Friday, May 22, 2009

The Poetry of Presidential Wit

So, I've been on kind of a Lincoln kick lately. To compound the fact that I teach kids about Lincoln three days a week, my reading material of late has been Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James McPherson. Having finished that, I've moved on to my favorite Civil War history, Shelby Foote's The Civil War -- a three-tome 3,000-page behemoth that dotes equally on the leadership of both Lincoln and his presidential rival, Jefferson Davis, throughout the war.

Living in a city with so many Lincoln-related places to see doesn't help, either. Between the Soldier's Home (Lincoln's get-away while president), Ford's Theatre, and the Lincoln Memorial, there are lots of options for an Honest Abe tour of the city. All these relics, however, are shrines to a hero; monuments to the Defender of the Union, the Great Emancipator. Yet Lincoln, who did so much to carry the United States through its greatest crisis, was more still: he was funny.

It turns out, he liked to tell stories; not droning or moralistic stories, but poignant anecdotes with a touch of tall tale -- like the kind your wily great uncle used to tell you. General George McClellan, when he was commander of the Army of the Potomac, wrote to his wife, "I have just been interrupted here by the President and Secretary Seward, who had nothing very particular to say, except some stories to tell, which were, as usual, very pertinent, and some pretty good. I never in my life met anyone so full of anecdote as our friend." Once, when asked how he liked the job of being president, he responded with the story of a man out West who had been tarred and feathered. "As he was being ridden out of town on a rail, [he] heard one among the crowd call to him, asking how he liked it, high up there on his uncomfortable perch. 'If it wasn't for the honor of the thing,' the man replied, 'I'd sooner walk.'"

It seems Lincoln always had something witty up his sleeve. Later in the war, the President was leaving the company of an Illinois editor who claimed to be the first to have suggested Lincoln for the presidential nomination. "Goodbye," Lincoln said, "I hope you will feel perfectly easy about having nominated me. Don't be troubled about it. I forgive you."

Lincoln's way with words extended to the metaphor, as well. Lincoln employed analogies to explain concepts in terms everyone could understand. Arguing for harsher policies against the Southern states, Lincoln said that the war could no longer be fought, "with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water." Later in the war, as General Sherman was wreaking havoc in the lower South while General Grant's Army of the Potomac held the South's largest army near Richmond, Lincoln remarked, "Grant has the bear by the hind leg while Sherman takes off the hide."

So, should you visit any of the many Lincoln shrines in Washington, remember that Honest Abe was not carved from granite, but was a likable fellow, with a "fund of humorous anecdote."

Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 66, 140, 166, 409.
James M. McPherson,
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008), 106, 255.
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