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 week before his death, Lincoln visited the Confederate capital, Richmond, after its capture by federal troops. In the party was the French aristocrat, Adolphe de Chambrun, who described in a letter to his wife how a band came up to the presidential steamer to play a few tunes. Afterward Lincoln asked them to play the Marseillaise , which was forbidden in the Third Republic. Lincoln turned to Chambrun with a twinkle in his eye, “You have to come to America to hear it.”
Lincoln told Ward Lamon that he “lived by his humor, and would have died without it.” When he told a story, the mirth “seemed to diffuse itself all over him, like a spontaneous tickle.” In the White House, Carpenter once came across Lincoln telling a story to his secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay late in the evening, “laughing and talking with the hilarity of a schoolboy.” Herndon remarked on how much Lincoln enjoyed his own telling of stories. “His little 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 point—or ‘nub’ of the story, as he called it—came, no one’s laugh was heartier than his.” Lincoln had a dread of people who could not appreciate humor and said once of a Cabinet member—perhaps the dour Edwin Stanton—that “it required a surgical operation to get a joke into his head.”
He told all kinds of jokes in every conceivable context. In fact, his fame as a storyteller spread far and wide. “Men quoted his sayings, repeated his jokes, and in remote places he was known as a storyteller before he was heard of either as lawyer or politician. ” As President, Lincoln often related the story of the Irishman who had forsworn liquor but told the bartender he was not averse to having a spot added to his lemonade, “so long as it’s unbeknownst to me.” The historian David Donald feels this anecdote expressed the way Lincoln wrapped his pragmatism, even opportunism, in a cloak of passivity. His humor was generally “clean,” but not always. His bawdy jokes were a special delight to the small group of lawyers following the Eighth Judicial Circuit Court. Moses Hampton wrote to him on March 30,1848, asking for a favor in a lighthearted vein: “Do you remember the story of the old Virginian stropping his razor on a certain member of a young Negro’s body which you told. …” Lincoln’s bawdy humor was, in fact, often scatological. Herndon says he heard Lincoln tell “often and often” a story that described “a man of audacity.” At a party “not far from here” (which, of course, puts it anywhere) a fine table was set and everyone was having a grand time. Among the guests was our man of audacity, who was confident, self-possessed, and never off his guard. After some dancing, promenading, and flirting, dinner was served and the man of audacity was placed at the head of the table to carve. With everyone surrounding the table, the man whetted the blade and set to work. But he expended too much energy, for he let a loud fart. Everyone heard it and was shocked. Silence reigned. But the audacious man was cool and self-possessed. He calmly took off his coat, put it deliberately on a chair, rolled up his sleeves, spat on his hands and rubbed them together, squared his shoulders, and picked up his knife, all without a smile. “Now, by God,” he said, starting to carve the turkey again, “I’ll see if I can’t cut up this turkey without farting.”
Lincoln’s humor, even his vulgar jokes, had a purpose. If it was “merely a ribald recital,” he had no use for it. Often the purpose was political. In 1848, for example, Congressman Lincoln gave a speech on the floor of the House to debunk the dubious military record of Zachary Taylor’s Democratic opponent for the Presidency, General Lewis Cass. To accomplish that, he recalled his own record: “By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know that I am a military hero? Yes sir, in the days of the Black Hawk war, I fought, bled, and came away. Speaking of Gen. Cass’s career, reminds me of my own.… If Gen. Cass went in advance of me in picking huckleberries, I guess I surpassed him in charges upon the wild onions. If he saw any live, fighting indians, it was more than I did; but I had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes.…”
The habit of lacing political speeches with anecdotes became a Lincoln hallmark. In the early years of his career some found this trait offensive. On November 23, 1839, Springfield’s Democratic paper, the Register , chided Lincoln for his “assumed clownishness” and warned that “this game of buffoonery convinces the mind of no man, and is utterly lost on the majority of his audience. We seriously advise Mr. Lincoln to correct this clownish fault before it grows upon him.” In time, however, even the Register noted in reporting a Lincoln speech on October 6, 1854, that “the character of [his remarks] will be understood by all who know him, by simply saying they were Lincolnisms. ” He joked endlessly with law clients, obviously putting them at ease, sometimes repeating a story several times in the course of one day. Each time he laughed harder at his own jokes. Even Herndon, who had to endure these stories many times, was forced to laugh, because he “thought it funny that Mr. Lincoln enjoyed a story so repeatedly told.” In the White House, Lincoln used anecdotes cleverly to ward off supplicants. Charles Sumner, who had little humor, found conversation with Lincoln “a constant puzzle” and once asked Carl Schurz “with an air of innocent bewilderment” whether Schurz knew what the President meant.