Abraham Lincoln: From His Own Words and Contemporary Accounts

By Roy Edgar Appleman; Abraham Lincoln | Go to book overview

31. A MAN'S NEED OF HUMOR

Lincoln's story telling proclivities were well known in his own time. On the old eighth circuit in Illinois his humor and fund of anecdotes were proverbial. What was not so well known was that the tall homely man needed a blanket of humor to supress the fires of depression, gloom, and sense of tragedy that almost consumed him. He sought desperately to supply this need. Then, too, he daily turned his great gift to very practical purposes. Often he softened a rebuke or a refusal or avoided a long discussion or a laborious explanation by an appropriate story that illustrated his point of view. It was principally the purpose or effect of a story that interested Lincoln, not the story itself. The following three selections show the characteristic quality of Lincoln's wit and humor.

Some of Mr. Lincoln's intimate friends once called his attention to a certain member of his Cabinet who was quietly working to secure a nomination for the Presidency, although knowing that Mr. Lincoln was to be a candidate for reelection. His friends insisted that the Cabinet officer ought to be made to give up his Presidential aspirations or be removed from office. The situation reminded Mr. Lincoln of a story.

"My brother and I," he said, "were once plowing corn, I driving the horse and he holding the plow. The horse was lazy, but on one occasion he rushed across the field so that I, with my long legs, could scarcely keep pace with him. On reaching the end of the furrow, I found an enormous chin-fly fastened upon him, and knocked him off. My brother asked me what I did that for. I told him I didn't want the old horse bitten in that way. 'Why,' said my brother, 'that's all that made him go.'

"Now," said Mr. Lincoln, "if Mr. ----- has a Presidential chin-fly biting him, I'm not going to knock him off, if it will only make his department go."

HENRY J. RAYMOND IN Lincoln Talks, EDITED BY EMANUEL HERTZ.

Judge Holt expected, of course, that he would write "approved" on the paper; but the President, running his long fingers through his hair, as he so often used to do when in anxious thought, replied, "Well, after all, Judge, I think I must put this with my leg cases."

"Leg cases," said Judge Holt, with a frown at this supposed levity of the President, in a case of life and death. "What do you mean by leg cases, sir?"

"Why, why," replied Mr. Lincoln, "do you see those papers crowded into those pigeon-holes? They are the cases that you call by that long title, 'cowardice in the face of the enemy,' but I call them, for short, my 'leg cases.' But I put it to you, and I leave it for you to decide for yourself: if Almighty God gives a man a cowardly pair of legs how can he help their running away with him?"

SCHUYLER COLFAX, IN Lincoln Talks, EDITED BY EMANUEL HERTZ.

-37-

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