Lincoln Kept Himself Sane with Humor and Jokes

In his new book, Lincoln's Sense of Humor, author Richard Carwardine observes that "Abraham Lincoln was a compulsive teller of stories and jokes, the first president to make laughter a tool of office."

Carwardine notes that "Lincoln's humor was a habit of mind. His friend Justice David Davis recognized that Lincoln's stories 'were done to whistle off sadness.' Ground down by the cares of wartime office and personal tragedy, President Lincoln found a lifeline in humor.

"His tastes were inclusive. He loved Western tall tales, bawdy jokes, linguistic tricks, absurdities, and sharp wit. Nothing gave him more pleasure than satirical works lampooning the American republic's ethical double standards.

"At its gentlest best, Lincoln's humor reflected an appreciation of the foibles, weaknesses, and absurdities of humankind.

"Lincoln, with his strong sense of self-worth, saw advantage in self-mockery. Conscious that many considered him an ugly man, he once cast himself as the subject of an incident involving a man with 'features the ladies could not call handsome.'

"Riding through the woods, the man met a woman on horseback. She stopped and scrutinized him: 'Well, for land sake, you are the homeliest man I ever saw,' she exclaimed.

"'Yes, madam,' the man replied 'but I can't help it.'

"'No, I suppose not,' said the lady, 'but you might stay at home.'"
"A delegation called to urge the appointment of an acquaintance as commissioner to the Hawaiian Islands. They emphasized his fitness for the post and his poor health, which would benefit from the balmy climate.

"Lincoln closed the interview with affected regret: 'Gentlemen, I am sorry to say that there are eight other applicants for that place, and they are all sicker than your man.'"

Carwardine concludes: "We should take Lincoln's ability to see the absurd side of life as a measure of his well-developed humanity. We may also reflect that it gave him the sense of proportion all Presidents need if they are to elevate their office into the realm of statesmanship."

"I have always believed that a good laugh was good for both the mental and physical digestion," Lincoln said.

– via Prof. Emeritus Peter Kobrak
Kalamazoo, MI

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