There was nothing that Abraham Lincoln loved more than a good joke or humorous anecdote. His favorite author, for daily reading at least, was Charles Farrar Brown, the man who wrote as Artemus Ward. Lincoln loved a good joke, and could laugh, even if the joke was at his own expense.
When Lincoln was asked by James Ashley, a Congressman from Ohio, to cease telling funny, sometimes off-color stories, he replied, “Ashley, I have great confidence in you and great respect for you, and I know how sincere you are. But if I couldn’t tell these stories, I would die.”
Authors abound who have tried to explain Lincoln’s affection (affliction?) for humor.
A contemporary, Treasury Secretary Hugh McCullough wrote:
Story-telling with him was something more than a habit. He was so accustomed to it in social life and in the practice of his profession that it became a part of his nature, and so accurate was his recollection, and so great a fund had he at command, that he had always anecdotes and stories to illustrate his arguments and delight those whose tastes were similar to his own; but those who judged from this trait that he had lacked deep feeling, or sound judgment, or a proper sense of the responsibility of his position, had no just appreciation of his character. He possessed all these qualities in an eminent degree.
This propensity of Abraham Lincoln was so much a true part of his character that it was even detailed in Steven Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln. During times of crisis, it was the one weapon the president could personally wield with great skill. It bought him much-needed time to think, it bought him privacy, and it purchased an oft-needed laugh for those who surrounded him. His times were not easy, and often not very funny at all. Humor put things in perspective then, just as it does now.
With both the Civil War Sesquicentennial and the opening of several movies about President Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln himself has become part of the national dialogue–or perhaps we should say monologue. Seth MacFarlane made a joke about Lincoln at the 2013 Oscars, but it was not well received. His comeback to the poor audience reaction indicated that, perhaps, it was “too soon” to make a joke about the assassination of the 16th president. Maybe it was just a bad joke.
Still, there are several links on the Internet that lead to some Lincolnalia even the president himself might have enjoyed. In an effort to reach whatever generation students are just now (I think Time referred to them as the “Me! Me! Me!” generation), several web sites have been created to increase Lincoln’s relevancy. One in particular has resonated with several of my former students, who sent me the link. Oddly enough, so did my principal.
It is titled, “Teaching Critical Thinking by Asking ‘Could Lincoln Be Elected Today?’ ” and
asks if Abraham Lincoln could win reelection in 1864 if today’s technology and methods were available to his opponent. There are campaign slogans, Super PACs, and an opportunity to view several short videos with titles such as, ” ‘Steam Boat Veterans For Truth’ Attack McClellan’s Military Service,” “Honestly, Abe!” and “War Widows For Peace.” Included are lesson plans included, and each of these short clips is not only hilarious, but incredible current. It is amazing to think of packaging Mr. Lincoln for 21st century consumption, but perhaps it must be done.
Because, seriously, it is never too soon to teach someone to appreciate Abraham Lincoln.
The Complete Works of Artemus Ward, by Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Brown)