A newspaper article I recently read quoted a New Yorker article that claimed more than 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, our country's 16th president and original log-cabin hero. In the next week there likely will be 15,000 new articles (and perhaps a few more books) written about Lincoln as the 200th anniversary of this birth arrives on February 12th. Of the millions of words that will celebrate his life, I can predict that some of the most popular will be adjectives describing his character like "honest," "self-educated," "hard-working," "compassionate," and "solemn." One aspect of his personality, however, that most accounts will omit is Lincoln's love of a naughty joke. Abraham Lincoln--the savior of the Union, the American Moses, the politician with a poet's touch--was also a serious cut-up. Whether the joke was self-deprecating, or told at the expense of an unfortunate friend, or just a re-telling of an old country fable, Lincoln was as masterful at tavern humor as he was at speeches that thrummed with a Biblical cadence.
When he arrived to southern Illinois as a young man in search of a career, wealth, and acceptance, his reputation for telling stories won him many friends and invitations to gatherings. Years later, as a semi-established Illinois lawyer riding the circuit for many months out of the year, Lincoln would often entertain the other attorneys and judges at the end of each day with humorous anecdotes and stories. Occasionally he would deploy these stories in his arguments before a judge or jury, or mine his court experience as material for an anecdote (the one about the supposed horse expert who put his shirt on backwards comes to mind). And as president, Lincoln would often entertain a visitor or office-seeker with a story based on some aspect of their background or conversation, sometimes leaving these men bewildered by the casual and ribald nature of the nation's leader. It's easy to speculate that had he been influenced early on by a modern book or writer, or not turned to law and politics as a profession, Lincoln might have made a career as a mid-19th century frontier humorist like Mark Twain.
But where did Lincoln, who's melancholy spirit and bouts of serious depression are also well documented, find the source for his humor? And could a man who experienced so much tragedy in his life--the early loss of his mother, the death of two young sons, and a bloody civil war he felt responsible for ending--still be the one with the loudest laughter in the room? Lincoln himself answered that question head-on, and with his usual honesty. The occasion was a cabinet meeting in July 1862 when he unveiled his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. With his stern advisers assembled, and many of them in opposition to the proclamation, Lincoln began the meeting by reading aloud first one than another chapter of a humorous novel by Artemus Ward. None of the cabinet members laughed and several were clearly annoyed by his diversion, which caused Lincoln to cast the book on the table and exclaim, "Gentleman, 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."
If Lincoln could laugh, both at himself and the curious contradictions of his era, then I think that humor one more of his virtues that should be mentioned as often as his honesty. Being able to laugh at oneself, after all, indicates a degree of self-reflection and confidence that constant seriousness cannot match.