Now, that reminds me of a story...
– Abraham Lincoln, many times.
As a leader, Abraham Lincoln was a strange contradiction: wildly unpopular with a large portion of the electorate, fiercely defended by his supporters. Historically, his legacy more than bordered on the hagiographic. His dramatic assassination set off a pageant of national grief that was unparalleled in its day – the funeral train went through 180 cities and seven states, and turned the late President into an enduring icon.
As a person, though, Abraham Lincoln was an enigma. He no more fit into his own time than he does into modern thinking, although his ideas, being ahead of his era, might have made him more comfortable in the 21st Century than the 19th. Lincoln does not seem to have been gay, but he was certainly aware of diversity in sexual preference. And there is evidence that he was tolerant about it. He was tolerant about a lot of things in human relationships; accounts attest to the fact that Lincoln was the victim of spousal abuse.
Lincoln wasn't the only President who wrote poetry – he certainly has competition from Jimmy Carter in that department. But he was, far and away, the best raconteur ever to inhabit the White House. He was an inveterate teller of stories, anecdotes, and jokes. His stuffy cabinet complained. He distracted people from 'serious business'. But Lincoln's jokes were a key part of his character. As he once said, 'With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.' Wise man.
Some Lincoln Jokes
What kind of jokes did Lincoln tell? According to Robert Mankoff, a humour expert from the New Yorker, 'Lincoln was much more about 'laughing with' than 'laughing at'.'1 Lincoln's humour was gentle – self-deprecating, but often ribald. Here are a few samples:
Maryland must be a good state to come from2.
Note: It is fascinating to find that joke among Lincoln memorabilia. That quip – insert name of state – is still common currency among US Appalachian people.
No matter how much cats fight, there always seem to be plenty of kittens.
When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.
Lincoln was not a church member.
If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?
Lincoln seems to have been aware of his lack of physical beauty. In fact, when he was a candidate, a little girl suggested he grow a beard to hide some of his facial deficiencies. He did.
A Lincoln Story
Lincoln loved to tell 'yarns', or stories. Here is one that could form the subject of an interesting theological debate3.
A country meeting-house, that was used once a month, was quite a distance from any other house.
The preacher, an old-line Baptist, was dressed in coarse linen pantaloons, and shirt of the same material. The pants [trousers], manufactured after the old fashion, with baggy legs, and a flap in the front [ie, fall-front trousers], were made to attach to his frame without the aid of suspenders [braces].
A single button held his shirt in position, and that was at the collar. He rose up in the pulpit, and with a loud voice announced his text thus: 'I am the Christ whom I shall represent to-day.'
About this time a little blue lizard ran up his roomy pantaloons. The old preacher, not wishing to interrupt the steady flow of his sermon, slapped away on his leg, expecting to arrest the intruder, but his efforts were unavailing, and the little fellow kept on ascending higher and higher.
Continuing the sermon, the preacher loosened the central button which graced the waistband of his pantaloons, and with a kick off came that easy-fitting garment.
But, meanwhile, Mr Lizard had passed the equatorial line of the waistband, and was calmly exploring that part of the preacher's anatomy which lay underneath the back of his shirt.
Things were now growing interesting, but the sermon was still grinding on. The next movement on the preacher's part was for the collar button, and with one sweep of his arm off came the tow linen shirt.
The congregation sat for an instant as if dazed; at length one old lady in the rear part of the room rose up, and, glancing at the excited object in the pulpit, shouted at the top of her voice: 'If you represent Christ, then I'm done with the Bible.'
A Story About Lincoln
Lincoln wasn't just a great storyteller. He was an unusual practitioner of humorous living, especially before he was President and had the weight of the world on his stooped shoulders. This story was collected as true in 1900. Apparently, Lincoln's girlfriend (and later wife), the rather differently-mentated Mary Todd, got her beau embroiled in a controversy by writing satirical newspaper articles about a leading politician by the name of Shields. Since it wasn't 'done' for ladies to publish political satire, Lincoln claimed responsibility, just to be gallant. The irate target of this satire challenged Lincoln to a duel. Not a nice thing to have happen, even if you weren't, like Lincoln, a pacifist at heart. What happened next was pure Lincoln.
Meanwhile Miss Todd increased Shields' ire by writing another letter to the paper, in which she said: 'I hear the way of these fire-eaters is to give the challenged party the choice of weapons, which being the case, I'll tell you in confidence that I never fight with anything but broom-sticks, or hot water, or a shovelful of coals, the former of which, being somewhat like a shillalah, may not be objectionable to him.'
Lincoln accepted the challenge, and selected broadswords as the weapons. Judge Herndon (Lincoln's law partner) gives the closing of this affair as follows:
'The laws of Illinois prohibited dueling, and Lincoln demanded that the meeting should be outside the state. Shields undoubtedly knew that Lincoln was opposed to fighting a duel – that his moral sense would revolt at the thought, and that he would not be likely to break the law by fighting in the state. Possibly he thought Lincoln would make a humble apology. Shields was brave, but foolish, and would not listen to overtures for explanation. It was arranged that the meeting should be in Missouri, opposite Alton. They proceeded to the place selected, but friends interfered, and there was no duel. There is little doubt that the man who had swung a beetle and driven iron wedges into gnarled hickory logs could have cleft the skull of his antagonist, but he had no such intention. He repeatedly said to the friends of Shields that in writing the first article he had no thought of anything personal. The Auditor's vanity had been sorely wounded by the second letter, in regard to which Lincoln could not make any explanation except that he had had no hand in writing it. The affair set all Springfield to laughing at Shields.'
Lincoln: funny in life, and inspiring in death. The honesty and humour of this amazing man provides a model that modern politicians can only dream of emulating. The 20th Century failed to produce his like. Perhaps the 21st will have better luck.