Lincoln’s Life Preserver

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Lincoln’s was a raucous, infectious, charming humor, a bubbling over of story, joke, anecdote, and tale that became a part of his every action and experience. It defined his style in law, politics, and in personal relationships. Nothing escaped, not even his famous tendency to pardon soldiers for desertion, cowardice, or failure to perform adequately in the Army. A number of witnesses have described Lincoln’s acts of pardon in saccharine terms, noting his sad eyes and melancholy appearance. But two of Hay’s diary entries are also worth considering. On July 18, 1863, Lincoln told Hay he was averse to using the death penalty for desertion and cowardice. “He said it would frighten the poor devils too terribly, to shoot them.” He also told Hay the government should let alone a boy who had escaped after his conviction for desertion. “We will condemn him as they used to sell hogs in Indiana, as they run.” And despite his deep commitment to the necessity of fighting the Civil War, Lincoln recognized that politics dictates the support of any country’s war. To illustrate the point, he once told the Secretary of State, William Seward, of a politician he knew in Illinois (Justin Butterfield) who was asked why he publicly supported the Mexican War when it was known he privately opposed it. “I opposed one war,” Butterfield replied. “That was enough for me. I am now perpetually in favor of war, pestilence and famine.”

If humor was a central part of Lincoln’s personality, it was also a necessary part. Henry C. Whitney, his friend on the circuit, quoted him as saying, “I laugh because I must not weep—that’s all, that’s all.” The origin of the line is Lord Byron’s Don Juan , a poem Lincoln knew well: “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, tis that I may not weep. ” To laugh to keep from weeping expresses beautifully the relationship between Lincoln’s humor and his depression. “Some of the stories are not so nice as they might be,” Lincoln told John F. Farnsworth, “but I tell you the truth when I say that a funny story, if it has the element of genuine wit, has the same effect on me that I suppose a good square drink of whisky has on an old toper; it puts new life into me.” Contemporary observers were quite aware of the connection. Harriet Beecher Stowe felt Lincoln possessed “a never-ailing fund of patience” that lay buried beneath his deep melancholy and periodically rose to the surface in some “droll, quaint saying, or story, that forced a laugh, even from himself.” Lincoln’s friend and campaign manager, Judge David Davis, said Lincoln’s stories were intended primarily “to whistle off sadness.” Herndon stressed the rapid alternation of Lincoln’s moods from gloom to joy—and back. Chambrun also noted this alternation of mood. “He willingly laughed either at what was being said or at what he himself was saying. Then, suddenly, he would retire himself and close his eyes, while his face expressed a melancholy as indescribable as it was deep. After a few moments, as though by an effort of the will, he would shake off his mysterious weight and his generous and open disposition again reasserted itself. I have counted, in one evening, more than twenty of such alternations of mood.” And everyone noted his sparkling eyes and hearty laugh. “That laugh,” noted Carpenter, “has been the President’s life-preserver. ”