PROPERLY USED, COMEDY CAN BOOST MOOD, PROVIDE EXPLANATION, AND MAKE DARK TIMES A BIT LIGHTER.
Abraham Lincoln was well-known for telling stories and jokes before becoming President.
In presiding over a four-year Civil War, Lincoln didn’t stop telling stories and jokes; though one might think that the morbidly serious events that happened daily around the President might have deadened that part of his personality.
The only thing that historians may point to any change at all in Lincoln’s humorous talent is that it became more fable-like, emphasizing a moral to both heal a wound or “mitigate disappointments.”[i]
Many of the events that occurred during Lincoln’s tenure were virtually unbearable, so the way he dealt with much of it was in humor; not only for himself, but also for those around him to keep their morale from plummeting.
After the Republicans were pummeled in the 1862 midterm elections, Lincoln said that he felt, “Somewhat like that boy in Kentucky, who stubbed his toe while running to see his sweetheart. The boy said he was too big to cry, and far too badly hurt to laugh.”
Political setbacks provided a lot of fodder for Lincoln jokes, but the vast majority of it was reserved for his role as Commander-In-Chief.
At the beginning of the war, success for the Union Army was few and far-between, and the one general who seemed to be fighting and winning the most was Ulysses S. Grant; the one who naturally would be accused of drinking too much.
Yet Lincoln, who notably never touched alcohol in his life, cast aside the cries of temperance movement followers in favor of his successful general.
“If you can find out which brand of whiskey the general drinks, I’ll gladly buy a case and promptly distribute it to the rest of my generals!”[ii]
When Lincoln was close to firing the nonaggressive General George McClellan, he and a visiting friend from Illinois went to Maryland to visit the general’s stationary army after the Confederate Army under General Robert E. Lee had escaped back to Virginia.
“Do you know what that is?” Lincoln asked his friend, pointing down to the troops from a hilltop.
His friend replied, “Why, Sir, that’s the Army of the Potomac, of course.”
“So it is called,” said Lincoln. “But that is a mistake. It is only McClellan’s bodyguard.”[iii]
During the Civil War, citizens occasionally requested passes to travel between Northern and Southern states to visit family members or friends on the other side.
In response to a gentleman who had waited for weeks to receive a pass to Richmond, Lincoln said, “Well, I would be very happy to oblige you, if my passes were respected: But the fact is, sir, I have, within the past two years, given passes to two hundred and fifty thousand men to go to Richmond, and not one has got there yet.”[iv]
After the Union was routed badly in the first Battle of Bull Run, then-Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman agreed to have Lincoln address his troops – as long as he “discouraged all cheering” because Sherman wanted to teach his new soldiers to be “cool, thoughtful, and hard fighting.”
When the soldiers began to cheer at Lincoln’s speech, the President, with tongue in cheek, admonished them, “Don’t cheer, boys. I confess I rather like it myself, but Colonel Sherman here says it is not military; and I guess we had better defer to his opinion.”
After the address, Lincoln was approached by a soldier who said that he once tried to leave, but Sherman threatened to shoot him.
Lincoln replied, “Well, if I were you, and he threatened to shoot, I would not trust him, for I believe he would do it.” [v]
- Morale was kept from getting too low in the darkest periods of the war.
- Lincoln and others remained emotionally balanced so that they weren’t always focused on the negative.
- People recognized that Lincoln had the strength of character to lead them.
- Lincoln was able to reinforce his beliefs and opinions to others through the use of humor.
People often mirror their leaders. If you have the strength to be light in a dark time, people feel that there is hope and that the current situation can be overcome. Your followers – and you – can also maintain a more objective view; one not colored by futility.
[ii] Ibid (p. 529)
[iv] Goodwin, Doris Kearns (2005-10-25). Team of Rivals (p. 506). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.