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“If I Couldn’t Tell These Stories, I Would Die”: Lincoln and Laughter

Published: March 27, 2010

Imagine the unknown Lincoln. Picture the frontier lawyer who stepped onto the national stage — unkempt, gawky, blunt, speaking with a prairie twang in a high voice. And homely. Lord, he was homely.

Lincoln’s contemporaries, seeing him for the first time, might have noticed the same two things that struck Lew Wallace when he first saw Lincoln.

Later in life, Wallace was a best-selling author, a celebrated Union general, and a territorial governor. But in 1851, he was just another attorney who rode the judicial circuit with other lawyers. One evening, just after sundown, he rode into Danville, Illinois, and entered the local tavern. He found it crowded with people attending court business. As he edged his way into the crowd, he heard occasional bursts of laughter over the noise of the bar. Working his way toward the sound, he found that two teams of lawyers, from Indiana and Illinois were have a joke-telling contest.

One of the contestants representing Illinois, he said, “arrested my attention early, partly by his stories, partly by his appearance. Out of the mist of years he comes to me now exactly as he appeared then. His hair was thick, coarse, and defiant; it stood out in every direction. His features were massive, nose long, eyebrows protrusive, mouth large, cheeks hollow, eyes gray and always responsive to the humor. He smiled all the time, but never once did he laugh outright. His hands were large, his arms slender and disproportionately long. His legs were a wonder, particularly when he was in narration; he kept crossing and uncrossing them; sometime it actually seemed he was trying to tie them into a bow-knot. His dress was more than plain; no part of it fit him… Altogether I thought him the gauntest, quaintest, and most positively ugly man”

What was even more memorable to Wallace was Lincoln’s ability to hold a room’s attention — and his apparently bottomless fund of jokes.

“About midnight, his competitors were disposed to give in; either their stores were exhausted, or they were tacitly conceding him the crown. From answering them story for story, he gave two or three to their one. At last he took the floor and held it… Such was Abraham Lincoln. And to be perfectly candid, had one stood at my elbow that night in the old tavern and whispered: “Look at him closely. He will one day be president and the savior of his country,” I had laughed at the idea but a little less heartily than I laughed at the man. Afterwards I came to know him better, and then I did not laugh.”

Humor was an essential part of Lincoln, and a critical element in his success.  As a Congressional candidate, he used it to fire up crowds and put down hecklers. Running for the senate, his humor enabled him to score points off the well known and skilled politician, Stephen Douglas. When, for example, Douglas told a debate crowd that Lincoln was unqualified and unskilled, he added that Lincoln had once run a general store, selling cigars and whiskey. He added, “Mr. Lincoln was a very good bartender.”  Lincoln retorted, “Many a time have I stood on one side of the counter… and sold Mr. Douglas whiskey on the other side.”

When Douglas accused Lincoln of being “two faced,” Lincoln shot back, “If I really had two faces, do you think I’d hide behind this one?”

Humor also proved valuable to Lincoln as president. As Robert M. Yoder noted in a 1954 Post article,

“If a time-wasting friend lingered too long. Lincoln could disengage himself by telling a story which ended the conversation. He answered questions with stories; he avoided answering by telling stories. If the conversation headed in directions he didn’t like, he could change the subject with a story.”

And, as we know now, humor helped Lincoln maintain his sanity.

“‘If I couldn’t tell these stories,’ Lincoln once told a congressman — and gravely—’I would die.’ Humor was of tremendous importance to this sensitive and sorrowful man; almost a sort of oxygen for the soul. It offended a good many citizens that Lincoln could joke in times so tragic, but those close to Lincoln understood the emotional process involved. It was jesting-that-I-may-not-weep.”

Yoder offered several examples of Lincoln’s jokes. Some are familiar, but the number of unfamiliar stories suggests that Lincoln knew far more jokes than have been recorded.

When a courier appeared at the War Office to announce a major Union victory, the officers were surprised that Lincoln showed no excitement. Lincoln dismissed the courier and cheerfully told the men in the room,

“Pay no attention to him… He’s the biggest liar in Washington. He reminds me of an old fisherman I used to know who got such a reputation for stretching the truth that he bought a pair of scales and insisted on weighing every fish in the presence of witnesses. One day a baby was born next door and the doctor borrowed the fisherman’s scales. The baby weighed forty-seven pounds.”

“A man reached the theater one night just as the curtain rose. Eager to catch the opening speeches, and engrossed in the action, he put his tall silk hat on the seat beside him, open end up.  He didn’t notice that he had a neighbor…  a woman of bountiful proportions, for whom the theater seat wasn’t going to be a bit too large.… She sat. There was a crunch. She jumped up.The gentleman…  surveyed the expanse of satin beside him. “Madam,” he said, ‘I could have told you my hat wouldn’t fit you before you tried it on.’”

“My client is in the position of the farmer who was walking peaceably down the road when a dog raced out of a farmyard and attacked him. The farmer was carrying a pitchfork. In defending himself, he killed the dog. “What made you kill my dog?” the dog’s owner demanded. “What made him try to bite me?” “Why didn’t you come at him with the other end of the fork?” “Why didn’t he come at me with his other end?”

“A drunk wandered into a revival meeting (Lincoln related) and, after mumbling, ‘Amen,’ a few times, fell asleep. As the meeting closed, the preacher cried, ‘Who are on the Lord’s side?’ The congregation stood as one — all except the slumbering drunk. That shout didn’t wake him, but the next one did. ‘Who are on the devil’s side?’ the revivalist cried. That roused the sleeper. Seeing the preacher standing, the drunk rose too. ‘I didn’t exactly understand the question,’ he said warmly, ‘but I’m with you, parson, to the end.’ He looked around at the silent crowd, all seated. ‘But it seems to me,’ said the drunk, ‘that we’re in a hopeless minority.’

Lincoln’s easy use of humor changed America’s taste in politicians. Previously, Americans had preferred solemn, humorless men with the gravity of Old Testament prophets. We now expect our legislators and presidents to occasionally tell, and laugh at, jokes.  We believe a sense of humor reflects a sense of reason and proportion, and an ability to perceive the outrageous.

In many regards, Lincoln was a man ahead of his times. He saw, sooner than most of his contemporaries, what we all recognize: laughter is necessary for keeping our sanity.

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  • Ima Ryma

    Abe Lincoln, while as President,
    Endured a lot of tragedy -
    What the Civil War did present,
    And within his own family.
    He kept so much of that inside,
    And chose to tell stories instead,
    Where his mind could be occupied,
    Sharing humor that could be spread
    To others, to give Lincoln pause
    From all the thoughts of heavy note,
    To thoughts with a much lighter cause,
    To ease the pain – an antidote.

    So many stories Abe could tell.
    The ones with humor served him well.

  • Margaret Bell

    This wonderful article first appeared way back when I was in school and not exposed to things the grown-ups read. Thank your for re-publishing wonderful excerpts from your past issues. I am now quite old enough to fully appreciate their value. M. Bell