From The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now
|Caricature by H. L. Stephens (1860)|
Saturday, November 6, marks the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln. During his first year in office, he would be confronted with crises that would test the very existence of the United States, but during the first few days he faced chaos of an entirely different nature. Years later, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward (who had been appointed by his father, Secretary of State William H. Seward) recalled the opening month of the Lincoln’s presidency in Reminiscences of a War-time Statesman and Diplomat, describing
the swarm of office-seekers that beleaguered the White House, filling all the halls, corridors, and offices from morning till night. The patient good humour and the democratic habits of the new President led him to give audience to everybody, at all hours. Even the members of his Cabinet, sometimes had to force their way through the crowd and get the private ear of the President in the corner of a roomful of visitors, before they could impart to him grave matters of state.Such scenes had become de rigueur for new administrations during the nineteenth century and, immediately after the election, the humorist Artemus Ward (whose real name was Charles Farrar Browne) imagined hordes of applicants invading and occupying Lincoln’s home in Springfield, before the President-elect had even left for Washington. Ward’s satirical pieces, narrated by an uneducated traveling entertainer with a special knack for malapropism, were enormously popular and would sometimes acquire the aura of fact; the Daily Illinois State Register claimed that Ward had actually advised Lincoln to appoint to his cabinet “showmen, as showmen ain’t got nary darned principle”—a line lifted nearly verbatim from the following story.
But perhaps the greatest accolades for Ward’s satire came from Lincoln himself, who esteemed the humorist, often welcomed him to the White House, and even opened the September 22, 1862, meeting in which he announced the Emancipation Proclamation by reading to the mostly appalled cabinet members a chapter from Ward’s latest book. According to Judge Hamilton Ward, who claimed to have heard the story from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, it was on this occasion that Lincoln allegedly delivered the now-famous (but probably apocryphal) quote, “Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh, I should die.”
I hiv no politics. Nary a one. I’m not in the bisniss. If I was I spose I should holler versiffrusly in the streets at nite and go home to Betsey Jane smellin of coal ile and gin, in the mornin. I should go to the Poles arly. I should stay there all day. I should see to it that my nabers was thar. I should git carriges to take the kripples, the infirm and the indignant thar. I should be on guard agin frauds and sich. I should be on the look out for the infamus lise of the enemy, got up jes be4 elecshun for perlitical effeck. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!