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Lincoln’s Life Preserver
To stave off despair, the President relied on a sense of humor that was rich, self-deprecating—and surprisingly bawdy
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
A great “intensity of thought,” Abraham Lincoln once counseled his friend Joshua Speed, “will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.” No aspect of Lincoln’s character has become more tangibly real in the literature than his melancholy. “No man in this agony,” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in 1864 after a visit with the President, “has suffered more and deeper, albeit with a dry, weary, patient pain, that seemed to some like insensibility.” One observer wrote in a letter dated February 25, 1865, that “his face denotes an immense force of resistance and extreme melancholy. It is plain that this man has suffered deeply.” His friend, Ward Hill Lamon, called him a “man of sorrows” who bore “a continued sense of weariness and pain” and attracted universal sympathy “because he seemed at once miserable and kind.” He was, indeed, “the saddest and gloomiest man of his time.” Toward the end of the war the artist Francis B. Carpenter spent about six months in the White House working on a painting of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. After the war Carpenter wrote a detailed memoir of his impressions. The book became an important source for the public’s sense of the man whose “furrowed face” was the ultimate in sadness. “There were days when I could scarcely look into it without crying.” Carpenter once watched Lincoln pace while waiting for news from the battlefield, “his hands behind him, great black rings under his eyes—a sight so full of sorrow, care, and anxiety as would have “melted the hearts of the worst…adversaries.”
His law partner, William Herndon, described Lincoln’s appearance as equally melancholy in the years before the war. Herndon used the same adjectives—sad, gloomy, melancholic—and the same trite phrases. Lincoln’s depression was “chiseled deep” in every line of his face; he was dripping with melancholy.
And yet this same powerfully unhappy man was capable of true gaiety. “A little after midnight,” his secretary John Hay wrote, ”… the President came into the office laughing, with a volume of Hood’s, works in his hands, to show … me the little caricature ‘An Unfortunate Bee-ing,’ seemingly utterly unconscious that he with his short shirt hanging above his long legs & setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich was infinitely funnier than anything in the book he was laughing at. What a man it is! Occupied all day with matters of vast moment, deeply anxious about the fate of the greatest army of the world, with his own fame & future hanging on the events of the passing hour, he yet has such a wealth of simple bonhommie & good fellowship that he gets out of bed & perambulates the house in his shirt to find us that we may share with him the fun of one of poor Hood’s queer little conceits.”
No one worked more closely with Lincoln than Hay and kept a diary. Lincoln emerges from its pages as a warm, inspiring, very hard-working, subtly competent administrator, statesman, and military strategist.
How, one asks, could Lincoln have combined such effective leadership with his recurring, often devastating depression? Certainly, much of the answer can be found in his sense of humor, which, particularly as he grew older, excluded biting sarcasm or joking that took someone else as the butt. Part of the appeal of Lincoln’s humor was the self-deprecation of so many of his jokes. He loved to tell of a stranger who once came up to him on the circuit and said, “Excuse me, sir, but I have an article in my possession which belongs to you.” “How is that?” Lincoln asked with some surprise. The stranger took a knife out of his pocket and said it had been given to him some years ago with the order “that I was to keep it until I found a man uglier than myself. I have carried it from that time to this. Allow me now to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to the property.” Another favorite anecdote told of a friendly Kentuckian he once rode with in a carriage. The man offered Lincoln a chew of tobacco. Then a cigar. And finally a sip of brandy. Each offer was politely declined. As they were parting, the Kentuckian said good-humoredly: “See here, stranger, you’re a clever but strange companion. I may never see you again, and I don’t want to offend you, but I want to say this: my experience has taught me that a man who has no vices has damned few virtues. Good-day.”
Lincoln had a delicious sense of irony. Herndon—who had none—once told him expansively of his impression of Niagara Falls with its “mad rush of water, the roar, the rapids, and the rainbow.” He asked Lincoln for his opinion of Niagara Falls, and Lincoln replied, “The thing that struck me most forcibly when I saw the Falls was, where in the world did all that water come from?” In fact, Lincoln had written of Niagara Falls in 1849. “It calls up the indefinite past. When Columbus first sought this continent—when Christ suffered on the cross—when Moses led Israel through the Red Sea—nay, even, when Adam first came from the hand of his Maker—then as now, Niagara was roaring here.…”