Book Review Lincoln’s Sense of Humor (Concise Lincoln Library) by Richard Carwardine

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Pat Young

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Lincoln’s Sense of Humor (Concise Lincoln Library) by Richard Carwardine published by Southern Illinois University Press (2017). $24.95 Hardcover, $14.72 Kindle. 184 pages.

"Lincoln’s last conscious moments were filled with laughter. As everyone familiar with his history knows, he spent his last evening at Ford’s Theatre, watching Tom Taylor’s popular farce Our American Cousin," writes Richard Carwardine in this new book. John Wilkes Booth chose to murder the president at a moment when he knew that the president and everyone else in the theater would be laughing at an actress being called a "sockdologizing old mantrap.”

That Lincoln would spend the last Good Friday of the bloody Civil War laughing at a comedy would not have surprised his friends. He often sought release in humor. Americans could not have been surprised by the location of the assassination. His need for comic relief sometimes rose to the level of national scandal.

In this slim volume, Richard Carwardine traces Lincoln's engagement with humor from his childhood to the hour of his death. Lincoln certainly used humor as a political tool but it was more than an instrumentality. According to Carwardine "humor was core to Lincoln’s being, a “way of life” and a “habit of mind.” It expressed his essential humanity."

Lincoln's father Thomas had been a great storyteller in frontier communities where that talent was valued. Abraham's friends remembered the future president following in his father's footsteps in this one aspect of life. Young Lincoln was a joke teller, a mimic, and the source of funny stories, earning him popularity and acceptance and softening his melancholy.

Because of its length, this review will be posted in several parts.
 
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Part 2:

Lincoln's Sense of Humor
is more than just another catalog of Lincoln's jokes. It examines the evolution of Lincoln's uses of humor. Lincoln learned early that mockery had a price in politics. Audiences and opponents could be so stung by his barbs that the negative reaction resulted in a political backlash. Lincoln's maturation involved learning when not to seize a humorous opportunity.

Richard Carwardine provides a good look at the sources of Lincoln's stories in the Bible, poetry, and frontier storytelling traditions. He also describes Lincoln's regular reading of newspaper humorists like David Ross Locke whose character
Petroleum V. Nasby was perhaps his favorite literary creation. Nasby was an ignorant pro-slavery Protestant preacher of the ranting school who bent the logic of the Bible to defend the most inhumane propositions. Sometimes he used these newspaper comedians as sources, but mostly he just read them to have a laugh.

Lincoln also found humor in the regular practice of law on the circuit rides of his days in practice. In the company of judges and lawyers, all men, he sat at tables while away from home where jokes were the currency of communication. Conviviality depended on humor in this environment.

We all know that Lincoln used humor in his practice of law as a way to win his cases. Carwardine retells one of the best-known examples:

As a lawyer, too, Lincoln wielded seemingly innocuous, random humor to plant a seed that would later shape the deliberations of a jury. During a lunch break, it is said, he told jurors the story of a small boy who ran to summon his father. “Paw, come quick,” he panted. “The hired man and Sis are up in the haymow, and he’s a-pullin’ down his pants and she’s a-liftin’ up her skirts and Paw they’re gettin’ ready to pee all over our hay!” The father replied, “Son, you’ve got your facts absolutely right, but you’ve drawn a completely wrong conclusion.” Later, in court, following his opponent’s lengthy winding-up speech, Lincoln told the jurors, “My learned opponent has his facts absolutely right, but has drawn completely wrong conclusions.” Lincoln won the case.

Part 3 will follow.
 

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Part 3:

Lincoln was an inexhaustible consumer of humor, listening to tall tales, reading newspaper columnists known for their wit, and purchasing joke books, but he needed more to make him a great humorist. According to his friends, Lincoln had a phenomenal memory for jokes and barbs of all fashion and the ability to recall them whenever it was opportune and tailor them for the occasion while on the fly. One of the judges he rode the circuit with recalled that he had often heard the stories Lincoln told before, but that Lincoln altered and embellished them, making them his own.

Because his reputation for fun grew to national renown by the time he became president, he became the object of popular insistence that he always make his audiences laugh at every public occasion. Lincoln did not want to be an entertainer and he bristled at the insistence that he "give us a joke." He was not a comedian and used humor either as a natural manifestation of his own desire for fun, or to make a point. Carwardine provides examples of Lincoln resisting demands from listeners that he behave as some sort of performing curiosity for their amusement.

Lincoln would see his sense of humor used against him by his political opponents. Democrats in 1860 characterized him as a mere jokester, good for a laugh but not what the country needed in its time of crisis. He strove to be taken seriously, but even in private he could not resist the urge to tell a joke when he could have just let the opportunity pass. His love of the dirty joke allowed Democrats to brand him as smutty. Carwardine offers a couple of examples:

Lincoln used innuendo to jest about anatomy and sexual relations. Persistently asked by the Washington socialite Kate Chase, who had seen him “standing next to a wall up in an alley,” what he had been doing, “he caved in” and said, “well, to tell the truth, Miss Chase, I went up that alley to shake hands with a fellow I used to know who stood up for me at my wedding.” 103 When Mary Lincoln, attired in an evening gown, had her carte de visite taken by Mathew Brady in New York in February 1861, the studio made multiple copies, which were stamped on the back “entered by Act of Congress.” She sent one to her husband, who opened the letter, considered the photograph and the inscription, and
remarked, “That’s a lie— she never was entered by ‘Act of Congress.’”

These were jokes told for no purpose other than for amusement.

Part 4 will follow.
 

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Part 4:

During the Civil War, Lincoln spent many hours visiting with his soldiers. We recall him today as unique among president's in his willingness to see the costs of war with his own eyes. While he comforted the sick and wounded, he also listened to their stories that they used to amuse themselves. He would later recall those stories for his staff, or tell them to the next group of soldiers he saw. Carwardine writes:

He told the story of the cavalry officer who had such a painful boil on his backside that he had to dismount while on reconnaissance but, hearing the blood-curdling war cries of approaching Confederates, leapt swiftly into the saddle and galloped to safety— thus discovering “that there was no cure for boils so sure as fright from rebel yells” and that “secession had rendered to loyalty one valuable service at any rate.”

Lincoln enjoyed the grim and stoic irony of the soldier he visited who had lost both legs to amputation who showed him the religious tract a religious visitor had left him on the moral dangers of dancing. The faculty of soldiers to laugh at their suffering meant to Lincoln that their humanity was intact, even if their limbs were not. Lincoln deployed similar black humor in explaining to a young woman who kept pressing a soldier to know where he was wounded. According to Carwardine:

Lincoln’s delicate words to a young woman whose deep interest in a hospitalized soldier led her to press the question, “Where were you wounded?” The infantryman, who had been shot through the testicles, repeatedly deflected her inquiry with the answer “at Antietam.” Asking the president to assist her, Lincoln talked privately with the soldier and then took the young woman’s hands in his own, explaining, “My dear Girl, the ball that hit him, would have missed you.”

The next part will be posted this afternoon.



 

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Part 5:

During the war, Lincoln's secretary John Hay and the Irish immigrant journalist Charles Halpine helped meet Lincoln's need for humor. Even with a war going on, Lincoln would pop in on his aides if he heard laughter coming from an office. Hay. Lincoln, and Halpine conjured up a politically effective use of humor to win Irish support for the enlistment of blacks in the army. After the Draft Riots, Halpine had invented a comedic Irish character called Miles O'Reilly. Carwardine writes that Halpine:

worked hard to build support for the war among the Irish. To that end he created an affectionately comic figure, Private Miles O’Reilly, a fervent loyalist whose political support for Lincoln and apparent familiarity with the White House led some readers to mistake fiction for fact. Hay’s letters to Halpine (“ My Dear Miles”) provided his friend with the details that gave misleading authenticity to O’Reilly’s meetings with the president. The tales reinforced the image of Lincoln as a man of warmth, humor, and humanity. The defining episode was the president’s pardoning of O’Reilly, who languished in prison as punishment for his satirical poems about the Union’s military command. This act of executive humanity prompted further doggerel from the grateful soldier: "Long life to you Misther Lincoln! May you die both late an’ aisy; An’ whin you lie wid the top of aich toe Turned up to the roots of a daisy, May this be your epitaph, nately writ— “Though thraitors abused him vilely, He was honest an’ kindly, he loved a joke, An’ he pardoned Miles O’Reilly!”

The Democrats made one final effort to use Lincoln's humor against him in 1864. Taking an incident of Lincoln's visit to Antietam and grossly distorting it, the Democratic New York World described Lincoln touring the battlefield with George McClellan while the unburied dead littered the field. Lincoln supposedly ignored the tragic tableaux, joked with his companions, and demanded that Ward Lamon sing a minstrel song.

The Democrats claimed that Lincoln used humor to deflect real questions about policy. They made up banners saying "That reminds me of a joke..." to remind voters that the president sometimes responded to serious inquiries with diverting jokes.

The final installment will follow on Friday.

 
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Conclusion:

Lincoln’s Sense of Humor by Richard Carwardine is part of the Concise Lincoln Library, and at 184 pages it can be read in a few days. While it is a scholarly work, it is entertaining and well-written. Carwardine offers his analysis of Lincoln's humor, but does not overwhelm his evidence with his theories. Lincoln’s Sense of Humor is not a joke book, in any sense, but it is filled with funny stories and clever remarks and Carwardine respects Lincoln's comedic craft enough not to try to bend the president's material to fit the professor's thesises.

Lincoln once said, about twenty years after his death, that “For those who like that kind of a book, it is just about the kind of a book they would like.” Carwardine's book should have an audience beyond the Lincoln devotees. It offers interesting insights into how humor worked in mid-19th Century America, the psychological role it played in Lincoln's life, and the weaponization of humor by a skilled political practitioner.
 

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Reviewer's Bio:

Patrick Young, Esq. is Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University School of Law where he also co-directs the school's Immigration Law Clinic. He is the author of the web series The Immigrants' Civil War. Past-Chairman of the New York Immigration Coalition and current Legal Services Director at the Central American Refugee Center, he has pursued lifelong interests in the phenomenon of domestic civil conflicts and the study of immigration history.
 

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This book won the Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Award for 2018, awarded this past Saturday, March 17, 2018.
 

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This book won the Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Award for 2018, awarded this past Saturday, March 17, 2018.
I saw that on C-Span when Guelzo made the announcement, but the Institute's web site appears not to have been updated with that information.
 

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I saw that on C-Span when Guelzo made the announcement, but the Institute's web site appears not to have been updated with that information.
I fortunately DVR'd the symposium, as I was in The Old Dominion that day attending another Civil War learning event. :smile:
 

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In 2008 he was named Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers. How many other Lincoln biographers can say that?
 
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