The Wit of Abraham Lincoln: How Lincoln Used Humor To Help Others And Himself
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
” I think it would be hard to find one who tells better jokes, enjoys them better, and laughs oftener than Abraham Lincoln.”
That observation was written by a journalist named Henry Villard, who wrote for several publications, including the New York Herald. Villard spent several months with Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois from the time he was elected until he was sworn in as President.
Villard’s careful observations are one of our very best sources of insider information about this time in Lincoln’s life.
Here are several statements Villard wrote: “His never-failing stories helped many times to heal wounded feelings and mitigate disappointments…None of his hearers enjoyed the wit–and wit was an unfailing ingredient of his stories–half as much as he did himself….It was a joy indeed to see the effect on him. A high-pitched laughter lighted up his otherwise melancholy countenance with thorough merriment. His body shook all over with gleeful emotion…”
Lincoln’s humor, like that of many humorists today, often does not translate well to the printed page. That’s because Lincoln relied on voice inflections, contortions of his face, timing, and the use of various dialects to make a story funny.
It was not just the story that worked. It was how Lincoln told it.
Here is one story that Lincoln told Thurlow Weed, a powerful political operator from New York. Weed, who traveled to Springfield to meet with the President-elect, said he never forgot the story.
The two of them got into an extended conversation about possible cabinet choices. One name that came up was Henry Winter Davis, a radical Republican Congressman from Maryland.
When Weed mentioned the state of Maryland, Lincoln to tell a joke about an old man who was in court as a witness.
The judge asked the man how old he was. He replied that he was sixty. The judge, who knew the man was lying, repeated the question, and received the same answer.
“I happen to know you are older than sixty,” the judge said, and gave him a warning about lying. The man then said,”You’re probably thinking about them 15 years I lived in Maryland, which was just so much lost time. So them years don’t count.”
You might find a way to use the concept yourself. If, say, you tell a white lie about your age, and you get challenged, you might say, “I lived 15 years in Texas (or anywhere, or working for the CIA–you choose) so those years don’t count.”
(Reference: Harold Holzer, Lincoln President Elect: Abraham Lincoln And The Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, pp.82,83,169)
—Gene Griessman is an award-winning professional speaker, actor, and communication strategist. His video “Lincoln on Communication” is owned by thousands of corporations, libraries, and government organizations. He has spoken at conventions all over the world.