Fernandez: President Lincoln’s great sense of humor

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By Peter Fernandez

Prophetically enough, Abraham is Hebrew for “Father of a Great Multitude,” and to the majority of Union souls, excepting a viper’s den of treasonous Copperheads,  or Confederate sympathizers, Lincoln was reckoned spiritual kin to that ancient Biblical Patriarch.  Of course, he had his critics, which included a reporter with The Spectator of London: “This shrewd peasant with his noble purpose and his deadly tenacity expresses their resolve; that despite endless charges of oppression… despite endless uncouthness and occasional want of tact, he is the fitting mouth-piece of the nation in its struggle for life and death.”

Peter Fernandez

According to the exacting Carl Sandburg, Lincoln’s Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, most of the President’s jests could “be told in a lady’s parlor.” Yet, Lincoln’s tendencies to spin daily “country bumpkin jests” were considered by allies, adversaries, and news men, as acting below the dignity of the Presidency. Leslie’s Weekly, a popular NY pro-abolition periodical, recounted the opposition’s name calling: “ape, gorilla, fool, filthy story-teller, despot, liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, tortoise, ignoramus, old scoundrel, perjurer, robber, swindler, tyrant, fiend, butcher, land pirate.”

Popular Confederate publications, The Daily Richmond Examiner and The Southern Literary Examiner, were downright rabid when defining his character and methods, but pro-abolitionist Harper’s Weekly countered: “The personal character of the President is the rock upon which the Opposition is wrecked. It dashes against him and his administration, hissing and venomous, but falls back again baffled…the popular confidence in the unswerving fidelity and purity of purpose of the President has smiled the storm to scorn.”

So, what did Father Abraham say that concerned so many “refined” colonials?  Was he really “the white trash of the South spawned on Illinois,” as abolitionist, Wendell Phil-lips, a Harvard Law graduate, said?  You see, Mr. Lincoln worked as a legal clerk, and, then, sans any law degree, practiced for seventeen years after the state of Illinois certified him in 1839 “as a person of good moral character.”

One bright morning in the White House, the President was found polishing his boots. The senior official who walked into his office, said in surprise, “‘Why Mr. Lincoln, gentlemen do not shine their own boots.’ The President simply replied, “’Then, whose shoes do they shine?”’

According to Sandburg’s three volume, 2400 page tome, Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years and The War Years, “A newly elected Congressman came in, Lincoln knowing him to have a sense of humor, for the gay greeting was: ‘Come in here and tell me what you know. It won’t take long.’”

Regarding a political adversary impassive to slavery, he said: “I suppose the institution of slavery really looks small to him. He is so put up by nature, that a lash upon his back would hurt him, but a lash upon anybody else’s back does not hurt him.”

But, not all of the humor published and attributed to the self-effacing President was of or by him. “I remember a good story when I hear it,” he said, “but I never invented anything original. I am only a retail dealer.”

Upon the eve of Abe’s November 1864 re-nomination in Baltimore, The New York Herald printed that the President was “a joke incarnated, his election a very sorry joke,  and the idea that such a man as he should be the President of such a country as this a very ridiculous joke.”

But, according to an Illinois cavalry colonel, John F. Farnsworth, Lincoln “used stories as a cure for a drooping friend or for his own melancholy, yet also to clinch an argument, to lay bare a fallacy, to disarm an antagonist, but most often the stories were labor-saving contrivances.”

Invited to a banquet given for Illinois journalists in 1856, and not being a newspaper-man, Abraham was feeling alienated, and upon being called to speak before the mostly formally educated scribes, was reminded of a story: “This fellow, while riding one day, happened upon a woman who curtly remarked, ‘Well, for land sake, you are the homeliest man I ever saw. Yes, madam, but I can’t help it,’ he responded. ‘No, I suppose not,’ she allowed, “but you might stay at home.’”

Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s devoted Secretary of War, writes Sandburg, “regarded himself as an image of war and a hurler of thunderbolts. At the doorway of the war telegraph office he stood… At a table sat Lincoln writing… Stanton postured volcanic and warlike. The operator Chandler wrote of the tableau: ‘Mr. Lincoln did not notice him at first. As he looked up from his writing and perceived Stanton standing there, he bowed low and said with much gravity, ‘Good-evening, Mars.’”

A Boston newspaperman asked, “You never swear, Mr. President, do you?”

“Oh, I don’t have to,” he replied. “You know I have Stanton in my cabinet.”

In 1864, the persuasive widow of Louis Powell Harvey, the Governor of Wisconsin, met a number of times with the president. Her husband had recently drowned ferrying supplies for wounded soldiers at the Battle of Shiloh. Having observed the difficult conditions Union soldiers endured in sweltering Dixie field hospitals, she pleaded her case for the building of a military hospital in her cleaner, cooler state. For days, Lincoln hemmed and hawed, but finally gave in to the relentless widow, who was, for the first time, speechless. “You almost think I am handsome now, don’t you?” smiled the Presi-dent.

It is estimated that 700,000 troops, including 40,000 black soldiers, were killed during The Civil War. The loss of this brave multitude fed and fueled Lincoln’s clinically depressed character, and when the widow told him how glad and grateful hearts would be, “The president bowed his head,” wrote Sandburg, “and with a look of sadness she thought impossible to describe, said, ‘I shall never be glad any more.’”

The author is a children’s book author and Vermont resident.

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3 replies »

  1. As I read this article, I was forced to recall a disturbing conversation I had with the Essex High School Equity Director. I called to better understand what the proposed equity agenda was about. The equity director asked me about whether reprecations for slavery are in order. I said that occured a was a long time ago. we fought a civil war to end slavery, a vast amount of people died, according to your article 700,000 people, plus the decimation of private property, a cross the US. She unenthusiastically said that educators will discuss this. She asked me again shouldn’t I pay deprecations for slavery. I said I am a second generation American, a descendent of German and Italian immigrants, my family was not in America when slavery existed. To this she responded that I was white, therefore responsible. The old class cast system has been repranded as a race class system, based on the color of your skin, by white, educated, liberal bullies.

    • I support reparations as follows. Every living person who is or was legally enslaved in the United States should be compensated from funds derived from every living current or former slave owner.

  2. As a person with a debilitating “invisible disability”, I’ve been denied opportunities, ridiculed, deceived, deprived my entire life. Jewish, I’ve experienced anti-Jewish racism. The reparations I seek are to see more equitability in this country. Not the utopian hypothetical “equity”, which is the politically correct choice of the “woke”.
    The name-calling directed at Lincoln is, tragically, all too common from both Right and Left in these times.