Abraham Lincoln was a compulsive story teller, although the grandeur of the stern marble figure of his memorial in Washington DC, and the sombre language of his great speeches, obscure his natural sense of humour. He was the first United States president to make jokes and laughter tools of the office, and no other occupant of the White House has since matched his embrace of the jocular. John F Kennedy, widely admired as a humourist, held back for fear of appearing unstatesmanlike; Ronald Reagan, a skilful raconteur, was open to the charge that his humour was a substitute for thought. Lincoln, by contrast, suffered few of the inhibitions felt by later presidents.
Lincoln’s jokes helped define his career as politician, lawyer and war-burdened president. His laughter coexisted with self-absorbed contemplation and melancholy (he suffered from recurrent bouts of depression). Humour in wartime became a lifeline and tonic. His reputation for unrestrained humour, however, gave ammunition to his political foes, who denounced him as a “smutty joker” and “a joke incarnated”.
Lincoln’s humour was eclectic. He deployed western tall tales, morality stories, bawdy jokes, linguistic tricks, absurdities, political satire and sharp wit. Nothing gave him more pleasure, however, than satirical work lampooning ethical double standards. He knew, following Plato, that “serious things cannot be grasped without laughable things”.
Lincoln saw humour as an instrument, even a weapon – and, as lawyer, politician, president and chronic depressive, put it to a strikingly rich variety of uses.
Many of Lincoln’s stories and witty rejoinders are lost to posterity. Over time, too, the surviving ones have become detached from the context that gave them their bite, losing much of their irony and satirical purpose. But as the examples here reveal, his humour should be taken seriously. They also suggest that not all 19th-century humour is locked in its time and place….
A stranger gets a dressing down
Seeking an antidote to his depression, Lincoln took refuge in his well-thumbed jest books, and found a restorative tonic in the appreciative laughter prompted by his absurd frontier tales.
He loved to regale audiences with the story of a collector of relics, who hears about an old lady with a dress she had worn during the Revolutionary War. The collector visits her and asks her to produce the dress to satisfy his love of aged things. He then holds it up, saying: “Were you the dress that this lady once young and blooming wore in the time of Washington? No doubt when you came home from the dressmaker she kissed you as I do now!” As he does so, the owner quips: “Stranger, if you want to kiss something old you had better kiss my ass. It is 16 years older than that dress.”
Laughing at the ugly truth
Lincoln saw the political value of self-mockery. Conscious of his unusually long limbs, and aware that many considered him an ugly man, he decided to face the issue head-on.
He told of an encounter with a stranger in a railroad car, who said: “I have an article in my possession which belongs to you.” Taking a jack-knife from his pocket, the man explained: “This… was placed in my hands… with the injunction that I was to keep it until I found a man uglier than myself… Allow me now to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to the property.”
Not sick enough for the job
Lincoln employed wit to deflect political requests. One of his most stressful tasks as leader of the Republican administration was dealing with the avalanche of applicants for government posts.
A delegation called to urge the appointment of their acquaintance as Commissioner to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). They emphasised not only his fitness for the post but his poor health, which would benefit from the balmy climate. Lincoln closed the interview with affected regret: “Gentlemen, I am sorry to say that there are eight other applicants for that place, and they are all sicker than your man.”
Skirts rising in the courtroom
As a trial lawyer, Lincoln used humour strategically within and outside the courtroom. During the lunch break of one particular trial, he told jurors about the small boy who ran to summon his father. “Paw, come quick,” he panted. “The hired man and sis are up in the haymow, and he’s a-pullin’ down his pants and she’s a-liftin’ up her skirts and paw they’re gettin’ ready to pee all over our hay!” The father replied: “Son, you’ve got your facts absolutely right, but you’ve drawn a completely wrong conclusion.”
Later, in court, following his opponent’s lengthy winding-up speech, Lincoln told the jurors: “My learned opponent has his facts absolutely right, but has drawn completely wrong conclusions.” He won the case.
Drunks, devils and a chronic case of hot air
President Lincoln used stories to make military and political points with simple economy. When, at the height of the American Civil War, Brigadier-General John Pope (pictured) telegraphed Washington that he had captured 4,500 enemy troops, was marching on the Confederates, and would soon have the rebels in his power, the cabinet asked the president for his opinion. “That reminds me,” he replied, of an “old woman in Sangamon Co who was ill.”
The doctor, he went on, came and prescribed some medicine for her constipation. Returning the next morning, he found her “fresh & well, getting breakfast”. Asked if the medicine had worked, she confirmed that it had. “How many [bowel] movements?” he inquired. “142,” she replied. “Madame, I am serious,” the physician replied. “I know you are joking. How many?” “142.” “Madame, I must know,” he insisted. “You couldn’t have had 142.” “I tell you 142,” she said, “140 of them wind.” Lincoln closed the discussion by adding simply: “I am afraid Pope’s captures are 140 of them wind.”
Finding himself with the support of only one cabinet member during a critical phase of the Trent Affair – when Britain threatened war over the Union navy’s seizure of Confederate envoys from a British ship – Lincoln recalled the drunk who strayed into an Illinois church and fell asleep in the front pew. He slumbered on as the revivalist asked, “Who are on the Lord’s side?”, and the congregation responded by rising en masse. When the preacher then inquired, “Who are on the side of the devil?”, the sleeper stirred. But, not fully grasping the inquiry, and seeing the minister on his feet, he stood up. “I don’t exactly understand the question,” he said, “but I’ll stand by you, parson, to the last. But it seems to me,” he added, “that we’re in a hopeless minority.”
Cock and bull stories
He was no elegant drawing-room wit but Lincoln was a clever conversationalist, and his swift rejoinders came to his aid in socially awkward situations.
Particularly memorable were his words to a young woman whose deep interest in a hospitalised soldier led her to press the question: “Where were you wounded?” The infantryman, who had been shot through the testicles, repeatedly deflected her inquiry with the answer: “At Antietam.” After she asked the president to assist her, Lincoln talked privately with the soldier and then took the young woman’s hands in his own, explaining: “My dear girl, the ball that hit him, would have missed you.”
Persistently asked by Kate Chase, a Washington DC socialite, who had seen him “standing next to a wall up in an alley”, what he had been doing, “he caved in” and said: “Well, to tell the truth, Miss Chase, I went up that alley to shake hands with a fellow I used to know who stood up for me at my wedding.”
Richard Carwardine’s latest book, Lincoln’s Sense of Humor, was published by Southern Illinois University Press in October.
For more on Abraham Lincoln, tune in to the Radio 4 series Trump: The Presidential Precedents.
This article was first published in the Christmas 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine