Many stories are told about Abraham Lincoln’s famous sense of humor. Through the darkest days of the Civil War, he used his humor to get through tough times, gently make his point with politicians and military officers, and bring cheer to disheartened citizens. Lincoln called humor “an emollient” that “saves me much friction and distress.” When asked how he could makes jokes at such serious times, he answered, “I laugh because I must not cry.”
Lincoln was known for his sense of humor long before he became President. During his one term in the U.S. House of Representatives in the mid-1840’s, he made only one major speech. It was so funny that he had not only the other Congressmen laughing, but had the House clerks so busy laughing that they did not record his speech for the Congressional Record. As a result, the speech is lost to history except for a few bits and pieces that Congressmen recorded in letters home.
As a lawyer, Lincoln rode circuit with other judges and lawyers. His stories and anecdotes at night helped pass the long evenings on the circuit and made him popular as well as respected.
Once, when Lincoln’s friend and fellow circuit rider, Ward Lamon, tore his pants at the seat just before entering court, several lawyers started a subscription paper and passed it around the courtroom to raise the money for a new pair of pants. When the paper got to Lincoln, he wrote, “I can contribute nothing to the end in view.”
As a lawyer, Lincoln often discouraged people from bringing unnecessary lawsuits. Once, a man wanted him to bring a suit for $2.50 against a penniless man and could not be talked out of it. Lincoln charged him a retainer of $10.00, gave $5.00 to the defendant who promptly paid the $2.50. This completely satisfied the angry client, who felt he had won his justified revenge.
Lincoln loved the English language, and loved puns. Once, while sitting in his Springfield law office, he looked out his window and saw a dignified matronly looking woman, finely dressed with a magnificent hat trimmed with a great many feathers, slip in the middle of the muddy street she had been carefully crossing. “Reminds me of a duck,” said Lincoln. “Why is that?” asked a friend. “Feathers on her head and down on her behind” was his reply.
Another memorably corny pun was during the war when he named Admiral Foote to command the South Atlantic Squadron. Lincoln told Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to be sure that Admiral Foote’s ship was in good shape and completely seaworthy. “How is it that you are so particular?” Welles asked Lincoln. Lincoln chuckled and said, “Why, have I not put my Foote in it?”
Another time, while walking with Secretary of State William Seward, they passed a store with the proprietor’s name in large, bold print on the window, “T.R. Strong.” “T.R. Strong” said Lincoln “but coffee are stronger.” Seward smiled, but made no reply.
It is not often remembered that Lincoln had some military experience before becoming President. In 1832, there was a short war against Chief Black Hawk. Lincoln joined the local militia, but never saw action. His unit was disbanded without having done anything more than some drill.
One of his favorite stories from the Black Hawk War concerned his regimental commander. Although very tall, Lincoln “tended to walk with a slouch in those days.” His colonel stood just four feet three inches tall. The colonel reprimanded Lincoln for his poor posture. “Come, Abe, hold up your head; high, fellow!” Lincoln held his head high and stretched his neck and said, “So, sir?” The colonel said, “Yes, fellow, but a little higher. Lincoln asked, “And am I always to remain so?” When the colonel said yes, Lincoln looked down at him with a sad look and said, “Then good-bye, colonel, for I shall never see you again.”
Another of Lincoln’s favorite stories of his wartime exploits involved his short tenure as a captain of his militia company during the Black Hawk War. He had no military training and made many mistakes. At one point, he was made to carry a wooden sword, which was a punishment for officers who did a poor job. One day while marching his company in a formation with twenty men across the front, he came to a fence with a small gate in it. “I could not for the life of me remember the proper word of command for getting my company endwise. Finally, as we came near I shouted: ‘This company is dismissed for two minutes, when it will fall in again on the other side of the gate.’”
In 1858, Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas. In a close race, Lincoln got more votes, but lost the election in the state legislature anyway. It was close, and Lincoln was bitterly disappointed. When a friend asked him how he felt, Lincoln gave his now-famous response. He said, “I feel like the boy who stubbed his toe; I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh.”
In the midst of the political campaign, Senator Douglas called Lincoln a “two-faced man.” Lincoln replied: “I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”
It was during the dark, tragic years of the Civil War that Lincoln’s humor became best known, and served him best. He used humor to illustrate his point of view, gently turn aside demanding politicians, and provide some light moments when desperately needed. In humor, he found strength to help him continue.
One of his harshest critics was radical Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio. He felt Lincoln was not doing enough and that Lincoln’s moderate approach was holding back the Union from victory. As President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Wade was a powerful leader in the senate, and Lincoln could not afford to alienate him.
Once, Wade came to the White House to tell Lincoln that General Grant should be fired. When Lincoln hesitated to agree, Wade told him: “You are the father of every military blunder made during the war. You are on the road to hell, Sir, and you are not a mile off this minute.” Lincoln responded: “Senator, that is just about the distance from here to the Capitol, is it not?”
According to a story in the New York Herald (November 26, 1863), a temperance committee visited President Lincoln and also asked him to fire General Grant. Their reason was that Grant drank too much. Lincoln said, “Well, I wish some of you would tell me what brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to every one of my other generals.”
According to stories, a foreign diplomat once came upon Lincoln polishing his shoes. The diplomat exclaimed, “What, Mr. President, you black your own boots?” Lincoln smiled and replied, “Yes, whose do you black?”
Once, a prominent Boston citizen asked Lincoln, “You never swear, Mr. President, do you? Lincoln answered, “Oh, I don’t have to. You know I have Stanton in my Cabinet.”
Lincoln towered over most other men, but one day met a soldier even taller than he was. He looked the soldier over and then asked him, “Say, friend, does your head know when your feet are cold?”
It was the subject of the many Union defeats and the criticism heaped upon the Lincoln administration that often resulted in the best, and most needed, humor. A visitor once asked Lincoln for a pass through the Union lines in Virginia in order to visit Richmond. Lincoln explained, “I should be very happy to oblige you if my passes were respected; but the fact is, within the past two years I have given passes to Richmond to two hundred and fifty thousand men and not one has got there yet.”
A visitor once asked Lincoln how many men the rebels had in the field. Lincoln replied very seriously, “Twelve hundred thousand, according to the best authority.” The visitor turned very paled and gasped “Good Heavens!” Lincoln continued: “Yes, sir; twelve hundred thousand—no doubt of it. You see, all of our generals, when they get whipped, say the enemy outnumbers them from three or five to one, and I must believe them. We have four hundred thousand men in the field, and three times four makes twelve. Don’t you see it?”
In the well-known story of Lincoln visiting Fort Stevens outside Washington, D.C. during the war while it was under attack, Lincoln stood up to get a better view. The enemy immediately began firing at his tall plug hat. The officer escorting him, young Oliver Wendell Holmes, a future justice of the Supreme Court, grabbed Lincoln by the arm and literally dragged him under cover saying at the same time “Get down you fool!” Realizing what he had said and to whom, Holmes was sure his career was over. But as he left, Lincoln said to him, Good-bye, Captain Holmes. I’m glad to see you know how to talk to civilians.”
In June 1864, Lincoln was nominated for a second term. His friends told him the only way he could be defeated was for General Grant to take Richmond and then run for President. Lincoln told them, “Well, I feel very much like the man who said he didn’t want to die particularly, but if he had to die that was precisely the disease he would like to die of.”
Of course, these are only samples of the many ways in which Lincoln’s wit and humor were used to help and heal. One of the reasons Lincoln is rated so highly is the personal strength he showed in holding the Union together, keeping the fight going when so many wanted to give up and quit. His unique western humor was a source of some of that strength which saved our nation.