Meeting Mr. Lincoln: Mr. Lincoln's Stories

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"The President was not a gloomy man. He was always hopeful, and the wit and humor which held his audiences spellbound in the old days of the Douglas debates stayed with him," wrote Sergeant Smith Stimmel, who served as an army bodyguard to Mr. Lincoln. "He always had a story suited to the occasion, and there was not a man in our troop who did not have a hatful of anecdotes to tell of their great Commander.1

Mr. Lincoln liked stories. He liked to hear them and he liked to tell them. And, he liked to use them to suggest a moral or evade a clear statement of opinion. Mr. Lincoln knew words were important. Stories were an evasive tactic for Lincoln. His penchant for stories both prevented him from miscommunication or misinterpreted communication and forced his listeners to think about what he intended to say. He understood the nature of the relationship between speaker or leader and his audience.

One 1863 visitor from Kentucky noted "His conversational powers are fine - and his custom of interspersing his conversations with incidents, anecdotes and witticisms are well calculated to impress his hearers with the kind heartedness of the man. And they are adroitly and delicately mingled in the thread of his discourse that one hardly notices the digression."2

Mr. Lincoln did not claim to have authored the stories he told - instead he collected them over the years from his interactions with friends, clients, colleagues, and supplicants as well as from reading. Many came from Joe Miller's Jest Book and he frequently denied making them up himself. New York Secretary of State Chauncey M. Depew was told by Mr. Lincoln: "I never invented [a] story, but I have a good memory and, I think, tell one tolerably well. My early life was passed among pioneers who had the courage and enterprise to break away from civilization and settle in the wilderness. The things which happened to these original people and among themselves in their primitive conditions were far more dramatic than anything invented by the professional story-tellers."3 David Homer Bates recalled Mr. Lincoln told telegraph operators at the War Department that story telling was a habit of which he could break himself - "he found it difficult to refrain from clinching an argument or emphasizing a good point by means of a story."4

"I have the popular reputation of being a story-teller, but I do not deserve the name in its general sense, for it is not the story itself, but its purpose or effect tat interests me. I often avoid a long and useless discussion by others, or a laborious explanation on my own part, by a short story that illustrates my point of view. So too, the sharpness of a refusal or the edge of a rebuke may be blunted by an appropriate sotry so as to save wounding feelings and yet serve the purpose. No, I am not simply a story-telling as an emollient saves me much friction and distress," President Lincoln told Colonel Silas W. Burt.5

Bates noted that Lincoln's humor often has much earlier antecedents. One story often attributed to President Lincoln suggested that when critics complained of General Ulysses S. Grant's consumption of alcohol, Mr. Lincoln suggested he should should send some to us other generals. President "Lincoln disclaimed this story in my hearing, stating that King George II of England was said to have remarked, when he was told that General Wolfe, then in command of the English army in Canada, was mad, that he wished Wolfe would bit some of his other generals," wrote Bates.6

Historian Harold Holzer has written: "Lincoln's admirers loved his down-to-earth style and earthy way with a comic tale. But foes leaped on such qualities as evidence of Lincoln's coarseness and lack of dignity. One cartoon of the day featured him reacting to news of wartime slaughter by drawling: 'That reminds me of a funny story.' Such caricatures used humor to make Lincoln's humor a political liability."7

Few things in life aroused Mr. Lincoln like a good story. Noah Brooks recalled that the President "thought that the chief characteristic of American humor was its grotesqueness and extravagance; and the story of the man who was so tall that he was 'laid out' in a rope-walk, the soprano voice so high that it had to be climbed over by a ladder, and the Dutchman's expression of 'somebody tying his dog loose,' all made a permanent lodgment in his mind."8 An old Illinois colleague, Joseph Gillespie, observed: "He never missed the nib of an anecdote. He always maintained...that the best stories originated with Country boys & in the rural districts."9

He loved to read Artemus Ward, whose real name was Charles Farrar Brown, and Petroleum Nasby, whose real name was David R. Locke. Locke was editor of Findlay, Ohio Jeffersonian. Frequently, the President began Cabinet meetings by reading from the two humorists. He told one visitor: "Ward rests me more than any living man."10 When Congressmen Isaac chastised Mr. Lincoln for reading Ward after a Union defeat, the President responded: "Mr. Arnold, if I could not get momentary respite from the crushing burden I am constantly carrying I should die."11 New York Times editor Henry J. Raymond recalled:
It has been well said by a profound critic of Shakespeare, and it occurs to me as very appropriate in this connection, that 'the spirit which held the woe of Lear and the tragedy of 'Hamlet' would have broken had it not also had the humor of the 'Merry Wives of Windsor' and the merriment of the 'Midsummer Night's Dream.''
This is as true of Mr. Lincoln as it was of Shakespeare. The capacity to tell and enjoy a good anecdote no doubt prolonged his life.12

Artist Francis Carpenter wrote: "The Saturday evening before he left Washington to go to the front, just previous to the capture of Richmond [in April 1865], I was with him from seven o'clock till nearly twelve. It had been one of his most trying days. The pressure of office-seekers was greater at this juncture than I ever knew it be, and he was almost worn out. Among the callers that evening was a party composed of two Senators, a Representative, an ex-Lieutenant-Governor of a Western State, and several private citizens. They had business of great importance, involving the necessity of the President's examination of voluminous documents. Pushing everything aside, he said to one of the party: 'Have you seen the Nasby papers?' 'No, I have not,' was the reply; 'who is Nasby?''There is a chap out in Ohio,' returned the President, 'who has been writing a series of letters in the newspapers over the signature of Petroleum V. Nasby. Some one sent me a pamphlet collection of them the other day. I am going to write to 'Petroleum' to come down here, and I intend to tell him if he will communicate his talent to me, I will swap places with him!' 'Thereupon he arose, went to a drawer in his desk, and, taking out the 'Letters,' sat down and read one to the company, finding in their employment of it the temporary excitement and relief which another man would have found in a glass of wine. The instant he had ceased, the book was thrown aside, his countenance relapsed into its habitual serious expression, and the business was entered upon with the utmost earnestness.'"13

David R. Locke, alias Petroleum Nasby, later recalled: ""The 'Nasby letters,' which I began in 1861, attracted his attention, and he was very much pleased with them. He read them regularly. He kept a pamphlet which contained the first numbers of the series in a drawer in his table, and it was his wont to read them on all occasions to his visitors, no matter who they might be, or what their business was. He seriously offended many of the great men of the Republican Party in this way. Grave and reverend Senators who came charged to the brim with important business - business on which the fate of the nation depended - took it ill that the President should postpone the consideration thereof while he read them a letter from 'Saint's rest, wich is in the state uv Noo Jersey,' especially as grave statesmen, as a rule, do not understand humor, or comprehend its meaning or effect.'"14

John W. Forney, a Pennsylvania editor and politician, noted that Mr. Lincoln "delighted in parables and stories. His treasures of memory were inexhaustible. He never failed for an illustration. He liked the short farce better than the five-act tragedy. He would shout with laughter over a French, German or negro anecdote, and he was always ready to match the best with a better. More than once, when I bore a message to him from the Senate, he detained me with some amusing sketch of Western life. He seemed to have read the character, and to know the peculiarities of every leading man in Congress and the country, and would play off many an innocent joke upon them."15 Forney noted that "not witticism, whether delicate or broad, escaped his keen appreciation. He was, withal, a man of sentiment, reading Shakespeare like a philosopher, and remembering the best passages."

New York politician Chauncey Depew recalled the importance Mr. Lincoln placed on collecting stories for future use: "Mr Lincoln's avidity for a new story was very great. I remember once at a reception, as the line was passing and he was shaking hands with each one in the usual way, that he stopped a friend of mine who was moving immediately ahead of me. He whispered something in his ear, and then listened attentively for five minutes - the rest of us waiting, devoured with curiosity as to what great secret of state could have so singularly interrupted the festival. I seized my friend the instant we passed the President, as did everybody else who knew him, to find out what the communication meant. I learned that he had told Mr. Lincoln a first-class anecdote a few days before, and the President, having forgotten the point, had arrested the movement of three thousand guests in order to get it on the spot."16

When necessary, Mr. Lincoln put stories quickly to good use. John Forney recalled how a group of Kentucky politicians had visited the president in July 1861. He first had a visitor tell a story of European diplomacy and then added one of his own: "Gentlemen, my position in regard to your State is like that of the woodman, who, returning to his home one night, found coiled around his beautiful children, who were quietly sleeping in their bed, several poisonous snakes. His first impulse was to save his little ones, but he feared that if he struck at the snakes he might strike the children, and yet he dared not let them die without an effort. So it is with me. I know Kentucky and Tennessee are infested with the enemies of the Union; but I know also that there are thousands of patriots in both who will be persecuted even unto death unless the strong hand of the Government is interposed for their protection and rescue. We must go in. The old flag must be carried into Tennessee at whatever hazard."17

Animals played a big part in Mr. Lincoln's stories. Cordelia Perrine Harvey told of waiting in the President's office while he interviewed a man seeking a promotion for a relative. "I see there are no vacancies among brigadiers, from the fact that so many colonels are commanding brigades," said President Lincoln. According to Mrs. Harvey: "At this the President threw himself forward in his chair in such a manner as to show me the most curious, comical face in the world. He was looking the man straight in the eye, with the left hand raised to a horizontal position, and his right hand patting it coaxingly, and said: 'My friend, let me tell you something; you are a farmer, I believe; if not, you will understand me. Suppose you had a large cattle yard, full of all sorts of cattle, cows, oxen, and bulls, and you kept selling your cows and oxen, taking good care of your bulls; bye and bye, you would find that you had nothing but a yard full of old bulls, good for nothing under heaven, and it will be just so with my army if I don't stop making brigadier generals.' The man was answered; he could scarcely laugh, though he tried to do so, but you should have seen Mr. Lincoln laugh - he laughed all over, and fully enjoyed the point if no one else did. The story, if not elegant, was certainly apropos."18

Supreme Court Justice David Davis accompanied two friends to the White House after the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13-14, 1862. According to Davis biographer Willard L. King, "On their way to the White House, Davis warned them, 'You must expect him to tell a story. If he could not relieve his mind in the darkest hours in this way, he would die.' They found Lincoln very sad and hastened to assure him that whatever might be said in the East, the great West was still with him and had absolute confidence in him. He looked up with a woeful smile and said: And his jaws came together with the firm grip that they all knew so well."19 Davis's reference was echoed by several other observers, who complained to the President about his reliance on stories and humorous writings. Congressman James M. Ashley of Ohio objected to the President's storytelling and was told: "Ashley, I have great confidence in you and great respect for you, and I know how sincere you are. But if I couldn't tell these stories, I would die. Now you sit down."20

Such stories were part of Mr. Lincoln's popular (and unpopular) image. An 1865 book called Old Abe's Jokes, Fresh from Abraham's Bosom, noted: "Some newspaper admirer attempts to deny that the President tells stories. Why, it is rarely that any one is in his company for fifteen minutes without hearing a good tale, appropriate to the subject talked about. Many a metaphysical argument does he demolish by simply telling an anecdote, which exactly overturns the verbal structure."21

Of course, not all visitors were charmed by Mr. Lincoln's stories. Ben Perley Poore recounted the story of one congressman: "I've been trying for the last four days to get an audience with the President. I have gone to the White House every morning and waited till dark, but could not get a chance to speak to him until to-day, when I was admitted to his presence. I told him what I wanted, and supposed I was going to get a direct answer, when, what do you think? Why, he started off with, 'Do you know, I heard a good thing yesterday about the difference between an Amsterdam Dutchman and any other 'dam' Dutchman.' And then he commenced telling his stories. He told three, and I didn't listen to a word he said. I was mad enough to knock the old fellow down. But the worst of the whole thing was that just as he got through with the last story in came Secretary Seward, who said he must have a private conference with him immediately. Mr. Lincoln cooly turned to me and said, 'Mr. _____, can you call again?' Bother his impudence, I say, to keep me listening to his jokes for two hours, and then ask me to call again!"22

Not all the stories the President heard or told were in the best taste - either then or now. Journalist Don Piatt recalled meeting with Mr. Lincoln in Illinois:
Subsequent to the supper we had gatherings at Mr. Lincoln's old law office, and at the political head-quarters, at which men only formed the company; and before those good honest citizens, who fairly worshiped their distinguished neighbor, Mr. Lincoln gave way to his natural bent for fun, and told very amusing stories, always in quaint illustration of the subject under discussion, no one of which will bear printing. They were coarse, and were saved from vulgarity only by being so strangely in point, and told not for the sake of the telling, as if he enjoyed the stories themselves, but that they were, as I have said, so quaintly illustrative.
    The man who could open a Cabinet meeting called to discuss the Emancipation Proclamation by reading Artemus Ward, who called for a comic song on the bloody battlefield, was the same man who could guide with clear mind and iron hand the diplomacy that kept off the fatal interference of Europe, while conducting at home the most horrible of all civil wars that ever afflicted a people. He reached with ease the highest and the lowest level, and on the very field that he shamed with a ribald song he left a record of eloquence never reached by human lips before.23

Illinois attorney Leonard Swett noted: "His love of fun made him overlook everything else but the point of the joke sought after. If he told a good story that was refined and had a sharp point, he did not like it any the better because it was refined. If it was outrageously low and dirty, he never seemed to see that part of ti. If it had the sharp ring of wit, nothing ever reached him but the wit. Almost any man that will tell a very vulgar story, has got in a degree a vulgar mind, ut it was not so with him. With all his purity of character and exalted morality and sensibility, which no man can doubt, when hunting for wit, he had not ability to discriminate between the vulgar and the refined - substances from which he extricated it. It was the wit he was after - the pure jewel, and he would pick it up out of the mud, or dirt just as readily as he would from a parlor table."24

"I heard him tell a great many stories, many of which would not do exactly for the drawing-room; but for the person he wished to reach, and the object he desired to accomplish with the individual, the story did more than any argument," recalled Chauncey Depew. "He said to me once, in reference to some sharp criticisms which had been made upon his story-telling: "They say I tell a great many stories; I reckon I do, but I have found in the course of a long experience that common people -- common people -- take them as they run, are more easily influenced and informed through the medium of a broad illustration than in any other way, and what the hypercritical few may think, I don't care."25 George Templeton Strong was a lawyer and member of New York's elite. Although a supporter of Mr. Lincoln, he did not appreciate such stories, writing in his diary: "His only special gift is fertility of smutty stories. QAM parva Salientia mantas regitur! What must be the calibre of our rulers whose rule is so disgraceful a failure?"26

Not all stories were told for a purpose, noted historian Roy Basler. "His love for the writings of Artemus Ward, Petroleum V. Nasby, and other humorists indicates a respect for humor in its own right, and his indulgence in stories as well as his general clowning on the platform was doubtless ane expression of a genuine and deep-seated comic urge, not necessarily incompatible with high sincerity when blended in the genius of an artist. Today one can lament only that so few of Lincoln's stories have been preserved in the actual manner of telling which he gave them. Even the most authentic often show less of Lincoln than they do of the person who is authority for the tale."27

Union Army officer James Grant Wilson observed that President Lincoln "was too kind-hearted to exercise his trenchant power of repartee. 'Wit laughs at everybody,' he said; 'humor laughs with everybody.' The President's jocoseness was partly natural, partly intentional. In the sea of troubles that almost overwhelmed him, he affected a serenity that he was far from feeling, and his fun and mirth at momentous epochs were censured by dullards who could not comprehend their philosophy."28

British journalist Edward Dicey had an interview with the President and later wrote "of the almost incredible manner in which stories are coined about Mr. Lincoln. Some time afterward, in the West, I traveled with a gentleman who professed to be an intimate personal acquaintance of the President. After telling me a number of anecdotes to illustrate his reputed free and easy manner, he told me that he had once been present in a Western law court where Mr. Lincoln was engaged to defend a prisoner for murder. He came late, apologized to the judge for his detention, owing to his having overslept himself, and then stated that he was never comfortable until he had smoked his morning cigar, and proposed, with the judge's permission, that they should have cigars all around. The permission being granted, he proceeded, with his cigar in his mouth, to defend his client. Now, unless I had had personal reason for knowing that Mr. Lincoln was not a smoker, I should certainly have recorded this with a variety of other similar anecdotes, as gospel truth, coming as they did on such apparently indubitable evidence. From all that I saw and heard myself, I have no doubt that Mr. Lincoln would say hosts of things which seem to us utterly undignified, but he is the last man to say anything which would seem undignified to himself. Unlike Western politicians, he was noted for being 'hail fellow well met' with every barroom lounger that he came across. He is a humorist, not a buffoon."29

Mr. Lincoln's stories were seldom long. They used strong visual language to make a quick point. Telegraph operator Homer Bates later observed: "Many of Lincoln's stories were in couples, like man and wife, one complementing the other; for instance, some one spoke of Tom Hood's spoiled child, which, as I recall, was represented in a series of pictures. First, the nurse places baby in an arm-chiar before the fire and covers it with a shawl to shield it from theheat; next the fussy aunt comes into the room and, being near-sighted, fails to observe the sleeping baby and flops into the easy chair when, of course, there is a scream; then the nurse enters and rescues the baby from the heavy weight of the aunt and holds it in her arms edgeways so that when the father of the now spoiled child comes in the baby is mashed so flat that he does not perceive it. A reference being made to Hood's story, Lincoln produced its counterpart as follows:
Scene, a theater; curtain just lifted; enter a man with a high silk hat in his hand. He becomes so interested in the movements on the stage that involuntarily he places his hat, open side up, on the adjoining seat without seeing the approach of a fat dowager who, near-sighted, like the fat aunt of the spoiled child, does not observe th open door of the hat. She sits down, and there is a crunching noise, and the owner of the spoiled hat reaches out to rescue his property as the fat woman rises, and holding the hat in front of him says: 'Madam, I could have told you that my hat would not fit before you tried it on.'30

Stories were "a safety valve" for Mr. Lincoln in a life full of the pressures of the presidency, noted Elizabeth Grimsley.31 Supreme Court Justice David Davis, a long-time friend observed in November 1862: "It is a good thing he is fond of anecdotes and telling them for it relieves his spirits very much."32 Another fellow Illinoisan, Governor Richard Yates, observed: "His mirthfulness was to him and to his country, of immense advantage and served to strengthen him for the deeper thoughts and anxieties, which were pressing him on every hand. His anecdotes were also illustrations and arguments."33

Again, according to Chauncey Depew: "Several times when I saw him, he seemed to be oppressed not only with the labors of the position, but especially with care and anxiety growing out of the intense responsibility which he felt for the issue of the conflict and the lives which were lost. He knew the whole situation better than any man in the administration, and virtually carried on in his own mind not only the civic side of the government, but all the campaigns. And I knew when he threw himself (as he did once when I was there) on a lounge, and rattled off story after story, that it was his method of relief, without which he might have gone out of his mind, and certainly would not have been able to have accomplished anything like the amount of work which he did."34

Colonel Wilson recalled one of President Lincoln's stories, told in the winter of 1865: "A frontiersman lost his way in an uninhabited region on a dark and tempestuous night. The rain fell in torrents, accompanied by terrible thunder and more terrific lightning. To increase his trouble his horse halted, being exhausted with fatigue and fright. Presently a bolt of lightning struck a neighboring tree, and the crash brought the man to his knees. He was not an expert in prayer, but his appeal was short and to the point: 'Oh, good Lord, if it is all the same to you, give us a little more light, and a little less noise!"35 Another Union office, Horace Porter, recalled that President Lincoln did not tell a story merely for the sake of the anecdote, but to point a moral or emphasize a fact: “He seldom indulged even in a smile until he reached the climax of a humorous narration; then he joined heartily with the listeners in the laugh which followed. He usually sat in a low camp-chair, and wound his legs around each other as if in an effort to get them out of the way, and with his long arms he accompanied what he said with all sorts of odd gestures.”36.

"But Mr. Lincoln did not always deal exclusively in burlesque," observed Maunsell Field, a Treasury Department official. "He received once a call from a delegation of bank presidents, at one of the gloomiest periods of the war, when depression and even discouragement prevailed in many places. One of the financial gentlemen asked the President if his confidence in the future was not beginning to be shaken. 'Not in the least,' he answered. 'When I was a young man in Illinois,' he continued, 'I boarded for a time with a deacon of the Presbyterian Church. One night I was aroused from my sleep by a rap at my door, and I heard the deacon's voice exclaiming, 'Arise, Abraham, the day of judgment has come!' I sprang from my bed, and rushed to the window; and there I saw the stars falling in a shower. But I looked beyond those falling stars, and far back in the heavens I saw - fixed, apparently, and immovable - the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted. No gentlemen; the world did not come to an end them, nor will the union now!'"37


Footnotes

    1. Smith Stimmel, Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 96.
    2. Harry Pratt, Concerning Mr. Lincoln, p. 101.
    3. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 503. (from Chauncey M. Depew, My Memories of Eighty Years.)
    4. David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, p. 184.
    5. John Wesley Hill, Abraham Lincoln - Man of God, p. 323.
    6. Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, p. 197.
    7. Harold Holzer, "Lincoln Takes the Heat," Civil War Times, February 2001, p. 49.
    8. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 218. (from Noah Brooks, "Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, Harper's Monthly Magazine, May 1865.)
    9. James G. Randall, Lincoln the President, Springfield to Gettysburg, Volume I, p. 45.
    10. Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 121.
    11. Fehrenbachers, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 18.
    12. Alexander McClure, Yarns and Stories, p. 136-137.
    13. Henry Raymond, The Life, Public Services, and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 744.
    14. David R. Locke, Rice, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 447-48.
    15. John W. Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men, pp. 38-39.
    16. Chauncey M. Depew, Allen Thorndike Rice, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 427-9.
    17. Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men, p. 265.
    18. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 562.
    19. Willard L. King, Lincoln's Manager David Davis, p. 207.
    20. Fehrenbachers, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 19.
    21. Richard B. Harwell, The Union Reader, pp. 260-261.
    22. Ben Perley Poore, Perley's Reminiscences, Volume II, p. 144.
    23. Donn Piatt in Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 485-486.
    24. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon's Informants, pp. 165-166.
    25. Chauncey Depew in Allen Thorndike Rice, editor Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 428.
    26. Diary of George Templet on Strong, p. 256.
    27. Roy P. Basler, A Touchstone for Greatness, p. 68.
    28. Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 423.
    29. Edward Dicey, Spectator in America, pp. 93-96.
    30. Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, pp. 197-198.
    31. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, "Six Months in the White House," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 19 (Oct.-Jan., 1926-27): p. 55.
    32. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: War Becomes Revolution, 1862-1863, p. 235.
    33. John H. Krenkel, Richard Yates: Civil War Governor, p.220.
    34. Depew, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 428-29.
    35. Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 423.
    36. Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant, p. 220.
    37. Maunsell B. Field, Personal Recollections: Memories of Many Men and of Some Women, p. 312-313.