Not a lot of people were laughing on September 22, 1862. The Civil War was about a year and a half old, and it was proving to be much more trying than either side had imagined. When President Abraham Lincoln called his War Cabinet into session that day, his advisors arrived in a grim and determined mood, prepared to deal with the serious business of the war.

They found President Lincoln already seated in the meeting room, reading a book. When everyone had gathered, he turned to them and asked, “Gentlemen, did you ever read anything of Artemus Ward? Let me read a chapter that is very funny.”

Four Chief Executives Sharing a Laugh. From left to right, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter
Four Chief Executives Sharing a Laugh. From left to right, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter

He then read from a skit entitled Highhanded Outrage at Utica. (read the chapter here) Upon finishing the reading, Lincoln laughed heartily, but his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was furious that Lincoln would waste valuable time with such a trivial thing. Lincoln shook his head sadly and asked, “Gentlemen, why do you not laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh, I should die. And you need this medicine as much as I do.”

With that, he pulled out a piece of paper from his stovepipe hat and asked the cabinet’s opinion on the matter. That piece of paper became the Emancipation Proclamation.

Humor and the presidency do not, at first glance, appear to go together. History has proven the truth of Lincoln’s claim about the necessity of laughter and how much it can help in difficult times. We have become accustomed to hearing jokes from our modern presidents, but it has not always been that way.

Our culture has formed an image of our Founding Fathers as stern, serious, patriarchs who rarely cracked a smile. It is for that reason that one may have difficulty picturing George Washington laughing so hard that he had tears running down his face, as he did when he saw two respected clergymen lose their hats in a lake due to an unexpected gust of wind. It is also difficult to imagine that he was the inspiration for a much-quoted statement made popular by Mark Twain. This occurred when he wrote to his brother after the Battle of Monongahela (1755), “The report of my death was an exaggeration” and continued, “As I heard . . . a circumstantial account of my death and dying Speech, I take this early opportunity of contradicting the first, and of assuring you that I have not, as yet, composed the latter.”

John Adams retains the image of a curmudgeon, even though his wit is evident in many of his writings. It was, for example, rumored by his political opponents that his vice president, Charles Pinckney, acted as a pimp, traveling to England to “procure four pretty girls as mistresses, a pair for each elderly gentleman.” Adams laughed heartily upon hearing the report, and wrote to a friend, saying, “I do declare upon my honor, if this be true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two.”

Despite this wealth of wit, presidential historians strive in vain to find evidence of humor from some of our chief executives. One historian completed his study of the wit of President James Polk, by concluding that the funniest thing he ever did was to have gallstone surgery without the benefit of anesthesia.

Polk’s solemnity, however, proves to be the exception, rather than the rule. Even the reserved, aloof academician Woodrow Wilson had his moments of mirth. His Secret Service Agent, Col. Edmund Starling, reported seeing the president embrace his bride on the day of their wedding, and spin her around, while singing, “We’re getting married! We’re getting married!” Later, after the ceremony, the president was again overheard singing to his bride, “Oh, you wonderful girl!”

Perhaps no president summed up the need for a good sense of humor better than President Richard Nixon, who expressed frustration with the constant demands of the press by saying, “People in the media say they must look … at the president with a microscope. Now, I don’t mind a microscope, but boy, when they use a proctoscope, that’s going too far!”

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