they moved, till after a while they could carry everything in one wagon. He said that the chickens of the family got so used to being moved, that whenever they saw the wagon sheets brought they laid themselves on their backs and crossed their legs, ready to be tied. Now, gentlemen, if I were to be guided by every committee that comes in at that door, I might just as well cross my hands and let you tie me. Nevertheless, I am glad to see you.’” 12
Mr. Lincoln never claimed to originate his stories. Henry C. Whitney recalled that Judge Samuel “Treat told me that he once lent Lincoln a copy of ‘Joe Miller,’ and Lincoln kept it for a while and evidently learned its entire contents, for he found Lincoln narrating the stories contained therein around the circuit, but very much embellished and changed, evidently by Lincoln himself.” 13 Such stories were internalized and Lincolnized to fit the occasion.”Lincoln always insisted he was a ‘retailer,’ not a ‘wholesaler,’ of the stories that made him famous. “I don’t make the stories mine by telling them,” he modestly maintained. But such confessions did not stop publishers from issuing books like Old Abe’s Jokester and The Humors of Old Abe while he was serving in the White House. Lincoln thus became the first president ever to inspire a joke book poetic justice for a man who listed at least one joke collection among the favorite books of his youth,” wrote Harold Holzer in Civil War Times. “Lincoln’s jesting ultimately did him as much harm as good. Writers twitted him with volumes like Abraham Africanus I, a raw satire accusing him of radical policies on race and tyrannical practices such as arbitrary arrests.” 14
Mr. Lincoln’s stories often fell into predictable categories – rural family life, rural travel, the Bible and clergy, the courtroom, generals and soldier life. Journalist Noah Brooks wrote: “Scripture stories and incidents were also used by Lincoln to illustrate his argument or to enforce a point. Judge E—- had been concerned in a certain secret organization of ‘radical’ Republicans, whose design was to defeat Lincoln’s renomination. When this futile opposition had died out, the judge was pressed by his friends for a profitable office. Lincoln appointed him, and to one who remonstrated against such a display of magnanimity, he replied, ‘Well, I supposed Judge E—-, having been disappointed before, did behave pretty ugly; but that wouldn’t make him any less fit for this place; and I have scriptural authority for appointing him. You remember that when the Lord was on Mount Sinai getting out a commission for Aaron, that same Aaron was at the foot of the mountain making a false god for the people to worship. Yet Aaron got his commission, you know.” 15
Biographer Benjamin Thomas wrote: “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.” 16
Mr. Lincoln was from the beginning of his circuit-riding the light and life of the court,” wrote friend Ward Hill Lamon. “The most trivial circumstance furnished a back-ground for his wit. The following incident, which illustrates his love of a joke, occurred in the early days of our acquaintance. I, being at the time on the infant side of twenty-one, took particularly pleasure in athletic sports. One day when we were attending the circuit court which met at Bloomington, Ill.,I was wrestling near the court house with some one who had challenged me to a trial, and in the scuffle made a large rent in the rear of my trousers. Before I had time to make any change, I was called into court to take up a case. The evidence was finished. I, being the Prosecuting Attorney at the time, got up to address the jury. Having on a somewhat short coat, my misfortune was rather apparent. One of the lawyers, for a joke, started a subscription paper which was passed from one member of the bar to another as they sat by a long table fronting the bench, to buy a pair of pantaloons for Lamon,–’he being,’ the paper said, ‘a poor but worthy young man.’ Several put down their names with some ludicrous subscription, and finally the paper was laid by some one in front of Mr. Lincoln, he being engaged in writing at the time. He quietly glanced over the paper, and, immediately taking up his pen, wrote after his name, ‘I can contribute nothing to the end in view.’” 17
Mr. Lincoln practiced his humorous repertoire in his semi-annual trips around the Eighth Judicial Circuit. Lincoln scholar F. Lauriston Bullard wrote: “Life on the circuit was so ordered that storytelling tournaments were practically ordained for the nights and week ends, as the trial of cases was the order for the intervening days. Into the little country seats the judge and the members of the bar came riding, and in the crowded taverns, with witnesses and local jurymen about them, all hands swapped stories. That Lincoln enjoyed the eminence accorded him as the best spinner of yarns in the state is undeniable. These stories he brought with him to Washington in 1861.” 18
Springfield attorney Milton Hay maintained that “Lincoln heard his stories; jokes, and never forgot them and that the secret of L’s success in this line was in the active – personified telling of them (Lincoln always told his stories, acting a part of them in looks – jestures – acts[.]” William H. Herndon added that “Lincoln and his story were in harmony – were one and identical.” 19 Friend Henry C. Whitney recalled: “In our walks about the little towns where courts were held, he saw ludicrous elements in everything, and could either narrate some story from his storehouse of jokes, else he could improvise one; he saw the ludicrous in an assemblage of fowls, in a man spading his garden, in a clothes-line full of clothes, in a group of boys, in a lot of pigs rooting at a mill door, in a mother duck learning her brood to swim; in anything and everything Lincoln saw some ludicrous incident.” 20
Mr. Lincoln’s incredible memory was central to his story-telling success. One Lincoln client, Herring Chrisman, testified to Mr. Lincoln’s abilities when the Springfield lawyer visited Chicago and exchanged stories one night with another lawyer, Murray McConnell: “Quite a little audience dropped in and they felt inspired to begin. McConnell was a good story-teller, but his repertoire was not unlimited, and Lincoln was familiar with his whole stock in trade, whereas Lincoln could both make and tell stories and nobody could ever anticipate him. On that occasion he acted as master of ceremonies and would call for such a story by name as he wanted McConnell to tell, and after laughing at it as heartily as anybody else, he would without request tell one of his own. He never laughed once at his own story, but would give a slight chuckle to start the laugh and then sober up. The fun ran fast and furious till bedtime, and I don’t think any of the company ever before laughed as much.” 21
Partner William H. Herndon recalled: “In the role of a story-teller I regard Mr. Lincoln as without an equal. His power of mimicry and his manner of recital were unique. His countenance and all his features seemed to take part in the performance. As he neared the pith or point of the story every vestige of seriousness disappeared from his face. His 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 nub of the story – as he called it – came, no one’s laugh was heartier than his.” 22
Lincoln had strong connection to those who shared his love of stories – like David Davis, William Seward, Ward Hill Lamon, and Henry C. Whitney. During the White House years, those included aide John Hay and servants Edward McManus and William Slade. Long-time friend James Speed, who met him through his brother Joshua Speed, said after Mr. Lincoln’s death: “It has been, and still is, often said that he was a common joker, a frivolous jester, wanting in depth and earnestness of character. This is not true. In the depths of his soul there was earnestness as true and pure as ever inspired a human breast. He was fond of a story – joking was a relief to him; he used jokes as Aesop did fables. Wit often hard and harsh; humor is ever allied to kindness. A striking characteristic of the man was this infinite humor; it was an exhaustless as the benevolence in his heart. The generosity of the blind Persian, who gave away his slave to the traveler who needed a guide, is hardly more extravagant than a thousand good deeds that illustrate the large heartedness of Mr. Lincoln; and the laugh under the genial glow of his humor, was as impulsive and certain as the sound from the statute of Memnon under the touch of sunlight. Their joint influence enabled him to smooth many a rough pathway for others, while they lit up many a dark moment in his own eventful life.” 23
“He enjoyed a joke or good story, and possessing an inexhaustible fund of both, they were ever at hand or within reach when occasion required them for his own or the amusement of his friends,” recalled fellow lawyer Thomas W. S. Kidd. He maintained that these stories were the glue that held together his friends: “They certainly attracted to him more friends that stuck to him, whether on the calm or stormy side of life, than any other influence he could use to draw them. They attracted to him the friendships of a class – a numerous class – better known and most appreciated in the circle of their every-day life as honest, industrious, intelligent, although uneducated men and women – the people who possess more of what Suckers call hoss and weekday sense and less book knowledge than any other class of individuals inhabiting that part of the moral vineyard situate, lying and being in the Union, and know as the great State of Illinois.” 24
A fellow lawyer recalled Mr. Lincoln interrupting his Senate campaign to file a motion before a Chancery judge. As Mr. Lincoln strode into the court, fumbling with his hat and the papers it contained, he announced: “May it please your Honor, I am like the Irish sailor, and beg your Honor to excuse me for this hurried interruption.” When the judge asked him to explain the reference, Lincoln responded: “Well, an Irish sailor was overtaken at sea by a heavy storm and he thought he would pray but didn’t know [how], so he went down on his knees and said: ‘Oh, Lord! you know as well as meself that it’s seldom I bodder ye, but if ye will only hear me and save me this time, bedad it will be a long time before I bodder ye again’.” 25
John H Littlefield, who was a law clerk in the Lincoln law office, recalled: “While in the office considering some important case, I have frequently known him to put the book down, and all at once break out: ‘Do you know what this case makes me think of?’ and then he would tell a story. In this way humor would enliven jurisprudence.” 26 Littlefield remembered: “He was very democratic and approachable. Frequently in going along the street he would meet some old friend and start in: ‘By the way, I am just reminded of a story,’ and he would stop in the street and tell the yarn. There was no postponement on account of the weather.” 27 Littlefield observed that Mr. Lincoln’s “practice extended throughout a large circuit, and he was always picking up new stories, which lost nothing by their terse and epigrammatic rendering. Often I have seen him look up from a case into which he was studying, with the remark, ‘This fellow reminds me of such and such a story’ – and the little anecdote always fitted, like a lady’s glove.” 28
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that Lincoln exhibited an “extraordinary ability to convey practical wisdom in the form of humorous tales his listeners could remember and repeat.” 29 Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens recalled that Mr. Lincoln “abounded in anecdotes; he illustrated everything that he was talking or speaking about by an anecdote; his anecdotes were always exceedingly apt and pointed…” 30 Stephens met Mr. Lincoln when he was elected a Congressman in 1846 and took his storytelling skills to Washington the following year. Dr. Samuel Busey, a newly minted physician, remembered the impression that Mr. Lincoln left at Mrs. Spriggs’ boarding house: “When about to tell an anecdote during a meal he would lay down his knife and fork, place his elbows upon the table, rest his face between his hands, and begin with the words ‘that reminds me’, and proceed. Everybody prepared for the explosions sure to follow.” 31 More than a decade earlier, he had captivated members of the Illinois State Legislature, then meeting in Vandalia. Friend Abner Y. Ellis recalled that “he had a great Many Who liked to listen to them and See and hear him, Laugh and those Storys at that time first Made his Company desireable by a great Many Young Members…” 32
“Mr. Lincoln wasn’t a story teller in the sense that people tell stories for the thing in the story,” recalled James S. Ewing of his Bloomington boyhood. “I doubt if he ever told a story just because it was a story. If he told an anecdote it was to illustrate or make more clear some point he wanted to impress. He had a marvelous aptitude for that – to illustrate the idea he wanted to convey. He was a wonderful observer, and he had rare ability to remember what he had seen and heard and read, so as to apply such information to the point of anything that struck him as ludicrous. But he never swapped stories. I never heard him tell a story or heard of him telling a story unless it was to illustrate something. He applied this wonderful gift of observation and appreciation of humor to a situation or to something which somebody had said.” 33 Judge Owen T. Reeves agreed: “I heard Lincoln tell hundreds of anecdotes and stories, but never one that was not told to illustrate or give point to some subject or question that had been the theme of conversation, or that was not suggested by an anecdote or story told by someone else.” 34
Friend Joseph Ellis wrote that Mr. Lincoln “used his stories as much for producing conviction in the minds of his hearers as for creating merriment.” 35 Journalist Noah Brooks wrote that Mr. Lincoln “never told a story for the sake of the telling; the tale came into his mind as an apt illustration of what was at that moment under discussion. Thus the cry for reinforcements that came from a Union general whose whereabouts had been anxiously debated, reminded him of an Illinois woman who, when she heard the wail of one of her offspring in the underbrush near her cabin, thanked God that there was ‘one who wasn’t dead yet.’ And when Hood’s Army in Tennessee was destroyed by Thomas, in December, 1864, the President told this story, which has since often been related: A certain rough, rude, and bullying man in our county had a bull-dog, which was as rude, rough, and bullying as his master. Dog and man were the terror of the neighborhood. Nobody dared to touch either for fear of the other. But a crafty neighbor laid a plan to dispose of the dog. Seeing Slocum and his dog plodding along the road one day, the dog a little ahead, this neighbor, who was prepared for the occasion, took from his pocket a junk of meat in which he had concealed a big charge of powder, to which was fastened a deadwood slow-match. This he lighted, and then threw into the road. The dog gave one gulp at it, and the whole thing disappeared down his throat. The trotted on a few steps, when there was a sort of smothered roar, and the dog blew up in fragments, a fore-quarter being lodged in a neighboring tree, a hind-quarter on the roof of a cabin, and the rest scattered along the dusty road. Slocum came up and viewed the remains. Then, more in sorrow than in anger, he said, “Bill was a good dog; but as a dog, I reckon his usefulness is over.”‘ The President added, with a twinkle of his eye, ‘Hood’s Army was a good army. We have been very much afraid of it. But as an army, I reckon its usefulness is gone.’” 36
Lincoln authority Mort Lewis wrote: “Lincoln’s wit, during his earlier years, smacked of the club or broadsword. Later it generally had the homeliness and often the sharpness of an old-fashioned straight-edged razor.” 37 Lincoln scholar Keith W. Jennison wrote: “During the wilderness years he told jokes and stories without trying to prove anything at all; he told them simply because it was natural for him to do so. After he became a lawyer he found that his wit and his acute sense of the ridiculous were effective courtroom tools. As a politician he handled the weapon of satire as a stiletto or a broadax as the occasion demanded.” 39 Mort Lewis wrote that the “classic Lincoln story” was “pithy, pointed and paints a picture; it’s brief, earthy, drawn from a background with which Lincoln was personally familiar; it’s easily understood; and it had a moral.” He noted that “Lincoln did have a talent for turning stories; that is, he could make what appeared to be a brand-new story out of an old one by taking the nucleus of a joke he had read or heard and changing its externals. Clothing an elderly jest in fresh raiment, he gave it the appearance of youth.” 40
Lewis wrote that Lincoln’s stories “depended for their effect not only on the story, but on the delivery. Lincoln was a master in the art of telling a joke. He had a gift for mimicry, a mobile face which could assume comic expression, and what any first-rate storyteller has: a split-second sense of timing, the knowledge of exactly how and when to deliver the punch line.” 41 Lincoln biographer Benjamin Thomas maintained: “Much of Lincoln’s success as a story-teller was due to a talent for mimicry. ‘In the role 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.’” 42
Ward Hill Lamon wrote: “Anthony J. Bleeker tells his experience in applying for a position under Mr. Lincoln. He was introduced by Mr. Preston King, and made his application verbally, handing the President his vouchers. The President requested him to read them, which he commenced to do. Before Mr. Bleeker had got half through with the documents, the President cried out, ‘Oh, stop! You are like the man who killed the dog.’ Not feeling particularly flattered by the comparison, Mr. Bleeker inquired, ‘In what respect?’ Mr. Lincoln replied, ‘He had a vicious animal which he determined to dispatch, and accordingly knocked out his brains with a club. He continued striking the dog until a friend stayed his hand, exclaiming, ‘You needn’t strike him any more, the dog is dead; you killed him at the first blow.’ ‘Oh, yes, said he, ‘I know that; but I believe in punishment after death.’ So, I see you do.’” 43
Friend Joseph Gillespie recalled: “When Mr. Lincoln was about I never knew a man who would pretend to vie with him in entertaining a crowd. He had an unfailing budget of genuinely witty and humerous [sic] anecdotes with which he illustrated every topic which could arise[.] The application was always perfect and his manner of telling a story was inimitable although there was no acting in his manner for he was not in the least degree histrionick[.] He never invented any of his stories but simply retained them but how he could gather up such a boundless supply and have them ever ready at command was the wonder of his acquaintences [sic]. It might seem that this faculty would detract from his dignity but it did not[.]” 44
Young Lincoln aide John Hay wrote that in the White House, President Lincoln “frequently passed the evening [in his office] with a few friends in frank and free conversation. If the company was all of one sort, he was at his best; his wit and rich humor had free play; he was once more the Lincoln of the Eighth Circuit, the cheeriest of talkers, the riskiest of story tellers; but if a stranger came in, he put on in an instant his whole armor of dignity and reserve.” 45 A typical story told during his Presidency reflected on his critics: “A frontiersman lost his way in an uninhabited region on a dark and tempestuous night. The rain fell in torrents, accompanied by terrible thunder and more terrific lightning. To increase his trouble his horse halted, being exhausted with fatigue and fright. Presently a bolt of lightning struck a neighboring tree, and the crash brought the man to his knees. He was not an expert in prayer, but his appeal was short and to the point: ‘Oh, good Lord, if it is all the same to you, give us a little more light, and a little less noise.” 46
Illinois Superintendent of Public Instruction Newton Bateman recalled that Mr. Lincoln “knew how to select and arrange the material, what to put in the fore-ground, what in the background, what to set up as the central figure, and how to make all converge towards the final climax. He knew how to whet curiosity just enough to hold the attention of all to the end, without giving the least clue as to the nature of the final explosion; and he especially excelled in that supreme generalship which enables an accomplished story-teller to keep his reserves out of sight till the opportune moment…” 47 The Rev. Phineas Gurley, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Washington where President Lincoln worshiped, recalled being present when a Cabinet member asked President Lincoln what was “the proper manner of telling a story. How is it yours are so interesting?” Mr. Lincoln replied that “there are two ways of relating a story. If you have an auditor who has the time, and is inclined to listen, lengthen it out, pour it out slowly as if from a jug. If you have a poor listener, hasten it, shorten it, shoot it out of a pop-gun.” 48
Illinois railroad engineer Richard Price Morgan recalled a story that Mr. Lincoln told him while the two stayed in a Bloomington rooming house: “Speaking of the relative merits of New England rum and corn juice, as he called it, to illustrate the human mind, he told me this story of John Moore, who resided south of Blooming Grove, and subsequently became State Treasurer: Mr. Moore came to Bloomington one Saturday in a cart drawn by a fine pair of young red steers. For some reason he was a little late starting home, and besides his brown jug, he otherwise had a good loan on. In passing through the grove that night, one wheel of his cart struck a stump or root and threw the pole out of the ring of the yoke. The steers, finding themselves free, ran away, and left John Moore sound asleep in his cart, where he remained all night. Early in the morning he roused himself, and looking over the side of the cart and around in the woods, he said: ‘If my name is John Moore, I’ve lost a pair of steers; if my name ain’t John Moore, I’ve found a cart.’ After a good laugh together, Lincoln said: ‘Morgan, if you ever tell this story, you must add that Moore told it on himself.’” 49
Stories and humor changed Mr. Lincoln’s physiognomy as well as his mental state. James Grant Wilson, who was later a general in the Civil War, recalled meeting Mr. Lincoln in his law office in 1858. Wilson wrote that “his gray-ish-brown eyes were perhaps the saddest I ever saw. However, when a good story was told, whether by himself or another, his homely face lighted up till he was positively handsome.” 50 A young man who came to Mr. Lincoln’s office for legal services reported: “As he rose from his chair he seemed to undouble like a pocket rule, his legs and arms disproportionately long, his hair disheveled, his clothing seedy, and his general appearance quite unpreposessing. But he had not talked to me ten minutes in his quiet, sympathetic way before I thought him about the handsomest man I had ever seen.” 51 There still was an innate dignity about the man. “Nothing can be more absurd than to picture Lincoln as a combination of buffoon and drummer,” recalled Frederick Trevor Hill. ” He was frequently the life of our little company, keeping us good-natured, making us see the funny side of things and generally entertaining us; but to create the impression that the circuit was a circus of which Lincoln was the clown is ridiculous.” 52
Mr. Lincoln sometimes injected humor into his campaign speeches in the 1830s and 1840s. Friend Philip Clark remember that in Mr. Lincoln’s congressional campaign against Peter Cartwright in 1846, Mr. Lincoln “asked Cartwright if General [Andrew] Jackson did right in the removal – I believe it was – of the bank deposits. Cartwright evaded the question and gave a very indefinite answer. Lincoln remarked that Cartwright reminded him of a hunter he once knew who recognized the fact that in summer the deer were red and in winter gray, and at one season therefore a deer might resemble a calf. The hunter had brought down one at long range when it was hard to see the difference, and boasting of his own marksmanship had said: ‘I shot at it so as to hit it if it was a deer and miss it if it was a calf.’ This convulsed the audience, and carried them with Lincoln.” 53
By the 1850s, Mr. Lincoln generally did so without such stories. Logic and facts were increasingly central to his political rhetoric. Henry Clay Whitney wrote that “it is a singular fact that Lincoln very rarely told stories in his speeches. In both his forensic and political speeches, he got down to serious business, and threw aside the mask of Momus altogether. I never heard him narrate but one story in a speech, which was this: ‘A man on foot, with his clothes in a bundle, coming to a running stream which he must ford, made elaborate preparations by stripping off his garments, adding them to his bundle, and, tying all to the top of a stick, which enabled him to raise the bundle high above his head to keep them dry during the crossing. He fearlessly waded in and carefully made his way across the rippling stream, and found it in no place up to his ankles.” 54
But stories were still a staple of personal intercourse. Aide John Hay recalled a story which others remembered as well: “One night, when [Ambrose] Burnside was at Knoxville, and [James] Longstreet had gone from Chattanooga to capture or destroy him, a dispatch came from [Union General John Gray] Foster, at Cumberland Gap, saying, ‘Scouts just in report hearing firing in the direction of Knoxville.’ I took it to the President. He read it, and said, ‘That is good.’ I expressed my surprise at his taking so cheerful a view of Burnside’s deadly danger. He said, ‘I had a neighbor out West, a Sally Taggart, who had a great many unruly children whom she did not take very good care of. Whenever she heard one squall in some out-of-the-way place, she would say, “Well, thank Goodness, there’s one of my young ones not dead yet!” As long as we hear guns, Burnside is not captured.’” 55
Artist Francis B. Carpenter recalled, “Attorney-General Bates was once remonstrating with the President against the appointment to a judicial position of considerable importance of a western man, who, though once on the ‘bench,’ was of indifferent reputation as a lawyer.
‘Well now, Judge,’ returned Mr. Lincoln, ‘I think you are rather too hard on ___. Besides that, I must tell you, he did me a good turn long ago. When I took to the law, I was going to court one morning, with some ten or twelve miles of bad road before me, when ___ overtook me in his wagon. ‘Hallo, Lincoln!’ said he; ‘going to the court-house? Come in and I will give you a seat.’ Well, I got in, and ____ went on reading his papers. Presenting the wagon struck a stump on one side of the road; then it hopped off tot he other. I looked out and saw the driver was jerking from side to side in his seat; so said I, ‘Judge, I think your coachman has been taking a drop too much this morning.’ ‘Well, I declare,’ Lincoln,’ said he, ‘I should not much wonder if you are right, for he has nearly upset me half-a-dozen times since starting.’ So, putting his head out of the window, he shouted, ‘Why, you infernal scoundrel, you are drunk!’ Upon which, pulling up his horses and turning round with great gravity, the coachman said: ‘Bedad! But that’s the first rightful decision your honor has given for the last twelve months’ 56
Sad stories were a critical outlet for the perpetually stressed President. Writer Norman Cousins, who himself once laughed his way back from a serious illness, observed: “What seems clear is that the greater the weight of his Presidency, the greater was the need for release. Laughter to him was not merely a random physical response to humor but a physiological reality that was essential for restoration and rejuvenation.” 57
Mr. Lincoln enjoyed hearing as well as telling good stories. Noah Brooks recalled: “Anything that savored of the wit and humor of the soldiers was especially welcome to Lincoln. His fondness for good stories is a well-accepted tradition, but any incident that showed that ‘the boys’ were mirthful and jolly in all their privations seemed to commend itself to him. He used to say that the grim grotesqueness and extravagance of American humor were its most striking characteristics. There was a story of a soldier in the Army of Potomac, carried to the rear of battle with both legs shot off, who seeing a pie-woman hovering about, asked, ‘Say, old lady, are them pies sewed or pegged?’ And there was another one of a soldier at the battle of Chancellorsville, whose regiment, waiting to be called in the fight, was taking coffee. The hero of the story put to his lips a crockery mug which he had carried, with infinite care, through several campaigns. A stray bullet, just missing the coffee-drinker’s head, dashed the mug into fragments, and left only its handle on his finger. Turning his face in that direction, the soldier angrily growled, ‘Johnny, you can’t do that again!’ Lincoln, relating these two stories together, said, ‘It seems as if neither death nor danger could quench the grim humor of the American soldier.’” 58
One of General Ulysses S. Grant’s aides recalled President Lincoln’s visit to the front near Richmond in 1864. Horace Porter wrote: “Upon the return trip on the boat, the President seemed to recover his spirits. Perhaps the manifestation of strength on the part of the splendid Army of the James which he had witnessed at the review had served to cheer him up. He told one excellent story on the way back. In speaking of a prominent general, and the failure of the numerous attempts on the President’s part to make the officer’s services useful to the country, and the necessity finally of relieving him from all command, he said: ‘I was not more successful than the blacksmith in our town, in my boyhood days, when he tried to put to a useful purpose a big piece of wrought iron that was in the shop. He heated it, put it on the anvil, and said: ‘I’m going to make a sledge-hammer out of you.’ After a while he stopped hammering it, looked at it, and remarked: ‘Guess I’ve drawed you out a little too fine for a sledge-hammer; reckon I’d better make a clevis of you.’ He stuck it in the fire, blew the bellows, got up a good heat, then began shaping the iron again on the anvil. Pretty soon he stopped, sized it up with his eye, and said: ‘Guess I’ve drawn you out too thin for a clevis; suppose I better make a clevis-bolt of you.’ He put it in the fire, bore down still harder on the bellows, drew out the iron, and went to work at it once more on the anvil. In a few minutes he stopped, took a look, and exclaimed: ‘Well, now I’ve got you down a leetle too thin even to make a clevis-bolt out of you. Then he rammed it in the fire again, threw his whole weight on the bellows, got up a white heat on the iron, jerked it out, carried it in the tongs to the water-barrel, held it over the barrel, and cried: ‘I’ve tried to make a sledge-hammer of you, and failed; “I’ve tried to make a clevis of you, and failed; I’ve tried to make a clevis-bolt of you, and failed; now, darn you, I’m going to make a fizzle of you’; and with that he soused it in the water and let it fizz.’” 59
Journalist Sylvanus Cadwallader recalled the President’s first visit to Grant at City in June 1864: “On June 21st about one o’clock p.m., a long, gaunt bony looking man with a queer admixture of the comical and the doleful in his countenance that reminded one of a professional undertaker cracking a dry joke, undertook to reach the general’s tent by scrambling through a hedge and coming in alone. He was stopped by a hostler and told to ‘keep out of here.’ The man in black replied that he thought Gen. Grant would allow him inside. The guard finally called out: ‘No sanitary folks allowed inside.’ After some parleying the man was obliged to give his name, and said he was Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, seeking an interview with Gen. Grant! The guard saluted, and allowed him to pass. Grant recognized him as he stepped under the large ‘fly’ in front of his tent, rose and shook hands with him cordially, and then introduced him to such members of the staff as were present and unacquainted.” 60
Cadwallader recalled that when President Lincoln visited City Point, each morning, “Mr. Lincoln would go directly to the Adjutant’s Office to hear all the news from the front which had been received during the night; and would often have long conferences with Gen. Grant and others concerning prospective operations. When these subjects had been exhausted the chat would take another turn, and Mr. Lincoln’s propensity for story telling would be given free-play, and be encouraged to the utmost. His faculty in this way was absolutely marvelous. It has never been exaggerated, and never can be. He abounded in apt illustrations, and his stories were side-splitting. He would occasionally join as heartily as any one else in the laughter his stories provoked; and enjoyed these seasons of relaxations in a way that was charming to all who were present.” 61
Even when opponents tried to damage Mr. Lincoln politically by criticizing his fondness for stories, the stories worked to his advantage. Lincoln biographer William E. Barton wrote: “In February, 1864, just after the popular demand for his renomination began to develop, the New York ‘Evening Post’ published some two columns of Lincoln’s stories. The New York ‘Herald’ jeered at the collection as the ‘first electioneering document’ of the campaign, and reprinted them as a proof of the unfitness of Lincoln for the presidency. But jeer as it would, the ‘Herald’ could not hide from its readers the wit and the philosophy of the jokes. Every one of them had been used to explain a point or to settle a question, and under their laughter was concealed some of the man’s soundest reasoning. Indeed, at that very moment the ‘Herald’ might have seen, if it had been more discerning, that it was a Lincoln saying going up and down the country that was serving as one of the strongest arguments for his renomination, the remark that it is never best to swap horses in crossing a stream. Lincoln had used it in speaking of the danger of changing Presidents in the middle of the war. He might have written a long message on the value of experience in a national crisis, and it would have been meaningless to the masses; but this homely figure on swapping horses in the middle of the stream appealed to their humor and their common sense.” 62
A few days before he died, Mr. Lincoln visited Richmond. Debris in the James River forced some of the boats to drop out. He said it reminded him of a story about “a fellow [who] once came to ask for an appointment as a minister abroad. Finding he could not get that, he came down to some more modest position. Finally he asked to made a tide-waiter. When he saw he could not get that, he asked for an old pair of trousers. It is well to be humble.” Mr. Lincoln himself used stories to poke fun at himself. When he stopped at Columbus on the way to Washington in 1861, President-elect Lincoln remarked: “Two friends of mine in Illinois were talking about me. One said, ‘Mr. Lincoln is a self-made man, isn’t he?’ to which the other said, ‘Yes, but I didn’t know that he ever took much pains about it.” 63
Historian Benjamin Thomas wrote: “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.” 64
Scholar Lois Einhorn wrote: “Lincoln’s pragmatic attitude toward life and speaking and his need to be understood – to reach the people — help explain the homespun nature of his humor. Reflecting the Western frontier, his stories were colloquial, concrete, colorful, and occasionally off-color. They included commonplace details, vivid imagery, frontier vernacular, and short, straightforward sentences that sometimes deviated from the formal rules of grammar. The simplicity of his stories made them easier to digest. They usually employed analogical logic and sometimes used the techniques of exaggeration, distortion, and caricature often associated with the ‘tall tales’ of the West. Few of his stories were uproariously funny; they sought to make listeners smile while understanding a serious point.” 65
Longtime friend Ward Hill Lamon wrote: “No one knew better than Mr. Lincoln that genuine humor is ‘a plaster that heals many a wound;’ and certainly no man ever had a larger stock of that healing balm or knew better how to use it. His old friend I. N. Arnold once remarked that Lincoln’s laugh had been his ‘life-preserver.’ Wit, with that illustrious man, was a jewel whose mirth-moving flashes he could no more repress than the diamond can extinguish its own brilliancy. In no sense was he vain of his superb ability as a wit and story-teller.” 66
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, (George W. Julian), p. 54.
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- Allan Nevins and Irving Stone, editors, Lincoln: A Contemporary Portrait,(Mort Lewis, “Lincoln’s Humor”) , p. 165.
- Allan Nevins and Irving Stone, editors, Lincoln: A Contemporary Portrait,(Mort Lewis, “Lincoln’s Humor”) , p. 173.
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- Benjamin P. Thomas, editor, Three Years with Grant as Recalled by War Correspondent Sylvanus Cadwallader,
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