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The Wit of Cousin Abe

Abraham Lincoln, 1860 by George Peter Alexander Healy

In honor of Presidents' Day, I thought I would share some stories that Abraham Lincoln used to tell (Click here for the original post about him).

Abe inherited his enjoyment for jokes and story telling from his father, Thomas. As a child, Abe loved listening to his father and other men swap tales around the woodstove. As he grew older he became increasingly adept at telling and re-telling humorous stories, frequently modifying them to accommodate each situation. When Abe became a lawyer, he used his jokes and stories to gain the good will of juries, and more than once his opposing counsel would complain to the judge that Abe’s stories were irrelevant and distracting to the jury.

A contemporary wrote, "When Lincoln tells a joke in a fireside group, his face loses its melancholy mask, his eyes sparkle and his whole countenance lights up." He referred to laughter as "the joyful, beautiful, universal evergreen of life."

Abe never took himself too seriously and would tell stories that would poke fun at himself: I feel like I once did when I met a woman riding horseback in the woods. As I stopped to let her pass, she also stopped, and, looking at me intently, said: "I do believe you are the ugliest man I ever saw." Said I, "Madam, you are probably right, but I can’t help it!" "No," said she, "you can’t help it, but you might stay at home!"

During one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Stephen Douglas accused Abe of being two-faced. Replied Abe calmly, “I leave it to my audience: If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”

Abe once said that he had known of a hotel keeper in St. Louis who boasted that nobody ever died in his hotel. “Of course,” Abe said, “Anytime a guest appeared to be in danger of dying he was carried out to die in the gutter."

A law-abiding citizen once found himself looking down the barrel of a gun. According to Abe, this attacker severely underestimated his target, who lunged forward and took the weapon. “Stop!” hollered the crook. “Give me back that pistol; you have no right to my property!”

In March 1863 the famed Confederate battalion known as Mosby’s Rangers raided Fairfax, Virginia and captured a Union brigadier general, two captains and number of soldiers and horses. Upon learning the news, the president supposedly commented: "Well, I am sorry for the horses." He then explained: "I can make a brigadier general in five minutes, but it is not easy to replace a hundred and ten horses."

Once, a woman approached President Lincoln about an officer’s commission for her son. "Mr. President," she said imperiously, "you must give me a colonel’s commission for my son. Sir, I demand it, NOT as a favor, but as a right. My grandfather fought at Lexington. My uncle was the only man that did not run away at Bladensburg. My father fought at New Orleans, and my husband was killed at Monterey." Abe answered her with a grave expression on his face, "I guess, madam, your family has done enough for the country. It’s time to give somebody else a chance," and ended the session.

At a town reception following his cemetery address at Gettysburg, he remarked: "In my position, it is somewhat important that I should not say foolish things. It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all."

Abe was looking at a very poor painting. An art student asked him to give his opinion of the picture, "Why he is an excellent painter," answered Abe, "he carefully observes the Lord's commandments, for he hath not made unto himself the likeness of anything that is in the heavens above or is in the earth beneath or that is in the waters under the earth."

When a courier appeared at the War Office to announce a major Union victory, the officers were surprised that Lincoln showed no excitement. Lincoln dismissed the courier and cheerfully told the men in the room, "Pay no attention to him… He’s the biggest liar in Washington. He reminds me of an old fisherman I used to know who got such a reputation for stretching the truth that he bought a pair of scales and insisted on weighing every fish in the presence of witnesses. One day a baby was born next door and the doctor borrowed the fisherman’s scales. The baby weighed forty-seven pounds."

A guest at a reception told Abe that in his home state people said that the welfare of the nation depended on God and Abraham Lincoln. "You are half right," said Abe.

While in office, he was asked about what it was like to be president. Abe answered, "I’m like the man who was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. When they asked him how he felt about it, he said that if it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would rather have walked."

He was a gangly man who topped out at six feet four inches. To the inevitable question “How tall are you?” Abe would reply, “Tall enough to reach the ground.”

Happy Presidents' Day!


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