Abraham Lincoln’s Humor: Two Stories About Soldiers and War
By Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
Few topics were off-limits for Abraham Lincoln’s humor—death, sex, race, defecation, patriotism, preachers, religion in general, politicians, war. You name it. The topics that “proper” and “refined” individuals treated with care, or avoided entirely.
Lincoln caught fierce criticism when he did it, especially after he became a national figure.
Americans then were just as hard on politicians as they are now. And Lincoln, because of his controversial views on slavery plus his awkward looks, was a tempting target. Political opponents, partisan newspapers, and cartoonists were unmerciful about Lincoln’s joke-telling. “Smutty,” “the joke-telling President,” and “buffoon were some of the kindest things he was called.
We have versions of two Lincoln jokes about soldiers and war. I say versions, because Lincoln would tell the same basic joke several times with variations that suited the setting.
Also, some of Lincoln’s contemporaries who wrote them down were not skilled joke-tellers. They had no sense of timing or how to use a punch line; their accounts do not, and cannot, reproduce Lincoln’s facial expressions or voice inflections nor do they perfectly recreate the setting for the story. Every skilled humorist knows that “situational energy” makes a joke work. The hilarious joke, if told at a different time or setting, may not work well, or at all.
That said, here’s the first joke, which we know Lincoln told during the days prior to his inauguration. It was a time when many politicians were clamoring for a compromise to keep the states of the Deep South in the Union.
“It seems when a young man announced he was going off to war, his sisters wanted to make him a belt embroidered with the words,…VICTORY OR DEATH. ‘Oh, No!’ he protested ‘Don’t put it that strong. Put it VICTORY…OR GET HURT PRETTY BAD.'”
The other joke Lincoln told after the war had begun. In one version, Lincoln himself is in the story.
“It seems a young soldier who was wounded in battle was in an embarrassing situation. His fiancé wanted to know exactly where he had been wounded. When I visited the hospital where the young man was convalescing, he told me where he had been hit, but didn’t know what to write. I told him, ‘Tell her, ‘Where the bullet hit me… would not have hit thee.'”
Lincoln never stopped telling jokes, especially when old friends or politicians came calling at the White House. He told them in cabinet meetings, even when horribly bad news had arrived, He said laughing kept him from crying.
“This is a book to cherish and share.”—Bill Marriott, CEO, Marriott International, Inc.
“Not only does Griessman give us Lincoln quotes, but he also weaves each one into a little jewel of an essay on that particular subject.” Wayne C. Temple, renowned Lincoln scholar, Illinois State Archives
A stirring, inspirational treasury of quotations from our greatest and most admired president, the book offers rich material for interpretation, reflection, and spiritual guidance.
You will also enjoy Lincoln Speaks To Leaders by Gene Griessman and Pat Williams.
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