John Barr.

Wit and humor of American statesmen; a collection from various sources classified under appropriate subject headings online

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The barbecue was not held on Friday.

Twenty years ago, in a little town in Illinois,
a band of hopeful politicians secured a brass
cannon with which to celebrate the election of
Hancock, and dragging it out to a spot in front
of the village tavern, loaded it clear to the
muzzle with a heavy charge of powder, rammed
down with old rags, leaves, and sod. They
counted on firing it but once, but proposed that

ot Bmerican Statesmen 27

the town should know when it went off. The
hour fixed for action was eight o'clock, but at
eight o'clock the news was unpleasantly suggest-
ive of Garfield, and they postponed firing till
nine. At nine things looked more dubious.
They waited till ten, and then they drew the
cannon back under the shed till the morning's
sure tidings should give opportunity to proclaim
the Democratic victory. The morning decided
Garfield's election, and sadly they sought the
gun to unload it. The shed door opening,
revealed the defiant muzzle bearing this placard,

44 A charge to keep I have."


New Stories of Lincoln

One day during the war a clerk from the
Adjutant-General's Office, called at the White
House, and expressed to Mr. Lincoln his de-
sire to be appointed an Assistant Adjutant-

"Do you know whether there are any
vacancies in the Adjutant-General's Office at
this time? " asked the President.

"There are none," replied the clerk, "but it
has occurred to me that I might be appointed,
and assigned to the staff of some general officer
commanding a corps, division, or brigade."

"Exactly," said Mr. Lincoln; " but has any
corps, division, or brigade commander applied
for you on his staff?"

" Not that I am aware of," was the answer.

" Well, sir, do you know of any general officer
who wants you upon his staff? " asked the

" I cannot say that I do at this time, sir,"
replied he.


of American Statesmen 29

"Then," said Mr. Lincoln, " it seems to me
that you might just as well ask me to marry you
to a woman who didn't want you as to expect
me to send you to a General who didn't want a
clerk promoted from the Adjutant-General's
Office ; and if I were to force any General to
take you against his wishes, I reckon he would
have as good cause to apply for a divorce as the
woman would have who didn't want a husband ;
so that it looks to me, Smith, as if you had
bettter remain where you are in the Adjutant-
General's Office until somebody wants you else-


It will be remembered that while General
Grant was investing Petersburg, the President
paid a visit to City Point for the purpose of
witnessing the progress of the military operations
in that quarter. It will also be remembered
that at this eventful juncture the public was
with breathless anxiety watching every proceed-
ing which had the least bearing upon the issue
of the siege.

Shortly after Lincoln's arrival at City Point,
while he was engaged in conversation with a
group of officers around him, a distant musket-
shot was heard from the direction of General
Parke's corps, which then occupied the right of

30 Ulit arte Ibumor

our lines about two miles from City Point.
Soon after this the report of another shot came,
then followed several others in rapid succession,
and directly afterwards volleys were fired, inter-
spersed with occasional discharges of cannon, all
from nearly the same direction (Parke's position).
The President for a few minutes manifested con-
siderable anxiety, remarking that he could not
understand why Parke had not, as he promised,
informed him if anything of importance oc-
curred in his vicinity.

The officers could not account for the firing,
as they felt quite confident no considerable
force of the enemy could have made its appear-
ance near General Parke's corps.

In a short time, however, the firing ceased, and
the President feeling no further apprehension of
danger went to bed.

Early on the following morning Colonel

P e accompanied by General N s,

rode over to Parke's headquarters to ascertain
the cause of the firing, when they learned that
it was occasioned by a careless recruit, who
about dusk accidentally discharged his musket
near one flank of the line, which was soon re-
sponded to by an equally verdant tyro at some
other point, and this was immediately followed
by other pattering shots along the entire line, so

ot Bmerican Statesmen 3i

that in a few minutes quite an imaginary battle
was inaugurated, and in the darkness which
soon obscured everything, the troops verily be-
lieving the enemy was in front of them, fired
volleys of musketry, with now and then a salvo
of artillery ; but fortunately nobody was hurt,
and the disturbance was soon quelled.

Charged with these facts, the officers returned
to City Point and reported them to Lincoln, who
had just settled himself at the breakfast table.
Whereupon he turned around with a mischievous
twinkle in his eyes, and smilingly observed that
this affair reminded him of an occurrence which
once took place in Springfield, Illinois.

It happened upon one 3d of July night, after
quite a number of people from the surrounding
country had assembled in town in anticipation of
participating in the celebration of the anniver-
sary of our national independence, and after
nearly everybody had gone to sleep, with the
exception of a few frolicsome young fellows who
had been prowling about town until after mid-
night. They had pretty well exhausted their
ingenuity in devising new pranks for fun and
mischief, when one of them proposed to bet
drinks for the party that he would within five
minutes' time make every cock in the whole
town crow. The wager was promptly accepted

32 Wit anD Ibumor

and the young fellow, who by constant practice
had reached perfection in imitating the crowing
of a chicken-cock, leaped upon a fence, and
slapping his thighs with his open hands, elevated
his mouth, and gave forth a vociferous "cock-
a-doodle-do-o-o-o," which in the stillness of the
calm night, reverberated like a clarion through-
out every nook and corner of the town ; but this
did not elicit a response until he made another
still more powerful effort, equal in pitch and
volume to that of any proud chanticleer that
ever greeted the break of day. Then a solitary
reply issued from a chicken-roost in a remote
suburb which was soon taken up by others in
different directions, and within the brief period
specified in the wager probably every cock in the
town had repeated the call. But the strangest
part of the whole affair was that the sell was not
confined to the chickens, for as soon as the
crowing commenced all the boys in the place,
who very likely slept with one eye open upon
that special occasion, and verily believing the
joyful Fourth of July had dawned, leaped out of
bed, jumped into their clothes and rushed pell-
mell to the streets, and within less time than it
has taken to relate it, fire-crackers, pistols and
guns were being discharged from every direction.
" But," added the facetious narrator, " nobody

of Bmertcan Statesmen 33

was hurt any more than when Parke's roosters
prematurely crowed last evening."

Judge E. Rockwood Hoar, remarking on
President Lincoln's dry humor, says that on
one occasion a delegation of colored men had
waited on Mr. Lincoln, and were evidently at a
loss to know just what to say. The President
waited a while, and then remarked : " Well,
all who are here seem to be present." This
self-evident proposition broke the ice and re-
moved the spell from the African jaw.

* * * * * *

Uncle Billy Green, of Illinois, was Lincoln's
partner in the grocery at Salem, and at night,
when the customers were few, he held the gram-
mar while Lincoln recited his lessons. At Lin-
coln's first inaugural banquet Green sat at the
table on the President's left, with the dignified
Secretary Seward on his right. Lincoln pre-
sented the two men to each other, saying :
"Secretary Seward, this is Mr. Green, of Illi-
nois." Seward bowed stiffly, when Lincoln ex-
claimed : "Oh, get up, Seward, and shake
hands with Green ; he's the man that taught
me my grammar."

34 Halt anD •feumor

General Singleton, of Quincy, Illinois, who
was one of the bright young lawyers of Spring-
field when Abraham Lincoln was a green youth
there, tells a story which we believe has never
been printed before. The bevy of bright young
ladies to which Miss Todd belonged before her
marriage to Mr. Lincoln used to have a good
deal of sport at the awkward young man's ex-
pense. One evening at a little party Mr. Lin-
coln approached Miss Todd, and said in his
peculiar idiom: "Miss Todd, I should like to
dance with you the worst way." The young
lady accepted the inevitable and hobbled around
the room with him. When Miss Todd had re-
turned to her seat, one of her mischievous com-
panions said : " Well, Mary, did he dance with
you the worst way?" "Yes," she answered,
"the very worst."

The following story is so characteristic as to
be worth repeating : The foundation of Lin-
coln's political success was his popularity, and
his popularity was due to his always keeping near
to the people, as he expressed it. One night he
had a dream. He thought that he was in some
great assembly. The people made a lane to let
him pass. " He is a common looking fellow,"

ot Bmertcan Statesmen 35

some one said. Lincoln, in his dream, turned
to his critic, and replied, "Friend, the Lord
prefers common-looking people, or He would
not have created so many of them ! "


Gail Hamilton tells this story about a friend
of Mr. Lincoln's, who, in the first convention
that nominated him for the presidency, had
worked and spoken with great effect. After-
wards in thanking him for his enthusiasm, Mr.
Lincoln said: "But I am afraid, Colonel,
that when you spoke for me you prevaricated
just a little." "Prevaricated, Mr. Lincoln?"
said the other, "prevaricated? Why, I lied
like the devil"


Lincoln related many a story, but never one
nearer the point, or more applicable than the
following: It was in the summer of 1861, a
short time after the Bull Run defeat, that com-
plaint was made to Governor R concerning

the conduct of Colonel of the — th

Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteers. The Colonel
was a prominent man, a Democrat, and the
Governor was disposed in military affairs I
impartially; but how to have the Colonel trans-
ferred or "let down easy" so that no disturb-
ance, political or otherwise should arise at home

36 'Unit anS Ibumor

to vex him, was the question. Finally, it was
resolved that the matter should be left with
President Lincoln. So Judge O was re-
quested by the Governor to go to Washington
and ''have matters fixed." Accordingly the

Judge and Senator D called at the White

House, stated the case to Mr. Lincoln, and
recommended that the Colonel be put upon
some General's staff, where he could be more
useful than in the position he then occupied,
and so "let him down easy." Mr. Lincoln in-
quired if the Colonel knew anything of the
plan, and upon being answered in the negative,
said : " That reminds me of a little story. It
was in the Mexican war, at the battle of Monte-
rey, I believe, that a little Irish Captain from
Sangamon County was ordered by his Colonel
to a position with his company. After hearing
the order the little Captain straightened up full
height and said, ' Colonel, will yez be so kind
as to tell that to my min yoursel, for by jabers,
Colonel, I'm not on spakin' terms wid my
company. ' " It is perhaps needless to add that
the gallant Colonel was shortly after this inter-
view with the good-natured President placed in
a more exalted sphere of usefulness.

A good instance of the execution which Lin-

of American Statesmen 37

coin sometimes effected with a story occurred in
the Illinois Legislature. There was a trouble-
some member from Wabash County, who gloried
particularly in being a " strict constructionist."
He found something "unconstitutional" in
every measure that was brought forward for dis-
cussion. He was a member of the Judiciary
Committee, and was quite apt, after giving every
measure a heavy pounding, to advocate its refer-
ence to this committee. No amount of >ober
argument could floor the member from Wabash.
At last he came to be considered as a man to be
silenced, and Lincoln was resorted to for an ex-
pedient by which this object might be accom-
plished. He soon afterwards honored the draft
thus made upon him. A measure was brought
forward in which Mr. Lincoln's constituents
were interested, when the member from Wabash
arose and discharged all his batteries upon its
unconstitutional points. Lincoln then took the
floor and with the quizzical expression of feature
which he could assume at will, and a mirthful
twinkle in his gray eyes, said, " Mr. S]
the attack of the member from Wabash on the
constitutionality of this measure reminds me of
an old friend of mine. He's a peculiar looking
old fellow with shaggy overhanging eyebrows,
and a pair of spectacles under them. (Every-

38 1iUit ano Ibumor

body turned to the member from Wabash, and
recognized a personal description). One morn-
ing, just after the old man got up, he imagined
on looking out of his door, that he saw rather a
lively squirrel on a tree near his house. So he
took down his rifle, and fired at the squirrel ;
but the squirrel paid no attention to the shot.
He loaded and fired again, until, at the thir-
teenth shot he set down his gun impatiently and
said to his boy who was looking on, ' Roy,
there's something wrong about this rifle.'
1 Rifle's all right, I know 'tis,' responded the
boy, 'but where's your squirrel?' 'Don't you
see him humped up about half way up the
tree ? ' inquired the old man peering over his
spectacles and getting mystified. ' No, I don't,'
responded the boy, and then turning and looking
into his father's face, he exclaimed, ' I see your
squirrel. You've been firing at a louse on your
eyebrow.' " The story needed neither applica-
tion nor explanation. The House was in con-
vulsions of laughter, for Mr. Lincoln's skill in
telling a story was not inferior to his appreciation
of its points, and his power of adapting them to
the case in hand. It killed off the member
from Wabash, who was very careful afterwards
not to provoke any allusion to his " eyebrows."

ot Bmcrican Statesmen :j»

For this anecdote the Hon. John J. Van Allen
is authority: "Long Tom Davis of Oswego,
N. Y., was a lawyer of unusual and conceded
ability, an ardent Republican, an enthusiastic
admirer of President Lincoln and during the
latter years of the war, a valuable member of
the New York State Legislature. In 1864 he
went to Washington and while there called on
the President with the intention of criticising a
certain line of policy, the expediency of which
was then questioned by many patriotic citizens.
Besides being tall enough to warrant the use of
the prenominal adjective by which he was dis-
tinguished from all shorter Tom Davises, he
was a man of sombre temperament and singular
gravity of manner. Life for him was too short
and serious for a smile, and being for this among
other reasons quite incapable of understanding
the character of Mr. Lincoln, he returned from
the capital amazed and pained by the conviction
which he did not hesitate to express that our
illustrious President was little better than a
buffoon. * Why, you greatly astonish me, Mr.
Davis,' said a gentleman to whom he communi-
cated his impressions of the President. ' I
thought you were one of his warmest support-
ers.' ' Well, I'll tell you,' was the reply, 'just
how he received me and you can judge for your-

40 TOt ano Ibumor

self. Having been introduced to him in terms
most flattering as a staunch Republican and
efficient member of the Legislature, I began to
make the suggestion I had in mind, whereupon
the President, eyeing me thoughtfully, inquired :
1 < Mr. Davis, how tall a man are you ? " I re-
plied that I was six feet two inches, upon which
he rejoined: "Why, are you as tall as that?
Come, let me see," and backing me against a
door he took a pencil, marked my height on the
jamb, and afterwards his own, the two marks
being close together. " We're pretty nearly of
a size," said he. "But, Davis, I think my foot
is longer than yours." So he insisted on meas-
uring feet, after which he began to discuss our
weights and the size of our chests and arms. In
this way, with these trivial comparisons and con-
jectures, he took up all my time, fully fifteen
minutes, until a man came in who applied for a
clerical position in one of the departments on
the strength of having lost a hand in the service
of his country. "Oh, you go and see Seward,"
said the President, "I don't know anything
about your hand ; you may have lost it in a
steel trap." Now,' concluded Mr. Davis, ear-
nestly, ' do you think he had the requisite
dignity for so high an office ? '

"The interview of which the foregoing is a

ot Bmertcan Statesmen 41

mere outline seemed deliciously amusing from
the fact that Mr. Davis, patriot and statesman
that he was, had not the remotest appreciation
of the humor of the incident. The President,
burdened and worn, bowed by his load of re-
sponsibility, and wearied by a long day's work,
was in no mood to go over with his visitor
ground frequently traversed before, perhaps in
protracted Cabinet debates. Perceiving that
Mr. Davis was a man of nearly his own build,
he found in this topic an escape from a discus-
sion he dreaded. It was this ability to mo-
mentarily lay aside his dignity in a laugh or a
boyish prank which enabled Mr. Lincoln to
stand up under his weight of care, and it was
this which rendered him such an enigma to the
saturine Davis."

In 1863, after the fall of Vicksburg, a man
came to Lincoln seeking an office. He had
known Lincoln very well in the early fifties, but
had drifted South. He claimed to have been
always a Whig and a Union man, although
compelled to hide his sentiments until Vicksburg
fell. He wanted an office and a good one, and
he was very importunate.

At last Mr. Lincoln said to him: "John,

42 "Wait ano Ibumor

when I was a young man about the time I first
went to Springfield to live, I was invited to a
dance, and I was very proud of the invitation.
I remember that I bought a new hat and a very
good one, for it cost me more than any other
hat I had ever bought, and I was very proud to
wear it to the dance. Well, I enjoyed myself so
much at this hop that I stayed very late, about
the last one to leave, as I remember, and as I
was ready to go I said to the colored man who
had charge of the coats and hats : * Now,
John, I wish you would bring me my hat. ' He
brought me a hat that had been worn for a long
time, and was very rusty and shabby, and I said
to him, ' This isn't my hat; I wore a new one,'
and then he replied : ' Mr. Lincoln, the new
ones were all gone two hours ago. ' ' '

Some time before the issuance of the Emanci-
pation Proclamation, and while our military
operations were unusually unsuccessful, a self-
appointed delegation of preachers from New
England numbering twenty-three called upon
President Lincoln to induce him to issue the
proclamation instanter. Their speaker was
cocked and primed and full of anticipation of
success. He announced that they were the

ot Bmerican Statesmen 43

delegates of the Almighty, and with many
flourishes about Moses and the prophets, de-
manded in the name of the Lord that the Presi-
dent issue the proclamation declaring the slaves

He went on to assert that when that was done
the civilized and Christian world would rise up
and assist us with such tremendous force that
our success would be assured and much more
of the same sort. When he had finished Mr.
Lincoln quietly said to the speaker :

"Your Reverence, how many legs has a
sheep ? ' '

The speaker raised his hands and the whole
body of the delegation showed signs of disgust,
as much as to say : " We always heard he was a
buffoon." But the speaker answered : " Why,
four, Mr. President."

"Now," said Mr. Lincoln, "if you call a
sheep's tail a leg how many legs would he
have ? ' '

The answer, of course, was five.

" You all agree to this? " said Mr. Lincoln.

They nodded assent.

"No," said the President, "you are wrong.
A sheep has only four legs, and calling his tail a
leg does not make it a leg."

The application was apparent; issuing a

44 TIMtt ano tmmot

proclamation of freedom without the ability to
enforce it would be ridiculous.

It is the humorous element in Lincoln's
speeches and writings which makes them almost
sui generis, says Mr. Stanton. What he said
or wrote to his generals was often amusingly
pat. When a seemingly unsurmountable ob-
stacle checked the advance of one of the armies,
his favorite illustration was: "Well, if you
can't plow through the log, perhaps you can
plow round it."

It was characteristic of General McClellan
that he always regarded bad weather as exceed-
ingly injurious to him, but as never injurious to
the other side ; so Lincoln once said of him :
" He seems to think, in defiance of Scripture,
that heaven sends its rain only on the just and
not on the unjust."

Exasperated at the discrepancy between the
aggregate of troops forwarded to the same Gen-
eral, and the number the General reported as
being received, Lincoln exclaimed: "Sending
men to that army is like shoveling fleas across a
barnyard — not half of them get there."

When one of the Northern commanders took
the control of a Missouri church out of the

ot Bmertcan Statesmen us

hands of its rebel trustees, Lincoln disapproved
of the measure in a despatch containing this
terse and vigorous phrase, which immediately
obtained wide currency : "The United States
Government must not, as by this order, under-
take to run the churches."

Not less happy were many of Lincoln's mes-
sages to politicians. To one of his mild-natured
critics he wrote: "Would you drop the war
where it is, or would you prosecute it in the
future with elder-stalk squirts charged with rose-

When, on his first arrival in Washington, the
new President was besieged by office-seeker>,
while the war was breaking out, Lincoln said :
" I feel like a man letting lodgings at one end of
the house, while the other end is on fire."


In the winter of 1863 there was much anxiety
at Washington, lest Burnside should be raptured
at Knoxville. One day a report came to the
White House that there was heavy firing in the
direction of the latter city. Lincoln, who had
been waiting during long hours for some news,
now expressed his satisfaction, and when
why he found any comfort in his me

46 TUflit ano Ibumor

sage, answered : "A neighbor of mine in Men-
ard County, named Sally Ward, had a large
family of children, which she took very little care
of. Whenever she heard one of them yelling in
some out-of-the-way place, she would say,
1 Thank the Lord ! there's one of my young
ones not dead yet. ' " So long as there was firing
in the direction of Knoxville, Burnside was not


Dr. Bellows, President of the Sanitary Com-
mission, went to Washington to get Mr. Lincoln
to make a certain appointment. He presented
the case to the President, who listened intently,
but said nothing. After twenty minutes of elo-
quence Mr. Lincoln replied :

" I made that appointment several days ago."

"Why didn't you tell me, Mr. Lincoln, and
save yourself the trouble of hearing all this? "

" O, Bellows, I do like to hear you talk," said
Honest Old Abe, with a twinkle.


Mr. Lincoln loved Edwin M. Stanton, and
believed in him from first to last. When in-
quired of concerning the reasons for his appoint-
ment, Mr. Lincoln said he rather wished at first
to appoint a man from one of the border States,
but he knew the New England people would

of Bmertcan Statesmen 47

object; and then, again, it would have given
him great satisfaction to appoint a man from
New England, but that would displease the
border States. On the whole, he thought he
had better take a man from some intervening
territory. "And, to tell you the truth, gentle-
men," said he, "I don't believe Stanton knows
where he belongs himself."


When some gentlemen were discussing Mr.
Stanton's impulsiveness, Mr. Lincoln said,
"Well, we may have to treat him as they are
sometimes obliged to treat a Methodist minister
I know of out West. He gets wrought up to so

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Online LibraryJohn BarrWit and humor of American statesmen; a collection from various sources classified under appropriate subject headings → online text (page 2 of 10)