Lincoln's Personal Life HTML version

Unsatisfying Recognition
Lincoln's career as a Congressman, 1847-1849, was just what might have been expected--
his career in the Illinois Legislature on a larger scale. It was a pleasant, companionable,
unfruitful episode, with no political significance. The leaders of the party did not take
him seriously as a possible initiate to their ranks. His course was that of a loyal member
of the Whig mass. In the party strategy, during the debates over the Mexican War and the
Wilmot Proviso, he did his full party duty, voting just as the others did. Only once did he
attempt anything original--a bill to emancipate the slaves of the District, which was little
more than a restatement of his protest of ten years before--and on this point Congress was
as indifferent as the Legislature had been. The bill was denied a hearing and never came
to a vote before the House.[1]
And yet Lincoln did not fail entirely to make an impression at Washington. And again it
was the Springfield experience repeated. His companionableness was recognized, his
modesty, his good nature; above all, his story-telling. Men liked him. Plainly it was his
humor, his droll ways, that won them; together with instant recognition of his sterling
"During the Christmas holidays," says Ben Perley Poore, "Mr. Lincoln found his way into
the small room used as the Post Office of the House, where a few genial reconteurs used
to meet almost every morning after the mail had been distributed into the members'
boxes, to exchange such new stories as any of them might have acquired since they had
last met. After modestly standing at the door for several days, Mr. Lincoln was reminded
of a story, and by New Year's he was recognized as the champion story-teller of the
Capital. His favorite seat was at the left of the open fireplace, tilted back in his chair with
his long legs reaching over to the chimney jamb."[2]
In the words of another contemporary, "Congressman Lincoln was very fond of howling
and would frequently. . . meet other members in a match game at the alley of James
Casparus. . . . He was an awkward bowler, but played the game with great zest and spirit
solely for exercise and amusement, and greatly to the enjoyment and entertainment of the
other players, and by reason of his criticisms and funny illustrations. . . . When it was
known that he was in the alley, there would assemble numbers of people to witness the
fun which was anticipated by those who knew of his fund of anecdotes and jokes. When
in the alley, surrounded by a crowd of eager listeners, he indulged with great freedom in
the sport of narrative, some of which were very broad."[3]
Once, at least, he entertained Congress with an exhibition of his humor, and this, oddly
enough, is almost the only display of it that has come down to us, first hand. Lincoln's
humor has become a tradition. Like everything else in his outward life, it changed
gradually with his slow devious evolution from the story-teller of Pigeon Creek to the
author of the Gettysburg Oration. It is known chiefly through translation. The "Lincoln
Stories" are stories someone else has told who may or may not have heard them told by
Lincoln. They are like all translations, they express the translator not the original--final
evidence that Lincoln's appeal as a humorist was in his manner, his method, not in his
substance. "His laugh was striking. Such awkward gestures belonged to no other man.