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Lincoln’s Life Preserver

July 2024
9min read

To stave off despair, the President relied on a sense of humor that was rich, self-deprecating—and surprisingly bawdy

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.…”

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.

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. ”

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