If you have a bad day, think the next day will be better! Thinking positive can help good things happen. Abe Lincoln had nearly 4 X 365 days of bad days during the Civil War. Everyone came to him for answers, but there weren’t any easy ones. He worried about the loss of life both in the North and the South. He prayed he could find a military leader who could bring the war to an end. Unfortunately, Lincoln did not find the right general until March 1864, three years after the war began. So it might be difficult to believe that Lincoln used humor to turn his bad days into better ones.
In this time of war in Eastern Europe, it might seem a strange time to think of humor. But Mark Twain, known then as the Nation’s humorist in the 19th century, denied that joy created the Nation’s laughter. Instead, he found sorrow to be humor’s, as did Lincoln. Of course, Lincoln had a lot of sadness in his life: the loss of his mother when he was nine, death of his only sister in childbirth when he was 19, typhoid took his first love at 20, and two of his sons died in childhood. Nevertheless, he self-treated himself with humor and even published a book of jokes when he was in the White House.
One tale about two Quaker women particularly tickled Lincoln. They discussed whether Confederate President Jefferson Davis or U.S.President Lincoln would win the war. “Well,” one reasoned, “Davis is a praying man.” The other said: “Lincoln is a praying man, too.” The first smiled and said: “But God won’t know if Lincoln is kidding.”
He liked to poke fun at himself.
After moving to New Salem, after his family went from Indiana into Illinois in 1830, he joked about the nearby Sangamon River being so curvy and serpentine that “he had camped at the same place on three different nights.”
He helped build and then managed a general store there. Clark Carr, who worked with Lincoln, said he was “the most comical and jocose of human beings, laughing with the same zest at his jokes as at those of others.” Carr added that he’d never seen “another who provoked so much mirth, and who entered into rollicking fun with such glee.”
“He could make a cat laugh.”
Lincoln didn’t waste his time between customers at the store. He borrowed books and studied math, philosophy, astronomy, history, and poetry. He asked for help from one of the local teachers to learn English Grammar in Familiar Lectures. Lincoln particularly enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet and Macbeth and went to see them in Illinois and Washington.
After participation in the Black Hawk War in Illinois (leading a group of men, but seeing no military action), at 23, Lincoln ran for a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives. In announcing his run, Lincoln said:
“Every man is said to have a particular ambition. But, whether it is true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men that they would have conferred upon me for which if elected I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate the favor. He got 277 votes out of 300 in his home county but lost in the final tally. He was not well known outside New Salem, but that would change.
Before entering national politics, Abe Lincoln worked as a lawyer in Illinois’ Circuit Court. He rode on horseback from one tiny town to another. In Illinois’ Eighth Judicial Circuit, lawyers who opposed each other during the day would be in the same local hotel or tavern at night. Lincoln, according to historian Ronald C. White, Lincoln “seemed to possess an inexhaustible fund” of humorous stories and anecdotes. No one could relate a story without reminding him (Lincoln) of one of a similar character.” Lincoln became known for his laughter, taking pleasure in his humor and others’. “The heartiness of his own enjoyment” drew others to him, even more than being the “Rail-splitter” energized the North for his first Presidential run in 1860.
Lincoln did not take for granted that the country loved him and wanted him to be their President again in 1864. He knew he had the support of half the country– the South DID NOT like or want him to be President. The President expressed as much when the votes for Indiana and Ohio favored him. He knew then that he had the support he needed.
He told the telegraph operator at the War Department down the block from the White House: “It does look like the people wanted me to stay a little longer, and I shall have to if they do.”
Lincoln wanted to stay for a second four years. Finally, as the war wound down, many problems would remain after the war ended. He did not have an opportunity to bind the Nation’s wounds because he died at Ford’s Theater a few days after General Grant signed the surrender.
Gordon Leidner, Lincoln’s Gift: How Humor Shaped Lincoln’s Life and Legacy (Naperville, IL, 2015.)