Lincoln’s compassion may have been his greatest strength, but it was his humor that probably helped this President keep his sanity. As has been noted by many historians, Lincoln suffered with severe bouts of depression and a prolonged sadness over his lifetime. Part of this may have stemmed from his childhood: he lost his mother and two sisters before he was nineteen, and later nearly became suicidal over the death of his fiancé, Ann Rutledge.[iv] He lost one of his sons during his Presidency, and going through the bloodiest war in American history certainly did not help anything and caused Lincoln no end of anguish and grief. But to his credit, Lincoln understood his depression, which he referred to as “the hypo.”[v] He may have used humor to relieve these moods. He would sometimes joke about life, perhaps in an effort to shine some light in the otherwise dark universe of his mind. Usually, these jokes were self-deprecating: Lincoln once told the story of riding along his law circuit and being stopped by a stranger. “Excuse me, sir,” the stranger had said, “but I have an article in my possession which belongs to you.” “How is that?” Lincoln had replied. The stranger reached for a jackknife in his pocket. “This knife was placed in my hands some years ago, with the injunction that I was to keep it until I had found a man uglier than myself. I have carried it from that time to this. Allow me to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to the property.”[vi] Lincoln got a laugh out of this story and always enjoyed telling jokes on himself.
However, Lincoln did not simply use his personality for his own entertainment; he utilized it to win friends and diffuse tough situations. Once, Lincoln was walking down the street and looked up to see a man with a gun pointed at him. Trying to analyze the situation and be as calm as possible, he asked the man, “What seems to be the matter?” The stranger replied, “Well, some years ago I swore an oath that if I ever came across an uglier man than myself I’d shoot him on the spot.” Realizing that this would be the perfect time to ease the tension, Lincoln replied, “Shoot me, for if I am an uglier man than you I don’t want to live.”[vii] His humor often helped him survive tough situations. He could also use humor to illustrate a point. During his law days, Lincoln was once pleading a case and was losing the argument. The other lawyer had all the advantages and was beating him on many points. It was a hot day, and Lincoln’s opponent had taken off his coat and vest and wrapped it behind him. Knowing that this would be the perfect opportunity to get the attention of the crowd, he appealed to the standards of the day. “Gentlemen of the jury,” he began, “having justice on my side, I don’t think you will be at all influenced by the gentleman’s pretended knowledge of the law, when you see he does not even know which side of his shirt should be in front.”[viii] Lincoln got a huge laugh and promptly won the case. He was able to use laughter to break down barriers and win people over to his arguments, a trait that would become extremely handy later in life.
[i] Kenneth Walsh, From Mount Vernon To Crawford (New York: Hyperion, 2005), 55.
[ii] Walsh, 57.
[iii] Walsh, 59-60.
[iv] Ewers, 68.
[vi] McClure, 361.
[vii] McClure, 20.
[viii] McClure, 21.