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Though a strain of melancholy was part of his nature, Lincoln possessed a remarkable sense of humor and a gift for storytelling that allowed him, time and again, to defuse tensions and relax his colleagues at difficult moments. Many of his stories, taken from his seemingly limitless stock, were directly applicable to a point being argued. Many were self-deprecatory, all were hilarious. When he began one of them, his "eyes would sparkle with fun," one old-timer remembered, "and when he reached the point in his narrative which invariably evoked the laughter of the crowd, nobody's enjoyment was greater than his."
One of his favorite anecdotes, a Springfield friend recalled, sprang from the early days just after the Revolution. Shortly after the peace was signed, the story began, the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen "had occasion to visit England," where he was subjected to teasing banter. The British would make "fun of the Americans and General Washington in particular and one day they got a picture of General Washington" and displayed it prominently in the outhouse so Allen could not miss it. When he made no mention of it, they finally asked him if he had seen the Washington picture. Allen said "he thought that it was a very appropriate [place] for an Englishman to keep it ... Why they asked, for said Mr. Allen there is nothing that will make an Englishman s___ so quick as the sight of Genl Washington."
But Lincoln's stories provided more than mere amusement. Drawn from his own experiences and the curiosities reported by others, they frequently conveyed practical wisdom that his listeners could remember and repeat. For instance, when the Civil War was coming to an end and the debate began over what to do with the rebel leaders, Lincoln wished they could somehow "escape the country," even though he could not say this publicly. "As usual," General William Sherman recalled, "he illustrated his meaning by a story: 'A man once had taken the total-abstinence pledge. When visiting a friend, he was invited to take a drink, but declined, on the score of his pledge ... his friend suggested lemonade, which was accepted. In preparing the lemonade, the friend pointed to the brandy-bottle, and said the lemonade would be more palatable if he were to pour in a little brandy; when his guest said, if he could do so 'unbeknown' to him, he would not object." Sherman grasped the point immediately. "Mr. Lincoln wanted [Jefferson] Davis to escape, 'unbeknown' to him."