Abraham Lincoln was the only president who was both a humorist and a literary artist. Lincoln's funny stories not only entertained people; they also helped him make important points. Lincoln was utterly without malice, but he was the most vilified of all our presidents. His sense of humor, however, as well as his deep devotion to democratic ideals, led him to respond to personal attacks with tolerance and magnanimity. And he enshrined his democratic faith in some of the most beautiful English prose ever written.
Abraham Lincoln was the first humorist to occupy the White House. It's been said that he could make a cat laugh! "It was as a humorist that he towered above all other men it was ever my lot to meet,'" said another friend from Lincoln's youth. H.C. Whitney, a lawyer who rode the circuit with Lincoln in Illinois, was struck by Lincoln's keen sense of the absurd: "He saw the ludicrous in an assemblage of fowls, in a man spading his garden, in a clothesline full of clothes, in a group of boys, in a lot of pigs rooting at a mill door, in a mother duck teaching her brood to swim- in everything and anything." During the Civil War, London's Saturday Review told its readers: "One advantage the Americans have is the possession of a President who is not only the First Magistrate, but the Chief Joker of the Land." By the middle of 1863, several joke books—with titles like Old Abe's Jokes, Abe's Jokes—Fresh from Abraham's Bosom, and Old Abe"s Jokes, or, Wit at the White House—were circulating in the North and spreading Lincoln stories, many of them spurious, far and wide, and there have been collections of Lincoln anecdotes in print ever since.
Humor was unquestionably a psychological necessity for Lincoln, though, being a serious, not a solemn, man, he wouldn't have put it quite that way. He once called laughter "the joyous, beautiful, universal evergreen of life." He enjoyed droll stories the way some people enjoy detective stories. But both as a lawyer and as a politician, he also found amusing stories enormously helpful in putting across important points he wanted to make. And as president, he used his gift as a storyteller to put people at ease, to win them over to his point of view, or simply to get them off the point and out of his office without having to deny their requests in so many words. Humor, he once said, was "an emollient" that "saves me much friction and distress." A group of people who had gone to the White House seeking government jobs reported resignedly afterward that "the President treated us to four anecdotes." But humor was also important for Lincoln during the Civil War as a means of relaxing, getting away from his troubles for a moment, and refreshing his spirit. Once, when a congressman came to see him complaining about something, Lincoln said, "Well, that reminds me of a story." Outraged, the congressman told him he had not come to the White House to hear a joke. "Now, you sit down!" exclaimed Lincoln. "If I couldn't tell these stories, I would die." On another occasion, Ohio's Senator Benjamin Wade called to demand that General Grant, who was not doing very well before Vicksburg at the time, be fired at once. "Senator," said Lincoln, "that reminds me of a story." "Yes, yes," said Wade impatiently, "that is the way it is with you, Sir, all story, story! You are the father of every military blunder that has been made during the war. You are on the road to hell. Sir, with this government, by your obstinacy, and you are not a mile off this minute!" "Senator," said Lincoln gently, "that is just about the distance from here to the Capitol, is it not?"
Lincoln's taste in jokes ran all the way from the lowly pun to the satirical anecdote. Like all lovers of the English language, he took keen pleasure in plays upon words. Once he was looking out of the window of his law office in Springfield, Illinois, and saw a stately matron, wearing a many-plumed hat, picking her way gingerly across the muddy street. Suddenly she slipped and fell. "Reminds me of a duck," said Lincoln. "Why is that?" asked a friend. "Feathers on her head and down on her behind," said Lincoln. On another occasion, he was taking a walk in Washington with his secretary of state, William H. Seward, and they passed a store with the proprietor's name, T.R. Strong, in bold letters on a sign in front of the store. "T.R. Strong," said Lincoln, "but coffee are stronger." Seward smiled but made no reply. "We don't see how he could reply after so atrocious a thing as that," commented the newspaper which reported the story.
But Lincoln's humor ordinarily rose above the level of puns. He particularly enjoyed teasing solemn people. When a temperance committee called to tell him that Union defeats were "the curse of the Lord" on a drunken army, Lincoln (who was a teetotaler) could not resist saying that it was "rather unfair on the part of the curse, as the other side drank more and worse whiskey than ours did." He treated some Chicago ministers who came to give him advice the same way. When they told him they had come to deliver "a message to you from our Divine Master" about his slavery policy. Lincoln said it was "odd that the only channel he could send it by was the roundabout route of that awful wicked city of Chicago!" He had some fun, too, with a pompous Austrian count who wanted to obtain a position in the Union army. In making his request, the Austrian harped on the fact that his family was ancient and honorable and that he bore the title of count. With a twinkle in his eye, Lincoln finally patted him on the shoulder and said, "Never mind, you shall be treated with just as much consideration for all that. I will see to it that your bearing a title shan't hurt you."
Lincoln's humor was not always gentle. Sometimes he used it to point up a blunt truth. Asked once how large the Confederate army was, he said, "About 1,200,000 men," and when his questioner expressed amazement, Lincoln explained: "Well, whenever one of our generals is licked, he says he was outnumbered three or four to one, and we have 400,000 men." He also could not help making wry remarks about General George B. McClellan, whose extreme caution in pushing military campaigns drove Lincoln almost crazy. Once, when a man from a Northern city asked him for a pass to Richmond, Lincoln exclaimed: "My dear sir, if I should give you one, it would do you no good. You may think it very strange, but there are a lot of fellows who either can't read or are prejudiced against every man who takes a pass from me. I have given McClellan, and more than 200,000 others, passes to Richmond, and not one of them has gotten there!" A little later, greatly irked by McClellan's inactivity, he wrote: "Dear General, if you do not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a few days." Lincoln gave as good as he got, too, when he felt like it. When McClellan, irritated by one of Lincoln's orders requiring detailed reports to the White House, sent him a telegram saying, "We have just captured six cows. What shall we do with them?" Lincoln answered: "Milk them."
Sometimes Lincoln's humor had satirical and ironic overtones. When he was in Congress, 1847-1849, he opposed the Mexican War, and in one speech, he said that people who denied that it was a war of aggression reminded him of the Illinois farmer who said, "I ain't greedy 'bout land. I only want what jines mine," "Young America," he said in another speech, "is very anxious to fight for the liberation of enslaved nations and colonies, provided they always have land. As to those who have no land and would be glad of help, he considers they can wait a few hundred years longer." He once told of a congressman who had opposed the War of 1812 and come under heavy attack and who, when asked to oppose the Mexican War, exclaimed: "I opposed one war; that was enough for me. I am now perpetually in favor of war, pestilence, and famine." And he liked to tell people about the old loafer who said to him, "I feel patriotic," and when asked what he meant, cried, "Why, I feel like I want to kill somebody or steal something!" A Toledo reporter who interviewed Lincoln at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates decided he was "a master of satire, which was at times as blunt as a meat-ax, and at others as keen as a razor." Once a senator came to the White House, furious about what he regarded as an unfair distribution of patronage, and he let loose a flood of profanity on Lincoln. When he had finished, Lincoln said calmly, "You are an Episcopalian, aren't you, Senator?" "Yes. sir, I belong to that church." "I thought so," said Lincoln. "You Episcopalians all swear alike. But [Secretary of War] Stanton is a Presbyterian. You ought to hear him swear!" Lincoln, who rarely used intemperate language, was frequently criticized for not being a church member, and he was doubtless amused at hearing profanity from the orthodox.
Lincoln laughed at himself as well as at other people. When Senator Stephen A. Douglas called him a "two-faced man," Lincoln said: "I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?" He joked about his homely looks again when he spoke to a convention of newspaper editors in Bloomington, Illinois. Pointing out that he was not an editor and therefore felt out of place at the meeting, he said: "I feel like I once did when I met a woman riding on horseback in the woods. As I stopped to let her pass, she also stopped and looked at me intently and said, 'I do believe you are the ugliest man I ever saw,' Said I, 'Madam, you are probably right, but I can't help it.' 'No,' said she, 'you can't help it, but you might stay at home.' "Lincoln also enjoyed telling about the grouchy old Democrat who walked up to him and said. "They say you're a self-made man," and when Lincoln nodded, he snapped, "well, all I've got to say is that it was a damned bad job."
Lincoln became known as "the National Joker," but he was far more than the Chief Joker of the land. As president, he showed himself to be shrewd, serious, selfless, dedicated, strong-willed, resourceful, compassionate, and extraordinarily magnanimous. The burdens he bore during the Civil War were far heavier than those of most American presidents, and he undertook his responsibilities with remarkable patience and determination. Though his critics could not always see it, he remained steadfastly true throughout the war to his basic objectives: restoration of the Union (which he regarded as a magnificent experiment in government of, by, and for the people) and the abolition of slavery (which he regarded as utterly incompatible with democracy). He was anxious to get the very best men, civilian and military, he could find to help him in realizing these objectives, and he did not mind if they personally held him in contempt. When someone told him that his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, had called him a damned fool, he said lightly." If Stanton said I was a damned fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right and generally says what he means." Stanton came to hold Lincoln in high esteem. But others never did. They found it hard to understand that in pursuing his objectives—preserving the Union and emancipating the slaves- Lincoln had to proceed cautiously to avoid alienating the border slave states (and driving them to secession) and keep from offending Northern public opinion (which was by no means sympathetic to abolitionism at first). He also thought it important to synchronize his policies with progress on the battlefield (which came slowly at first) if he was to avoid making futile and perhaps even counterproductive gestures.
No president of the United States has been vilified [until #45] the way Lincoln was during the Civil War. He was attacked on all sides: by abolitionists, Negrophobes, state righters, strict constitutionalists, radicals, conservatives, armchair strategists, and by people who just did not like his looks or who resented his storytelling. From the day of his inauguration to the day of his assassination, the litany of invective was unrelenting. Among other things, Lincoln was called: an ape; a baboon; a buffoon; a low-level obscene clown; a usurper; a traitor; a tyrant; an old monster; the Great Apotheosis of the Great Hog; Fox Populi; a cross between a sand-hill crane and an Andalusian jackass; Abraham Africanus the First; a smutty joker; a third-rate country lawyer; an African gorilla; an abortion; an idiot; Simple Susan; the Abolition orangutan; the incompetent, ignorant, and desperate "Honest Abe"; a border-state eunuch; a narrow-minded bigot; an unprincipled demagogue; a driveling, idiotic, imbecilic creature; a third-rate district politician; a lunatic; a despot; a dangerous character; the ineffable despot; a blunderer; a charlatan; a temporizer; a man who jokes when the nation mourns; a crude, illiterate, bar-room willing; an unblushingly corrupt bully; and a half-witted usurper (a person who takes a position of power or importance illegally or by force). One New York newspaper regularly referred to him as "that hideous baboon at the other end of the avenue" and said that "Barnum should buy and exhibit him as a zoological curiosity." The Illinois State Register called him "the craftiest and most dishonest politician that ever disgraced an office in America." "Honest Abe, forsooth!" sneered one editor. "Honest Iago! Benignant Nero! Faithful Iscariot!" Even his hometown newspaper joined the chorus: "How the greatest butchers of antiquity sink into insignificance when their crimes are contrasted with those of Abraham Lincoln!" No wonder Lincoln said, when asked how it felt to be president, "You have heard about the man tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail? A man in the crowd asked how he liked it, and his reply was that if it wasn't for the honor of the thing, he would much rather walk." But Lincoln was not thinking of the abuse heaped on him when he said this. He was thinking of the terrible loss of life on the battlefield and the heartbreakingly slow progress being made toward achieving his objectives. He had enjoyed politics immensely before he became president, and he had been eager, too, to hold the highest office in the land. But in the White House, he said, instead of glory, he found only "ashes and blood."
Humor lightened the cares of office for Lincoln. So did the theater. He had a special fondness for Shakespeare, and he experienced exquisite pleasure one evening at seeing the veteran actor, James Hackett, perform the role of Falstaff in a Washington theater. He was so delighted with the performance that he wrote a letter of congratulation afterward. Hackett flattered by the attention paid him by the president of the United States, turned the letter over to the New York Herald. For the Herald, Lincoln's letter provided another opportunity for ridicule, and the editor reprinted the letter and accompanied it with savage comments. Greatly embarrassed, Hackett wrote Lincoln to apologize. "Give yourself no uneasiness on the subject," Lincoln told him. "I certainly did not expect to see my note in print, yet I have not been much shocked by the comments upon it. They are a fair specimen of what has occurred to me through life. I have endured a great deal of ridicule, without much malice, and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it." For Lincoln, the pleasure of seeing Hackett do Falstaff far outweighed the pain of abuse from the Herald. But even this pleasure was short-lived. A little later, Hackett sought a government job, and when Lincoln was unable to give him one, he turned against the president and joined the ranks of the Lincoln-haters.
Lincoln's love of Shakespeare grew out of his love of fine writing. As a young man, he read and reread the King James Bible, Aesop's Fables, Shakespeare, John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, and Robert Burns. He worked hard to improve his own vocabulary, grammar, and lucidity of expression. By the time he became president, he had developed a distinguished prose style of his own: simple, clear, precise, forceful, rhythmical, poetic, and at times majestic. When Vicksburg surrendered in July 1863, and the Mississippi River was open again, he told the country: "The 'Father of Waters' again goes unvexed to the sea." It is hard to imagine any other president writing such a stunning sentence or penning such prose masterpieces as the Gettysburg Address (which even H.L. Mencken called "genuinely stupendous") and the First and Second Inaugural Addresses. Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson (and to a lesser degree John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt) possessed unusual literary skills, but at his best, Lincoln towered above them. He had a deep feeling for the right use of words, and he employed them lovingly both in his story-telling and in his letters and speeches. He was the only president ever to be called a "literary artist." Jacques Barzun, in fact, called him a "literary genius." "Nothing," wrote John Nicolay and John Hay, in their multi-volume biography of Lincoln (whom they knew, personally) appearing in 1894, "would have more amazed him while he lived than to hear himself called a man of letters, but this age has produced few greater writers." Ralph Waldo Emerson ranked Lincoln with Aesop in his lighter moods. Still, when it came to serious moments, he said this of the Civil War president: "The weight and penetration of many passages in his letters, messages, and speeches, hidden now by the very closeness of their application to the moment, are destined to a wide fame. What pregnant definitions, what unerring common-sense, what foresight, and on great occasions what lofty, and more than national, what human tone! His brief speech at Gettysburg will not easily be surpassed by words on any recorded occasion."
At Gettysburg on November 19, 1864. Edward Everett, famed for his oratory, spoke close to two hours, and Lincoln took up only a few minutes. Afterward, Everett took Lincoln's hand and said: "My speech will soon be forgotten; yours never will be. How gladly would I exchange my hundred pages for your twenty lines!"
By Paul F. Boller, Jr.
Edited by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.