Abraham Lincoln

James Matheny

Alexander Hamilton Stephens

William T. Sherman

Humor and Personality

"His world wide reputation for telling anecdotes - and telling them so well," recalled friend Joshua Speed "was in my judgement necessary to his very existence." Rather than indulgence in drinking, dice or cards, Mr. Lincoln "sought relaxation in anecdotes."1 Humor was an integral part of the way in which Mr. Lincoln created and cemented friendships.

"When he first came among us his wit & humor boiled over," recalled James Matheny of Mr. Lincoln's arrival in the Springfield area. John McNamar, a rival for the affections of Anne Rutledge, later said his jokes were as "plenty as Blackberries."2 Benjamin Thomas wrote about the impact that humor had one Mr. Lincoln's fellow attorneys on the circuit: "Judge Davis sometimes stopped court to listen to his yarns. 'O Lord, wasn't he funny,' exclaimed Usher F. Linder, himself a noted humorist. 'Any remark, any incident brought from him an appropriate tale.' 'In our walks about the little towns where courts were held,' said Whitney, 'he saw ludicrous elements in everything, and could either narrate some story from his storehouse of jokes, or else he could improvise one....In anything and everything Lincoln saw some ludicrous incident.'"3 Mr. Lincoln liked to recall Linder's advice to a client during a break in his hog stealing trial. Linder suggested that the Illinois client might want to get a drink - and suggested that drinking water was better in Tennessee.4

Biographer Thomas argued that humor "provided him with a means of getting on good terms with people. In Indiana his fun and wit lightened the toil in fields and woods and won him many friends at the social gatherings. When he came to New Salem, on Election Day in 1831, he established himself in the good graces of villagers by entertaining them with stories as they lounged about the polls. And many a visitor at the White House was put at his ease by the President's narration of an anecdote."5 James C. Conkling, a longtime political and legal colleague, noted that "Mr. Lincoln abounded in anecdotes, of which he seemed to possess an inexhaustible fund. No one could relate a story without reminding him of one of a similar character, and he generally capped the climax. His stories, though rude, were full of wit. He relished whatever had a nib to it, as he expressed it. He generally laughed as loudly as others at his own witticisms, and provoked laughter as much by the quizzical expression of his homely features, and the heartiness of his own enjoyment, as by the drollery of his anecdotes."6

Stories also put Mr. Lincoln at his ease - and his friends at ease as well. Treasury official Chauncey M. Depew recalled: "Several times when I saw him, he seemed to be oppressed not only with the labors of the position, but especially with care and anxiety growing out of the intense responsibility which he felt for the issue of the conflict and the lives which were lost. He knew the whole situation better than any man in the administration, and virtually carried on in his own mind not only the civic side of the government, but all the campaigns. And I knew when he threw himself (as he did once when I was there) on a lounge, and rattled off story after story, that it was his method of relief, without which he might have gone out of his mind, and certainly would not have been able to have accomplished anything like the amount of work which he did."7

Depew wrote: "Mr Lincoln's avidity for a new story was very great. I remember once at a reception, as the line was passing and he was shaking hands with each one in the usual way, that he stopped a friend of mine who was moving immediately ahead of me. He whispered something in his ear, and then listened attentively for five minutes ? the rest of us waiting, devoured with curiosity as to what great secret of state could have so singularly interrupted the festival. I seized my friend the instant we passed the President, as did everybody else who knew him, to find out what the communication meant. I learned that he had told Mr. Lincoln a first-class anecdote a few days before, and the President, having forgotten the point, had arrested the movement of three thousands guests in order to get it on the spot."8

"But with all the humor in his nature, which was more than humor because it was humor with a purpose (that constituting the difference between humor and wit), his was the saddest face I ever looked upon," wrote David R. Locke, himself a journalist turned humorist. "His flow of humor was a sparkling spring gushing out of a rock ? the flashing water had a somber background which made it all the brighter. Whenever merriment came over that wonderful countenance it was alike a gleam of sunshine upon a cloud ? it illuminated, but did not dissipate."9

Allen Thorndike Rice collected the memories of Mr. Lincoln's colleagues. In Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, Rice described the important role played by humor in regulating Mr. Lincoln's relations with friends and colleagues. "His sense of humor never flagged. Even in his telegraphic correspondence with his generals we have instances of it which reflect his peculiar vein," wrote Rice before introduced a story recalled by General William T. Sherman.
Soon after the battle of Shiloh the President promoted two officers to Major-Generalships. A good deal of dissatisfaction was expressed at this act. Among other critics of the President was General Sherman himself, who telegraphed to Washington, that, if such ill-advised promotions continued, the best chance for officers would be to be transferred from the front to the rear. This telegram was shown to the President. He immediately replied by telegraph to the General that, in the matter of appointments, he was necessarily guided by officers whose opinions and knowledge he valued and respected.
"The two appointments," he added, "referred to by you in your dispatch to a gentleman in Washington were made at the suggestion of two men whose advice and character I prize most highly. I refer to Generals Grant and Sherman." General Sherman then recalled the fact that in the flush of victory, General Grant and himself had both recommended these promotions, but that it had escaped his memory at the time of writing his telegraphic dispatch."10

Ward Hill Lamon knew Mr. Lincoln on both the Illinois legal circuit and in Washington where he served the President as U.S. Marshal. "Mr. Lincoln was from the beginning of his circuit-riding the light and life of the court. The most trivial circumstance furnished a back-ground for his wit. The following incident, which illustrates his love of a joke, occurred in the early days of our acquaintance. I, being at the time on the infant side of twenty-one, took particular pleasure in athletic sports. One day when we were attending the circuit court which met at Bloomington, Ill., I was wrestling near the court house with some one who had challenged me to a trial, and in the scuffle made a large rent in the rear of my trousers. Before I had time to make any change, I was called into court to take up a case," Lamon later wrote.

"The evidence was finished. I, being the Prosecuting Attorney at the time, got up to address the jury," Lamon recalled. "Having on a somewhat short coat, my misfortune was rather apparent. One of the lawyers, for a joke, started a subscription paper which was passed from one member of the bar to another as they sat by a long table fronting the bench, to buy a pair of pantaloons for Lamon, - 'he being,' the paper said, 'a poor but worthy young man. ' Several put down their names with some ludicrous subscription, and finally the paper was laid by some one in front of Mr. Lincoln, he being engaged in writing at the time. He quietly glanced over the paper, and immediately taking up his pen, wrote after his name, 'I can contribute nothing to the end in view.'"11

Mr. Lincoln's story-telling was based on his prodigious memory. Massachusetts Republican business Robert Rantoul had occasion to learn how much information was packed into President Lincoln's mental database: "I was visiting Washington in January 1863, and saw Mr. Lincoln for the first time at a public reception in the East Room of the White House. When he got my card from the officer in attendance, he repeated the name to himself several times and then said: 'I wonder if you are connected with a lawyer of that name who came to Illinois about 1850, to secure from our legislature the charter of the Illinois Central Railroad?' I told him that was my father. Upon which he burst forth with a great roar of laughter, and much gesticulation, and said that he did all he could to stop it, but was not successful. He said he was retained by local capitalists who, although they could not then build the road as they had been intending, were very unwilling that eastern capitalists should step in and secure a grant which would make it forever impossible for them to build a road. But they were defeated. He favored me with some minutes of interesting conversation on this theme, and spoke with such amused good humor of the incident that my reception whetted rather than allayed my curiosity to see more of this extraordinary man."12

Sangamon County resident Erastus Wright had occasional interaction with Mr. Lincoln over several decades. When he visited Mr. Lincoln in the White House, the President said: "Mr. Wright The first time I ever saw you was when I was working on the boat at Sangamon Town and you were assessing the County" That "fact I well recollected and it convinced me of his Clear head and Strong retentive Memory."13 A State legislative colleague, Robert L. Wilson, said "his memory was a great Store house in which was Stored away all the facts, acquired by reading but principally by observation; and intercourse with men Woman and children, in their Social, and business relations; learning and weighing the motives that prompt each act in life. Supplying him with an inexhaustible fund of facts, from which he would draw conclusions, and illustrating every Subject however complicated with anecdotes drawn from all classes of Society, accomplishing the double purpose, of not only proving his Subject by the anecdote, that no one ever forgets, after hearing Mr Lincoln tell a Story, either the argument of the Story, the Story itself or the author."14

But there was also an element of competitiveness in Mr. Lincoln's story-telling. "Mr. Lincoln never would, if he could help it, permit anybody to tell a better story than himself," wrote journalist Lawrence A. Gobright. "One day an elderly gentleman called to see him on business - to ask for an office. Before they parted, the President told him a 'little story.' It pleased the visitor very much; and their joint boisterous laughter was heard by all in the ante-rooms, and became contagious. The elderly gentleman thought he could tell a better story; and did so. Mr. Lincoln was delighted to hear it, and laughed immoderately at the narration. It was a good one, and he acknowledged that it 'beat' his own. The next day he sent for his new friend, on purpose, as it was afterward found out, to tell him a story, a better one than the gentleman had related. The gentleman answered this by a still better [one] than he had previously furnished, and was, thus far, the victor over Mr. Lincoln. From day to day, for at least a week, the President sent for the gentleman, and as often did the gentleman get the advantage of him. But he was loth to surrender, and finally the President told the visitor a story, which the latter acknowledged was the very best he had ever heard. The President thus got even with his friend. He never permitted anybody to excel him in those little jokes."15

Alexander Stephens served with Mr. Lincoln in Congress before becoming Vice President of the Confederacy. After the Civil War, he wrote: "Mr. Lincoln as careless as to his manners, awkward in his speech, but was possessed of a very strong, clear, vigorous mind. He always attracted and riveted the attention of the House when he spoke. His manner of speech as well as his thought was original. He had no model. He was a man of strong convictions, and what Carlyle would have called an earnest man. He abounded in anecdotes. He illustrated everything he was talking about by an anecdote, always exceedingly apt and pointed, and socially he always kept his company in a roar of laughter."16

Not all of Mr. Lincoln's friends shared his sense of humor. Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson was one. Several others were in his Cabinet. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said that before he announced the draft Emancipation Proclamation, Mr. Lincoln "was reading a book of some kind, which seemed to amuse him. It was a little book. He finally turned to us and said: 'Gentlemen, did you ever read anything from Artemus Ward? Let me read you a chapter that is very funny.' Not a member of the Cabinet smiled; as for myself, I was angry, and looked to see what the President meant. It seemed to me like buffoonery. He, however, concluded to read us a chapter from Artemus Ward, which he did with great deliberation, and, having finished, laughed heartily, without a member of the Cabinet joining in the laughter. 'Well,' he said, 'let's have another chapter,' and he read another chapter, to our great astonishment. I was considering whether I should rise and leave the meeting abruptly, when he threw his book down, heaved a sigh, and said: 'Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.'"17

It wasn't just Cabinet members who could be offended by Mr. Lincoln's sense of humor. Journalist Henry Villard, who was an admirer of Senator Stephen Douglas, met Mr. Lincoln at the Freeport debate in 1858: "I must say frankly that, although I found him most approachable, good-natured, and full of wit and humor, I could not take a real personal liking to the man, owing to an inborn weakness for which he was even then notorious and so remained during his great public career," wrote Villard in his memoirs. "He was inordinately fond of jokes, anecdotes, and stories. He loved to hear them, and still more to tell them himself out of the inexhaustible supply provided by his good memory and his fertile fancy."18

Villard and others objected to the coarseness of many of these stories and complained that "this fondness for low talk clung to him even in the White House." The German-born journalist, however, had to acknowledge their utility even when they violated his sense of propriety. Villard covered President-elect Lincoln's activities in Springfield and the daily meetings he held with visitors at the State Capitol: "The most remarkable and attractive feature of those daily "levees," however, was his constant indulgence of his story-telling propensity. Of course, all the visitors had heard of it and were eager for the privilege of listening to a practical illustration of his preeminence in that line. He knew this, and took special delight in meeting their wishes. He never was at a loss for a story or an anecdote to explain a meaning or enforce a point, the aptness of which was always perfect. His supply was apparently inexhaustible, and the stories sounded so real that it was hard to determine whether he repeated what he had heard from others, or had invented himself."19

Some folks were affronted by his stories when they first met him. One such was Union officer LeGrand B. Cannon who met President Lincoln when he visited Fort Monroe during the Civil War. "I was not a little prejudiced & a good deal irritated at the levity which he was charged with indulgence in. In grave matters jesting...seemed to me shocking, with such Vital Matters to settle," wrote Cannon. "But all this Changed when I came to know Lincoln & I very soon discerned that he had a Sad Nature & that it was a terrable burden."20

But like Villard, some callers were perturbed by the substitution of stories for patronage. "Many of these inquisitive inquirers were put off with a comical story or a bit of wise humor; and they did not like it any better that their rebuff should take this shape. They went home and sourly reported that the President-elect was a buffoon, a joker, a merry-andrew," wrote journalist-biographer Noah Brooks.21

In a dispatch for the New York Herald, Villard wrote that Mr. Lincoln "is never at a loss as to the subjects that please the different classes of visitors and there is a certain quaintness and originality about all he has to say, so that one cannot help feeling interested. His 'talk' is not brilliant. His phrases are not ceremoniously set, but pervaded with a humorousness and, at times, with a grotesque joviality, that will always please. I think it would be hard to find one who tells better jokes, enjoys them better and laughs oftener than Abraham Lincoln."22

Mr. Lincoln never claimed to invent all of his stories though some of them clearly came from his own experiences. Leonard Swett wrote: "When hunting for wit he had no ability to discriminate between the vulgar and refined substances from which he extracted it. It was the wit he was after, the pure jewel, and he would pick it up out of the mud or dirt just as readily as he would from a parlor table."23

Biographer Benjamin Thomas wrote that Mr. Lincoln "often turned to [humor] as a means of escaping from a difficult position or avoiding an embarrassing commitment. John Hay tells of a gathering at [[Secretary of State William H.] Seward's where a Captain Schultz showed very bad taste in alluding to Seward's defeat in the Chicago convention. 'The President,' said Hay, 'told a good yarn.'" Herndon recorded that Lincoln was most adroit in outwitting people who came to him to get information which he did not wish to divulge. In such cases Lincoln did most of the talking, 'swinging around what he suspected was the vital point, but never nearing it, interlarding his answers with a seemingly endless supply of stories and jokes.'"24 Stories were the grease with which Mr. Lincoln kept his friendship lubricated.

 

Footnotes

  1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 499 (Letter of Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, December 6, 1866).
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 259 (Letter from John McNamar to William H. Herndon, May 23, 1866).
  3. Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays of Benjamin Thomas, p. 8.
  4. Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays of Benjamin Thomas, p. 31.
  5. Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays of Benjamin Thomas, p. 14.
  6. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 107 (James C. Conkling, "Some of Lincoln’s Associates at the Bar").
  7. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 428-429 (Chauncey M. Depew).
  8. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 427-429 (Chauncey M. Depew).
  9. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 442-443 (David B. Locke).
  10. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. xxvii-xxviii.
  11. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 16-17.
  12. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 471-472 (Robert S. Rantoul, Massachusetts Historical Society, January 1909).
  13. Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 40 (Letter from Erastus Wright to Josiah G. Holland).
  14. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 204-205 (Letter by Robert L. Wilson to William Herndon, February 10, 1866).
  15. L. A. Gobright, Recollection of Men and Things at Washington During the Third of a Century, p. 330-331.
  16. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 281.
  17. Don Seitz, Artemus Ward: A Biography and Bibliography, p. 113-114 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919; New York: Beekman, 1974).
  18. Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Journalist and Financier, Volume I, 1835-1862, p. 95-96.
  19. Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Journalist and Financier, Volume I, 1835-1862, p. 143-144.
  20. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 679 (Letter from LeGrand B. Cannon to William H. Herndon, October 7, 1889).
  21. Noah Brooks, Abraham Lincoln: The Nation’s Leader in the Great Struggle Through Which was Maintained the Existence of the United States, p. 207.
  22. Henry Villard, Lincoln on the Eve of ‘61, p. 14.
  23. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 166 (Letter from Leonard Swett to William H. Herndon, January 17, 1866).
  24. Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays of Benjamin Thomas, p. 14-15.