At a recent flea market, I bought a 158-year-old book for $2. Reading it, I heard Abraham Lincoln laugh.
“Artemus Ward: His Book” is a collection of comic sketches by America’s first stand-up comedian, the wildly popular Charles Farrar Browne, or “Artemus Ward.” He was one of Lincoln’s favorites and the president loved the 1862 book.
The Library of America published this in 2010:
“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 Sept. 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 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.’”
Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase recalled that Lincoln found the book “very funny. Read it, seemed to enjoy it very much,” then grew serious and unveiled his emancipation plan.
“American Magazine,” published by American University in Washington, D.C., wrote in 2015:
“Lincoln laughed. This much we know. His war secretary did not. The rest of the cabinet either collectively chuckled or uniformly scowled, depending on whose account you believe.
“It was noon on Sept. 22, 1862, five days after Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War. The president … was about to sign his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. As a preamble to this historic act, the tall, somber executive read aloud the words of Artemus Ward — the national jester of the Civil War era…”
Browne, 1834-1867, was a newspaper typesetter from Maine. In 1858, “The Cleveland Plain Dealer” began publishing his humorous dispatches. His character, Artemus Ward, was a chubby, balding fraud who used dialect and comically misspelled words to recount his travels, promote his sideshows and satirize institutions and individuals.
To his cabinet, Lincoln read Ward’s brief “High-Handed Outrage in Utica.” In it, a country bumpkin filled with moral outrage smashes a wax figure of the false prophet Judas Iscariot (which Ward spells “Iscarrot”) and asks, “What did you bring this pussylandermous cuss here fur?”
According to one account, Lincoln said that, given the gravity of the presidency, he needed to laugh, and hoped that his cabinet would share in it.
“With the fearful strain that is upon me, night and day, if I did not laugh I should die,” he said, “and you need this medicine as much as I do.”
Ward performed to sold-out crowds from coast to coast, then sailed to England and wrote for “Punch.” He died in London at age 33.
His friend, Mark Twain, called him “one of the kindest and gentlest men in the world … America’s greatest humorist.”
Lincoln probably would have agreed.