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LITTLE LAUGHS IN HISTORY
One evening during the period of the American Revolution the House of Commons met for the sole purpose of renewing the frequent and acrimonious debates of the day upon Lord North's policies as to these Western Colonies. The dingy old chamber (as it was then) was lighted only by candles, their dim radiance casting fantastic shadows over the men, big and little in statecraft as in stature, grouped around the hall upon the green benches; a picturesque lot, in their knee-breeches, buckles, and swords. Fox and his followers wore the buff and blue which formed Washington's uniform, others were in full court dress plantifully bedecked with lace ruffles, and the ministers had on their stars and ribbons. On the Treasury Bench, which extended along a short half of the length of the main aisle, sat North himself, fat and near-sighted, and, further down, at the lowest corner, was the dignified, elderly Welbore Ellis, Treasurer of the Navy, and afterwards Lord Mendip. As the discussion waxed hot, the Premier rose suddenly to go down the House to consult with a brother member, and, as he did so, laid his hand, with a quick nervous grasp, on his sword in such a way that the scabbard extended out nearly horizontally. Ellis leaned forward, in a bored position, as the first minister ambled ungracefully down the hall with his side-arm on a direct line with the former's wig. Of course, away went the wig, and down the House went North, utterly unconscious of what he had done, blind as a bat, with the tonsorial dressing swaying to and fro on the end of his scabbard, like some strange kind of banner. The tension of the night was ended. The bursts of laughter from every quarter lasted long after Ellis, without altering a muscle of his countenance, had received back his very intimate property and readjusted it to his head.
Humor has had a deal to do with an all-but-endless lot of such sane readjustments. To have a sure eye for the ever-recurring comedy of the humdrum routine of life, so that no absurdity of speech or incident escapes, is not only a joy to the blessed possessor but sustains him amazingly amid the labors and stupidities of “the daily round, the common task.” Many of what
are pointed to as the great achievements of men would have been lost far back along the roads of accomplishment had it not been for the unconscious aid rendered by “the oil and wine of merriment" in tempering fatal aggressiveness and our all too human tendency to take persons and life over-seriously. None but can bear witness, an he will, that the relaxation of a full laugh clears the brain, restores fit contact with one's fellows, and so smoothes the way for the solving of knotty problems. It is not too much to say, indeed, that manners and general social effectiveness have devoloped quite exactly in the ratio that wit and humor have been understood and felt. After all, your moral precept and a healthy laugh travel best hand in hand.
For a while Calvin and his followers, as Holmes has it, "crushed the whole human race under their heels in the name of the Lord of Hosts,” but one day a clergyman of independent leaning fell into an argument with a Calvinist preacher about the nature of God. "Oh! I see, my dear sir,” said he, "your God is my Devil.” So it came to pass that the rigorous nature of the Genevan doctrine gradually gave way before the possibilities it afforded to wit. And so runs the pithiest strain throughout good Dame Clio's story.
Who can tell how much such humorists as Putnam and Wayne had to do with sustaining the courage of the Continental Army? If the idiosyncrasies of Andrew Jackson had not inspired a smile, the spectacle of him and his wife sitting in front of a log fire in the White House, not too cleanly clad and smoking corn-cob pipes, might well have disgusted the mass of the people. But for the saving grace of humor, too, his attitude to Nicholas Biddle and the replacing of the United States Bank by wildcat financial schemes would have called forth excoriation. His earlier Seminole campaign, during which he infringed on Spanish rights and property, in clear disobedience to direct orders from Washington, nearly causing war with Spain, would naturally have led to his dismissal from the army by President Monroe, one might think, but it did not. "Old Hickory" was a popular idol through it all, thanks no little to the unwitting texts he set for America's amusement. The country has long since survived his mistakes and profited by his virtues.
One who will examine the debates which led to the epochal English Reform Act of 1832 cannot fail to note how much acrimony was avoided by laugh-loving men like Sir Christopher Wetherell. We get closer to the great figures when they smile. Your merely average man can better appreciate a big thing or better hearken to broad counsels when the light plays around them. It is even a matter for fair speculation how far the influence of the transcendent Burke, who "spoke daggers, especially when he used none,” would have extended in the Commons without such light-hearted foils as Sheridan and Fox. The lives of these latter, as is well known, were full of debts and vicissitudes, but none the less they took things as they came and with cheerful sanity. Of Fox it is related that one day a friend asked him if he could spare ten shillings towards a fund with which to bury a bailiff. “By all means," replied he. “Here's twenty shillings; bury two." And Sheridan one day in the sacrosanct precincts of the House itself conveyed a merited rebuke to Dundas, afterwards Lord Melville, albeit the sting was dulled by the manifest good humor of the speaker. Said he: “The right honorable gentleman is indebted to his imagination for his facts."
During the administration of the second Pitt, England's Commoners were once debating a bill for the suppression of smuggling, brought in by Lord Mahon, afterwards Earl Stanhope, the Premier's relative. It was entirely apparent that the proposal was deemed a proper one by the House, but Mahon harangued in his own ponderous, dogmatic way, as if he doubted whether the morals of his colleagues were sufficiently elevated to realize that smuggling was actually reprehensible, not to say wicked. As the members grew more and more restless, the speaker suddenly turned to Pitt, who sat below him, cold and dignified, and, with his arm upraised for oratorical gesture, thanked him for “his endeavors to knock smuggling on the head with one blow,”—and at the last word, down came arm and fist on the first minster's head! It is as needless to say that ennui was dispersed as that the bill was passed.
In many a man, again, even sorrow and anxiety have been controlled by the humorous potency of a look, a tone, or a
circumstance. There was once a habitual invalid of a fellow so genuinely amused at the uncompromising monotony of his physical ill sensations that he actually ceased to impress his friends as not in excellent health, so that when he died he himself was the sole one concerned who was not surprised or shocked.
A keen sense of humor had much to do with Daniel Webster's effectiveness as lawyer and statesman. He often told this story at his own expense.
He was an enthusiastic sportsman, in a day of Alint-lock guns and black powder. Before reloading such weapons it was usually necessary to apply the lips to the muzzle to blow the smoke fron the barrel, and after such a process Webster, in his rough clothes, looked like some terrible highwayman, for his face was dark and swarthy anyhow. Once, accidentally, he sprinkled a stranger with shot. Frightened at what he had done, he walked towards his victim and said : “My dear sir, I am very sorry.
Did I shoot you?" "Yes" said the other, staring into the grimy face, and not recognizing it, "and judging by your looks, you have done that sort of thing before.” Then both laughed outright.
Lincoln is another historic illustration of the power of humor to preserve temperamental equipoise. In him, so far as one can understand the subjective in man, there was a constant warring with a tendency to sad reflection. No publicist ever had a more concentrated and superb sense of responsibility than he. Had he not had the gift of seeing a joke, which always postponed in his mind the idea of disaster, replacing it with hope, it is at least a matter of fair conjecture whether he could have borne his burdens as he did and have communicated so true a confidence to the people. As is well known, he was constantly importuned and criticized by members of Congress and others. In the darkest days of the war, when many of the nation's legislators were violently dissatisfied with his administration, Ben Wade went to the White House and said : “Mr. President, I've come to tell you your government is going straight to hell! You're within a mile of it now.” A smile wrinkled Lincoln's long, sad face as he answered, “Well, Senator, I believe that's the distance from here to the Capitol.” Another time, before he be
came President, he was pleading before the Supreme Court of Illinois, and in the course of the argument, read from a reported case some strong points in his favor. But he read too far, and, before he became aware of it, plunged into an authority against
Pausing a moment, he drew up his shoulders in a comical way, and half laughing, continual : "There, there, may it please the Court, I reckon I've scratched up a snake, but, as I'm in for it, I guess I'll read it through"; and then, in his own inimitable way, went on and won his case, convincing the Court that "it wasn't much of a snake, after all."
Apropos of the courtroom, what a dreary place in would be, with rancor all too often dominating the proceedings, were it not for the jest which creeps in now and then to clear the atmosphere. The story of Lincoln suggests one concerning Dunning, afterwards Lord Ashburton, and Scott, afterwards the even more famous Lord Eldon. Dunning, at the time in question, was already one of the greatest lawyers that George III had in his dominions; a man of middle age, turning gray at the temples and of marked idiosyncrasies, among these being the habits of coughing and spitting at almost every word when under the stress of strong emotion. Eldon was quite young, only recently, indeed, admitted to the bar. He was engaged as junior with Dunning in a case before the King's Bench, and as his senior unfolded the argument, it became apparent he was reasoning powerfully against their client. As soon as Eldon was convinced that Dunning was laboring under a mistake as to the side retaining him, he touched his arm and whispered a warning. Immediately there were loud sputterings and gurglings, and rough, rude reprimands for not having sooner set the speaker right, all of which were unmistakably heard by the presiding justice, who, taking in the situation and knowing well the peculiarities of his man, looked down from the bench with that bland smile which a judge always wears when he sees a joke at the expense of the bar. "Go on Mr. Dunning,” said he. Dunning met the smile with a somewhat shamefaced grin, but at once proceeded to say that what he had addressed to the court was all that could be stated in opposition to his client, and that he had put the case against him as unfavorably as possible in order that the