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Lincoln, Literacy, And Laughter

February 21, 2021 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

President’s Day and President’s Weekend, which honor all the now 46 presidents that have served the United States as their nation’s chief executives, fail to do just honor to America’s greatest president. In fact, they have degenerated into an opportune time to purchase an automobile (preferably a Lincoln).
February 12 was once set aside to pay special tribute to Abraham Lincoln, who is now overlooked so that all presidents — the good, the bad, and the mediocre — can be remembered (or forgotten) equally.
This travesty no doubt would have amused Lincoln who had a great appetite for humor, even humor at his own expense. “I do generally remember a good story when I hear it,” he told a friend, “but I never did invent anything original; I am only a retail dealer.” America’s 16th president had the rare capacity of combining wit, wisdom, and modesty.
“It is very strange that I,” he remarked near the end of the Civil War, “a boy brought up in the woods, and seeing, as it were, but little of the world, should be drifted into the very apex of this great event.”
But he could also combine this trio of virtues with uncommon graciousness. In a speech made at the Sanitary Fair in Washington, D.C., on March 18, 1864, he made the following statement:
“I am not accustomed to the use of the language of eulogy; I have never studied the art of paying compliments to women; but I must say that if all that has been said by orators and poets since the creation of the world in praise of women were applied to the women of America, it would not do them justice for their conduct during this war. I will close by saying, God bless the women of America!”
Lincoln needed a quiver full of virtues in order to deal with the great challenges that were thrust upon him.
“It is true that while I hold myself without mock modesty the humblest of all individuals that have ever been elevated to the presidency, I have a more difficult task to perform than any one of them.” But he was even modest about his extraordinary ability to humor on cue.
During one of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas would persist in making references to Lincoln’s lowly station in life. In one speech, he said that the first time he saw his opponent was across the counter of a general store in which Lincoln was selling whiskey. “And an excellent bartender he was, too,” Douglas added, knowing that there were a number of temperance people in the audience.
When the laughter died down, Lincoln, who was a teetotaler, got up and told the audience that it is true that he once kept a general store in which he sold cotton and candies and cigars and sometimes whiskey. He mentioned that Douglas was, indeed, a good customer. “Many a time I have been on one side of the counter and sold whiskey to Mr. Douglas on the other side. But now there’s a difference between us: I’ve left my side of the counter, but he sticks to his as tenaciously as ever.”
Lincoln was asked how he felt after he lost the senatorial election to Douglas. “Like the boy who stubbed his toe,” an answered. “I am too big to cry, and too badly hurt to laugh.”
Lincoln was not impressed with Douglas’ arguments. In one exchange, he remarked that Douglas’ reasoning was “as thin as the homeopathic soup that is made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death.” Lincoln himself was an able philosopher. He decried the lack of rigorous thought in others. “It is very common in this country,” he told a British journalist, “to find great facility in expression and less common to find great lucidity in thought.”
He summed up his attitude toward slavery by honoring the un-dismissible importance of the Golden Rule: “As I would not be a slave so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy.”
Historian Richard Lederer of the University of Waterloo (Waterloo, Ontario) has been collecting unintentional examples of humor from student essays. Those that center on Lincoln are wonderfully entertaining. Here is a sample: “Abraham Lincoln became America’s greatest President. Lincoln’s mother died in infancy, and he was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands. When Lincoln was President, he wore only a tall silk hat. He said, ‘In onion there is strength.’
“Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of on envelope. He also signed the Emasculation Proclamation, and the Fourteenth Amendment gave the ex-Negroes citizenship. But the Clue Clux Clan would torcher and lynch the ex-Negroes and other innocent victims. On the night of April 14, 1865, Lincoln went to the theater and got shot in his seat by one of the actors in a moving picture show. The believed assinator was John Wilkes Booth, a supposedly insane actor. This ruined Booth’s career.”
Presidents Day (the Uniform Monday Holiday Act) was established in 1971 to create an additional three-day weekend for the nation’s workers. It is now incumbent on the American citizen to honor such outstanding presidents, as Washington and Lincoln, on their own initiative. The greatness of Abraham Lincoln, however, will never be overshadowed. He will continue to transcend three-day weekends and car sales. If one should ask, “A penny for your thoughts?” Just examine the penny.

  • + + (Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review. His latest five books, How To Navigate Through Life; Apostles of the Culture of Life; Reflections on the Covid-10 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding; The War Against Civility (all posted on amazon.com), and A Moral Compass for a World in Confusion.)
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