The Abe Lincoln Guide to Humour.
Tips from a president who was both funny and surprisingly inappropriate.
“A sense of humour is just common sense dancing.” Clive James
It’s hard to imagine the 16thPresident of the United States being humorous, but Lincoln was actually quite the joker. Even during the Civil War, when Union troops were suffering huge defeats at Manassas, Poison Spring and Bull Run, Lincoln clowned around, driving his cabinet crazy.
These were serious men, and didn’t care for Lincoln’s backwoods, self-deprecating style. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles once described Lincoln as “destitute of wit.” Lincoln responded by giving Welles the first raspberry. He might have just sneezed, but it became the raspberry we know today. Welles responded with the also well-known “skunk eye.”
Mark Twain, a staunch supporter of Lincoln, said, “If it wasn’t for Lincoln’s jokes, most of these people would be asleep by eight” (these parties didn’t start until eight).
In Washington, socialites complained that Lincoln simply wouldn’t stop telling jokes at their dinner parties. Mark Twain, a staunch supporter of Lincoln, said, “If it wasn’t for Lincoln’s jokes, most of these people would be asleep by eight” (these parties didn’t start until eight).
Twain also pointed out that Lincoln was born in Kentucky, halfway between Washington and the Gulf itself. Being both a northerner and a southerner was bound to create humor based on geography alone.
One of Lincoln’s most famous jokes concerned a businessman requesting a pass through Union lines to Richmond. Lincoln quipped that he’d already sent 250,000 men in that direction, but “not one has got there yet.”
To be fair to Lincoln, the 1860s was considered the height of “black humour” — not that there’s anything wrong with “black,” as abolitionists would say, and Lincoln was a staunch abolitionist, which is probably why they started calling it “dark humour.” Still, Lincoln wasn’t above a few off-color remarks, famously saying at one cabinet meeting, “I can make generals, but horses cost money.” Generals didn’t like that joke one bit.
Girls sent their enlisted sweethearts the latest cartoons, and amputations were known as “one-handed jokes.”
Much of Lincoln’s humour came from what some called “a quirky desire to defuse situations.” He was hardly the only one. People were defusing like crazy at the height of the war. Girls sent their enlisted sweethearts the latest cartoons, and amputations were known as “one-handed jokes.”
Anything was good for a laugh and Lincoln liked to laugh despite suffering from what was known as “melancholy.” Humour was his way of treating this condition. Others, including his wife, Mary, used a popular treatment called laudanum. This mixture of opium and alcohol (sometimes also with morphine and codeine) was popular, and how Lincoln avoided this treatment could only be attributed to his use of humour.
Given the stresses of war and abolition, he realized being serious didn’t change outcomes. Neither did humor necessarily, but you don’t get ulcers from laughing.
So what tips could Lincoln teach us today about humour? Perhaps the best one is laughter itself. Given the stresses of war and abolition, he realized being serious didn’t change outcomes. Neither did humour necessarily, but you don’t get ulcers from laughing.
That might be what Clive James meant when he wrote “A sense of humour is just common sense dancing.” You need calm when all those around you are losing theirs. Lincoln understood calm better than anyone, which makes this the first tip in Lincoln’s repertoire. Let’s look at just how he did it, and how we can calm our own stressful lives with jokes.
Make’m Laugh and Shove’m Out the Door
Like most presidents of the day, people were always hanging around asking Lincoln for jobs. Lincoln was famous for taking them aside and telling them a funny story. These people usually laughed uproariously until they realized Lincoln had shoved them out the door. Imagine all the telemarketers you could get rid of this way. It sure beats telling them to fuck off, which I seem to do about a hundred times a day.
Read Your Favourite Humorist Out Loud
When William P. Fessenden, the secretary of the Treasury, objected to Lincoln’s comedy during plans for emancipation, Lincoln ignored him and read aloud from his favorite humorist. The Emancipation Bill went through, and Fessenden returned to the Senate. You might say Lincoln killed two birds with one stone, since Fessenden was humorless and couldn’t even see the fun in buying Alaska from Russia. Russia still claims we screwed them over, which many historians still call a historical hoot.
Nothing works Like A Headless Joke
During the Hampton Roads conference, when Lincoln refused to enter into any agreement with persons still in arms against the government, R.M.T. Turner, a Confederate commissioner, stated that such agreements were sanctioned by precedent going back to Charles I. “All I distinctly remember about the case of Charles I,” Lincoln replied, “was that he lost his head.” You really can’t beat headless jokes unless you’re the one who’s headless.
It Helps If You’re Ugly
Lincoln was so ugly, during his early career, men often stopped him and said, “You’re the ugliest man I ever saw.” Later during his presidency, when opponents would compare his looks to his sincerity, he replied, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” You don’t actually have to be ugly to make this quip, but it adds authenticity if you are. It also helps if you’re funny since you didn’t get anything in the looks department.
You Can Always Fall Back On Suicide
No one’s quite sure if Lincoln said, “If it wasn’t for humor I’d have killed myself long ago.” He might have agreed with this sentiment, but Mark Twain claimed suicide was entirely outside Lincoln’s general disposition, whereas many of his opponents should have done it more often. If you can’t laugh at that, you don’t understand American politics.
To disarm through laughter is probably the smartest battle plan known to man (or woman), and it takes so little to quip rather than quarrel.
Again, this all goes back to Clive James saying, “A sense of humour is just common sense dancing.” We’re all capable of common sense, but the degree is certainly more obvious when we add humour. To disarm through laughter is probably the smartest battle plan known to man (or woman), and it takes so little to quip rather than quarrel.
It should be noted that Lincoln resorted to humour, particularly in the early stages of the Civil war, to deflate puffed-up war talk. Everyone was so puffed up, not realizing just how catastrophic wars can be.
Lincoln’s jokes and inappropriate stories were more about defusing than grandstanding, something other politicians did on a daily basis. Wars aren’t funny, but the people who take them too seriously often make them worse.
Without it [humor], we’re always one step closer to what Twain called “A wanton waste of projectiles.”
As Lincoln realized, with humor, we can face an immense amount of bullshit, lies and acrimony. Without it, we’re always one step closer to what Twain called “A wanton waste of projectiles.”
Better to be funny than fuck ourselves. Lincoln didn’t say that. Neither did Mark Twain. I came up with it myself. Still makes sense, though, right?
Robert Cormack is a novelist, journalist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (in paperback August 6th). Skyhorse Press or Simon and Schuster for more details.