Abraham Lincoln often resorted to humor to achieve his purpose. As his contemporaries said, humor to him was “a labor-saving contrivance” and “a multiple-purpose tool.”
But it was more than that. An artery of humor ran through Lincoln. It fed his lifestream and nourished his individuality.
Punning was a fashionable kind of humor in his day and Lincoln is credited with producing some good, as well as atrocious puns.
For example, in 1863, a U.S. Army captain faced court-martial proceedings for peeking over a hotel-room transom at a woman getting undressed. In the news at the same time was the minister to the United States from Norway and Sweden, a man named Count Edward Piper.
In a neat double word play, the President suggested to a secretary that the voyeuristic captain “should be elevated to the peerage with the title of Count ‘Peeper.’ ”
Once when Ward Hill Lamon tore the seat of his breeches during a wrestling match in front of a courthouse, colleagues passed around a petition soliciting funds for the repair of the damaged pants. Lawyer Lincoln wrote, “I can contribute nothing to the end in view.”
Less clever, but effective, was one in which the lanky President-elect, at a train stop on his way to Washington, brought out Mrs. Lincoln to show her to a Pennsylvania crowd, and stood beside her “to give them the long and short of it.” It got a loud burst of laughter.
Not one to waste a crowd pleaser, Lincoln later repeated his remark to a throng in the capital and got an equally gratifying response.
Poking fun at his own looks paid off in laughs and extra dividends of good feeling toward him. It also helped him off the hook and avoid speaking publicly on issues before his inauguration.
In contrast to such mildly comic remarks, he also had a sharp, original wit. Consider his characterizaton of a certain windbag: “He can compress the fewest ideas in the most words of any man I ever met.”
Lincoln loved to laugh. He told a friend that he lived by his humor and would have died without it. Once there was relayed to Lincoln the complaint of a certain officer that his relationship to a noted general kept him down. Old Abe, amused, roared, “Keeps him down, keeps him down, keeps him down. That's all that keeps him up!”
Lincoln had also found humor effective in the courtroom. Defending a client accused of assault and battery, he cross-examined a witness to the fight. Although the scrap was practically bloodless, the witness was so overcome by his own rhetoric that he claimed the set-to covered an acre of land.
Lincoln let him have this say, then mildly inquired, “Now don't you think that was a mighty small crop of fight to raise on such a big farm?” The jury found this very funny. It also found for Lincoln's client.
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