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

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.

He took particular note of one of the contestants representing Illinois.

He 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.

Once when he found all his advisers solidly against him, he told this story:

A drunk wandered into a revival meeting 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.

The first page of the article "Old Able Loved a Laugh" as it appeared in the Saturday Evening Post
Read “Old Abe Loved a Laugh” by Robert M. Yoder from the February 13, 1954, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Library of Congress

Life After Lincoln

At least one in six Americans can remember the last time a U.S. president was assassinated. And almost all of them can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. They can probably also recall their feelings of sorrow, anger, and bewilderment when they heard President Kennedy was dead.

Commemorating Lincoln's Birthday John Atherton February 12, 1944
Commemorating Lincoln’s Birthday
John Atherton
February 12, 1944

Those feelings must have been even more intense in Americans 150 years ago when they heard the news of the first presidential assassination. The president’s death would probably have seemed even more tragic as they realized that Lincoln would never see the reconciliation he’d worked so hard to achieve.

He’d spent the last four years holding the Union cause together, prodding generals, and supplying arms and men to defeat the Confederacy. But with victory in sight, he showed no animosity toward the Rebels. And though he had never spelled out his postwar plans for reconstructing the union, it was widely known he favored clemency toward the Southern secessionists.

Read the entire article "The Murder of President Lincoln" from the pages of the April 22, 1865 issue of the Post.
Read the entire article “The Murder of President Lincoln” from the pages of the April 22, 1865 issue of the Post.

Many in the North were hungry for vengeance, including Lincoln’s vice president, who advocated hanging many of the Southern “traitors.” Lincoln was one of the lone voices favoring forgiveness and reconciliation with the South. In his second inaugural address, he asked Americans “to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves.” Just a week before his death, while he was touring recently captured Richmond, a Union general asked Lincoln how he should treat the conquered Confederates. Lincoln said he didn’t want to give specific orders but added, “If I were in your place, I’d let ’em up easy, let ’em up easy.”

Days after the president’s death, Post editors wrote that they had once sided with the president’s “generous and merciful projects and desires.” But that was before he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, “a representative of those whom [Lincoln] was striving with all his might and influence to shield and benefit.”

The editors still admired Lincoln, but admitted he had a fault of leaning “too much towards gentleness and mercy.” Perhaps Lincoln was wrong, and God had intervened to correct the mistaken notion of mercy:

Has this cruel deed been allowed in the orderings of an all-wise Providence, that we may fully understand the hearts of these men with whom we have been contending, and waste no foolish magnanimity on those who seem incapable of responding to it? Such are the questions which at this moment every loyal man in the North is putting to himself.

To such questions, the editors had their answer: “We feel as if all other feelings were swept aside by the single demand for justice.” As for Lincoln’s call to forgive the South: “The voice of Mercy in our heart has been stilled forever” by the same bullet that silenced the voice of Lincoln.

History shows that vengeance grew stronger in the wake of Lincoln’s death, further complicating the reconciliation he had hoped to achieve.

The Genius in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Portrait photo of President Abraham Lincoln
This portrait of President Lincoln is thought to have been taken only four days before he delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.

After 150 years, the Gettysburg Address remains one of the most powerful speeches ever delivered. It is also one of the most surprising. In just 270 words, a self-educated, frontier lawyer managed to convey a sense of national loss and give purpose to America’s civil war. He also produced as fine a work of prose as any American has ever created.

In 1959, historian Jacques Barzun invited Post readers to take a closer look at “Lincoln The Literary Genius.” If you only knew Lincoln from his Gettysburg speech, he wrote, you might get the impression of a man who sat down one day and wrote a masterpiece. But Lincoln had been working on his unique style for a lifetime before he spoke at the Gettysburg cemetery.

His talent with words seemed to come from nowhere. Certainly it wasn’t anything he learned; Lincoln’s formal education amounted to less than a year of instruction spread thinly across his youth. Learning all he could from borrowed books and stolen hours of reading, he left home and drifted between jobs, finally studying law and entering politics. It would have seemed like one more of Abe Lincoln’s poor career choices because, on the surface, he had little appeal. He was awkward, homely, ill-dressed, unkempt, and spoke with a high, nasal voice.

But his years of riding the court circuit in Illinois had taught him how to capture and hold the attention of strangers. He learned how to translate questions of law into simple, clear choices. He spoke in a comfortable, familiar style, which narrowed the emotional distance between himself and his audience. And when necessary, he could drop into joking talk, mimicking the drawl and twang spoken by Illinois farmers.

Lincoln learned to write standing up; that is, he developed his clear, powerful style while he honed his oral arguments for court. As a result, his writing and his speeches have a similar clarity and cadence. But Lincoln had a special genius for order and brevity, Barzun claimed; he presented his thoughts in the most convincing sequence using the least words. Barzun also stressed Lincoln’s gift for rhythm, illustrating it with a fragment from a lecture by Lincoln.

“There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. I say vague, because, when we consider to what extent confidence and honors are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbably that their impression of dishonesty is very distinct and vivid. Yet the impression is common, almost universal. Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief—resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to honest without being a lawyer.”

“The paragraph moves without a false step,” Barzun observed, “neither hurried nor drowsy; and by its movement, like one who leads another in the dance, it catches up our thought and swings it into willing compliance. The ear notes at the same time that none of the sounds grate or clash: The piece is sayable like a speech in a great play.”

This advertisement for the printed copy of Edward Everett and President Lincoln's Gettysburg speeches appeared in the Post in 1864. Everett's speech was deemed "eloquent" while Lincoln's was "excellent and appropriate," an example of the preference for the more verbose, lofty style of speech-making at the time.
This advertisement for the printed copy of Edward Everett and President Lincoln’s Gettysburg speeches appeared in the Post in 1864. Everett’s speech was deemed “eloquent” while Lincoln’s was “excellent and appropriate,” an example of the preference for the more verbose, lofty style of speech-making at the time.

Lincoln never mastered the florid, wordy style that kept 19th Century audiences enraptured for hours. The admirers of fine oratory found Lincoln’s speaking style “flat, dull, lacking in taste,” Barzun wrote. When they came to the dedication ceremony at the Gettysburg cemetery, November 19, 1863, they were more interested in hearing the keynote speaker, Edward Everett.

The difference between Lincoln’s and Everett’s speeches that day illustrates the changes taking place in American thought and style. Lincoln spoke for two minutes. Everett spoke for two hours. Lincoln’s opening sentence, “Four score and seven years…,” was a concise statement of American principles. Everett began his speech with this windy fanfare:

“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;–grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”

In Everett’s defense, he knew what made a good speech. He wrote Lincoln on the following day, telling him, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

The lean but powerful beauty of Lincoln’s prose impressed itself on Americans’ minds as generations of schoolchildren committed it to memory. It helped influence American writers to favor clarity over ornamentation. And its lean style, free of sentimentality and romanticism, brought a new honesty to the way Americans though about the Civil War.

Lincoln as Jokester

Lincoln Comic

The most famous of all debates in American history are the seven between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas campaigning in Illinois in 1858 for a Senate seat. On one occasion, Douglas attempted to buffalo Lincoln by making allusions to his lowly start in life. He told a gathering that the first time he met Lincoln, it had been across the counter of a general store in which Lincoln was serving. “And an excellent bartender he was too,” Douglas concluded.

When the laughter died away, Lincoln got up and quietly riposted, “What Mr. Douglas has said, gentlemen, is true enough: I did keep a general store and sold cotton and candles and cigars and sometimes whiskey, but I particularly remember that Mr. Douglas was one of my best customers. Many a time I stood on one side of the counter and sold whiskey to Mr. Douglas on the other side. But now there’s a difference between us: I have left my side of the counter, but he sticks to his as tenaciously as ever!”

Today, not many are aware that Lincoln had a subtle, and sometimes biting, sense of humor. A contemporary wrote, “When Lincoln tells a joke in a fireside group, his face loses its melancholy mask, his eyes sparkle and his whole countenance lights up.” He referred to laughter as “the joyful, beautiful, universal evergreen of life.” Some other prime examples of Lincoln’s humor:

A guest at a reception told Lincoln that in his home state people said that the welfare of the nation depended on God and Abraham Lincoln. “You are half right,” said Lincoln.

While in office, he was asked about what it was like to be president. Lincoln answered, “I’m like the man who was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. When they asked him how he felt about it, he said that if it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would rather have walked.”

Lincoln could impale an opponent with a humorously turned phrase or analogy. “He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I ever met,” said Lincoln of a political foe.

During one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced. Replied Lincoln calmly, “I leave it to my audience: If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”

The president was a gangly man who topped out at six feet four inches. To the inevitable question “How tall are you?” Lincoln would reply, “Tall enough to reach the ground.”

Early in the Civil War, the president became angered by General George B. McClellan’s refusal to attack General Robert E. Lee in Richmond. He wrote the general a one-sentence letter: “If you don’t want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for a while. Yours respectfully, A. Lincoln.”

Later, a temperance committee visited the president and asked him to fire General Grant. Surprised, Lincoln asked why. “He drinks too much,” answered the spokesman for the group. “Well,” said Lincoln. “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to every one of my other generals.”

Mr. Lincoln Discusses His Proclamation

Reading the Proclamation
Reading the proclamation.

In the end, America’s great moral issue of the 19th century was settled by a military decision. All the social, economic, and moral questions about slavery ended 150 years ago when President Lincoln considered slaves as part of the Confederacy’s military power and issued his Emancipation Proclamation.

The result, as the Post reported on October 11, 1862, would be profound—militarily, if not morally. The Confederacy was then supporting an army of 225,000 with an enslaved workforce of nearly 3.5 million. Every freed slave would diminish the Confederacy’s economic strength and military resources.

Much as he wanted to end slavery entirely, Lincoln’s first priority was to restore the Union. He told writer Horace Greeley that if he could accomplish that task without freeing a single slave, he would. But the military situation of 1862 brought military and moral needs into a rare alignment.

Slave auction house in Atlanta, Georgia.

Even so, Lincoln did not simply act on his own abolitionist principles. He made the proclamation highly conditional. It did not abolish slavery outright, but gave the rebellious states of the Confederacy an ultimatum. They could return to the Union within 100 days and keep their slaves, or else lose them when Federal troops eventually occupied their territory.

In the July 22, 1865, issue of the Post, F. B. Carpenter presented his interview with Lincoln in which the president discussed issuing his proclamation. “Things had gone on from bad to worse,” he said referring to Gen. McClellan’s defeat on the Virginia peninsula that cost 15,000 casualties. “I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game.”

He wrote up the proclamation then read it to his cabinet, not to get their advice but to hear their reactions. No one raised an objection that Lincoln hadn’t already considered until Secretary of State William Henry Seward spoke up. He approved of the proclamation but questioned its timing. Since it would be announced after a string of Union army defeats, it might seem to the public like an act of desperation. “His idea,” said the president, “was that it would be considered our last shriek on the retreat.” Seward told Lincoln to “postpone its issue, until you can give it to the country supported by military success, instead of issuing it, as would be the case now, upon the greatest disasters of the war!”

Lincoln and his cabinet, as they were seated at the reading of the proclamation.

So Lincoln set it aside and waited. “From time to time I added or changed a line, touching it up here and there, waiting the progress of events. Well, the next news we had was of Pope’s disaster, at Bull Run (and another 10,000 casualties.) Things looked darker than ever.”

On September 13, 1862, he met with a delegation of ministers from Chicago who pleaded with him to abolish slavery. The president said nothing about his proclamation and seemed to argue against emancipation of any kind. “Now, then, tell me, if you please, what possible result of good would follow the issuing of such a proclamation as you desire?”

He wished, he said, to view the matter practically for its advantages in suppressing the Confederacy.

Former slaves of Virginia who sought refuge within Union lines.

It was true that slavery was essential for powering the South. If he ended slavery, it would weaken the enemy, encourage friends of the union, and draw the support of European powers. But what power did he have? Lincoln asked, repeating arguments he must have posed to himself over and over.

“Would my word free the slaves, when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the rebel states? Is there a single court, or magistrate, or individual that would be influenced by it there? … And suppose they could be induced by a proclamation of freedom from me to throw themselves upon us, what should we do with them? How can we feed and care for such a multitude?”

He told the delegation that he had received a lot of advice on the slavery issue by religious men.

Some argued for, others against, slavery, but all were certain “that they represent the Divine will. … I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me. … It is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it!”

Ex-slaves enlistees in the Union Army.

Perhaps Lincoln already knew what the Almighty wanted him to do in this matter. The U.S. Treasury Secretary told Mr. Carpenter that, after the victory at Antietam, Lincoln said the time for the enunciation of the emancipation policy could no longer be delayed. “Public sentiment would sustain it, many of his warmest friends and supporters demanded it—and he had promised his God he would do it!” This last part was uttered in a low tone and apparently heard by no one but Secretary Salmon Portland Chase sitting next to him. He asked the president if he correctly understood him. Mr. Lincoln replied, “I made a solemn vow before God that, if General Lee was driven back from Pennsylvania, I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves!”

Today, historians question the power of Lincoln’s proclamation. “Did he free the slaves?” they ask, “or did they free themselves?” We now know that most slaves didn’t wait for liberation, but fled from the plantations to the Union lines. There, they set about caring for themselves, finding what work they could in the Union camps, starting farms where possible, and, for many of the men, enlisting in the army.

The liberation of America’s black people couldn’t have occurred without their own initiative. But it also couldn’t have occurred without Lincoln’s decision of September 22, 1862.

What Lincoln Was Hiding

Surely we all know Abraham Lincoln by now.

The subject of over 10,000 books, Lincoln has become our most familiar president. He is also one of the most popular. A Post editorial in 1961, claimed that people around the world, “feel for Old Abe a reverence, trust and affection that they reserve for their truest friends. He… always steps down from his monuments and—plain, decent, wise, tolerant, good and great—puts out his hand to help us.”

The problem with this image is that it doesn’t fully agree with the evidence. In fact, it often contradicts the accounts of people who knew him well. In his 1959 essay on Lincoln, Jacques Barzun offered the personal recollection of William Herndon who worked closely with Lincoln for years as his law partner. Herndon had known Lincoln the man before he became the martyr and national icon.

He said that Lincoln was a man of sudden and violent moods, often plunged in deathly melancholy for hours, then suddenly lively and ready to joke;

that Lincoln was self-centered and cold, not given to revealing his plans or opinions; and ruthless in using others’ help and influence;

that Lincoln was idle for long stretches of time, during which he read newspapers or simply brooded;

that Lincoln was a man of strong passions and mystical longings, which he repressed because his mind showed him their futility, and that this made him cold-blooded and a fatalist.

As we know from other sources, Lincoln was subject to vague fears and dark superstitions… He was subject, as some of his verses show, to obsessional gloom about separation, insanity and death.

None of which denies that Lincoln could be sociable, funny, or statesmanlike. But there was undeniably a side of Lincoln that he kept hidden, even from his closest friends. The key to understanding this hidden side, Barzun believed, was knowing the one thing Lincoln valued all his life: language.

Not one but several persons who remembered his childhood remarked on the boy’s singular determination to express his thoughts in the best way. [According to] his stepmother… “He didn’t like physical labor. He read all the books he could lay his hands on. . . . When he came across a passage that struck him, he would write it down on boards if he had no paper and keep it there till he did get paper, then he would rewrite it, look at it, repeat it.”

Years later, Herndon said Lincoln could be a “very patient man” but when people began talking to him in vague abstractions, glittering generalities, and misty ideas, he could become enraged.

Language was vitally important to Lincoln. He spent hours mastering his skills of expressing himself powerfully through deceptively simple language. His legal studies helped him sharpen his genius for expression.

Legal thought encourages precision through the imagining and the denial of alternatives. The language of the law foresees doubt, ambiguity, confusion, stupid or fraudulent error, and one by one it excludes them. [It must avoid] misunderstanding, and this is the foundation of any prose that aims at clear expression.

His ability to convey complex ideas to any audience, said Barzun, set him apart from his peers and convinced him he was marked for a special destiny. If you read Lincoln’s words, his letters, speeches, and debates, he added, you realize Lincoln’s personality was not that of a shrewd, humorous, saintly man, but a combination of traits that are found in the biographies of great artists:

passionate, gloomy, seeming-cold, and conscious of superiority.

Lincoln’s faith in his power to communicate led him to believe in a great personal destiny. The opinion of others was less important to him than his relationship with the greater Lincoln he felt inside himself. He believed his talent for expression had set him apart for greatness. It had lifted him up from a life of splitting rails and running a failing grocery store. It enabled him to distract listeners from his early struggle, his election failures, and his occasional gloom and doubts.

As he focused increasingly on the man of destiny inside himself, he grew detached from others.

William Herndon called Lincoln a man of sudden and violent moods. (Photo by Matthew Brady, 1864, first published in a 1947 Post.)

In conduct, this detachment was the source of his saintlike forbearance… Lincoln’s detachment was what produced his mastery over men.

Had he not towered in mind and will over his cabinet, they would have crushed or used him without remorse. Chase, Seward, Stanton, the Blairs, McClellan had among them enough egotism and ability to wreck several administrations. Each thought Lincoln would be an easy victim.

[Yet] their dominant feeling was exasperation with him for making them feel baffled. They could not bring him down to their reach.

John Hay, who saw the long struggle, confirms Herndon’s judgments: “It is absurd to call him a modest man. No great man was ever modest. It was his intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority that men like Chase and Sumner could never forgive.”

Lincoln’s extraordinary power was to make his spirit felt—a power I attribute to his peculiar relation to himself.

He regarded his face and physique with amusement and dismay, his mind and destiny with wonder. Seeming clumsy and diffident, he also showed a calm superiority, which he expressed as if one half of a double man were talking about the other.

It may be that, even after another 10,000 books, the true, inner nature of Lincoln will remain unknown to us. But if he always remains a mystery to us, it’s possible that it was always a mystery to himself.