Dictators Don't Laugh


By DR. STEWART W. McCLELLAND, President, Lincoln Memorial University

Delivered before the Lincoln Club of Los Angeles, February 12, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 300-303

TODAY we are thinking more seriously of our American institutions than ever before. Never has freedom seemed so priceless. Never has democracy seemed so dear. Never have dictators been so powerful and never has this country given more serious thought to the matter of the value of a dictatorial form of government. There has been a great deal of careless thinking and a great deal more of loose talk. Every one of us has had to listen to some one declaring that what this country needs is a dictator and many more have uttered the opinion that we already have one. The fact of the matter is that our President does have dictatorial powers but that does not make him a dictator.

In times of crises we, a great republic, have delegated greater powers to our presidents than the constitution has bestowed upon them; but there is a certain quality of the American mind which will never permit a president, no matter what may be his powers, to be a dictator.

John Gunther tells of an incident which occurred when he was granted an audience with Mussolini. After the interview Mr. Gunther submitted his manuscript to Mussolini for his approval. In his news story Gunther had told of an incident which Mussolini had related with much laughter. Mussolini deleted the story with the comment, "Dictators don't laugh."

I have never met a dictator, but I have read about them in the papers and I have studied about them in history. Can you picture Oliver Cromwell with a smile on his face? We are not surprised that the followers of such a man could call their children by such names as "Praise God Bare Bones!"

The story is told of another dictator, Napoleon by name, who one evening after the battle of Austerlitz, had an engagement with a beautiful and charming Austrian lady of noble rank. And he talked till after midnight trying to show co her that he was the benefactor of the Austrians. What a way to spend an evening with a lady! Napoleon's trouble was that he had no sense of proportion.

Can you picture Hitler being called in as an after-dinner speaker? Have you ever heard Mussolini accused of being the life of the party? Do you suppose that seventy-five years from now men will be gathering together the jokes which our leading dictators have told? The one thing which keeps Mr. Roosevelt from being a dictator is the fact that he can laugh. And I say this even though we Republicans have elected him for the third term! Even in the midst of gigantic worries his humor seldom if ever forsakes him.

But this is no apology for Mr. Roosevelt; it is rather, or at least I hope it to be, a study of the American mind. We are all the products of the pioneer and the frontier. It is only in rather recent years that we have been able to afford the luxury of paying for our entertainment. When the most of us here were boys we made our own fun and played our own games instead of paying a large price to see some one else do it. We didn't read our jokes in the Saturday Evening Post or the Readers Digest; we heard them around the big potbellied stove in the country store, just as our fathers did before us. The telling of stories and the "swapping of jokes" has been one of the greatest of all democratic institutions, and it has furthermore been one of the greatest stabilizing factors in the democracy. Laughter is the great leveler. In America the joker has been more than a court jester; he has

been the king's friend, where every man is a king. And in the kingdom of good humor the king and the jester are laughed with and laughed at, and that is what has kept us humble. Right now, what this country needs is not a good five-cent cigar. It needs a Will Rogers, a Mr. Dooley, or a Mark Twain! We need to laugh when it hurts too much even to smile; we need the sanity of laughter in a world screaming with pain.

We have always had that balance which comes from seeing all sides of a question, and as a nation we have practiced the tolerance of understanding. Only a democracy can have a sense of humor. A few years ago the Tennessee Valley Authority moved into the section of the country in which I live and threw a great dam across the Clinch River. It flooded all the low, level land of the Clinch and its tributaries, so that it was necessary to move out the farms, and those who dwelt in the small town, and they even moved out the small cities of the dead and at government expense erected new headstones. In a cemetery near the county seat of Union County, Tennessee, there now stands a new headstone with this inscription:

Major Allen Hurst
Son of
John and Elizabeth Thompson
March 4, 1810 Tazewell Co. Va.
May 26, 1873
First Circuit Court Clerk
of Union Co.
During Reconstruction
Days Robbed by the Carpet
Baggers of 4000 acres
of Land
60 odd years later TVA
confiscated Several
Thousand acres of mineral
Land left to his Grand
Children Gone With The Wind

There is not another country in the world which would recognize the individual rights to put on that tombstone the powerful protest of a fine rugged individualist! Such a nation does not breed dictators. We have had presidents with dictatorial powers before and when the emergency was over those powers were handed back to the people. The people did not have to wrest those powers from hands unwilling to give them back. Our rulers largely have been men of fine objective sense.

In our own life time we can remember how the name "dictator" was applied to Woodrow Wilson, Whatever his powers may have been, he had the power to laugh at himself and no dictator ever had that power; if he had, he could not have become a dictator. We have all chuckled at Wilson's famous limerick:

"For beauty I know I'm no star,
There are those more handsome by far,
But my face I don't mind it,
Because I'm behind it,
It's the folks out in front that I jar."

If Mussolini or Hitler would only start laughing at themselves, I'm certain they'd die laughing. And what a blessing that would be!

Tonight we are celebrating the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who as President has been accused of being the greatest dictator who ever sat in the presidential chair. Friend, foe, and objective observer all agreed on this quality of the most complex character this country has ever produced; and when I say "this country" I am taking in far too little territory.

Young John Hay recorded in his diary August 7, 1863: "The Tycoon is in fine whack. I have rarely seen him more serene and busy. He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union all at once. I never knew with what tyrannous authority he rules the Cabinet until now. The most important things he decides and there is no comment. I am growing more and more convinced that the good of the country demands that he should be kept where he is till this thing is over. There is no man in the country so gritty and firm. I believe the hand of God placed him where he is. They are all working against him like braves, though, but don't seem to make anything by it. I believe the people know what they want, and unless politics have grown in power and lost in principle, they will have it."

And on September 11, 1863, Hay wrote John Nicolay: "You may talk as you please of the abolition Cabinet directing affairs from Washington; some well-meaning newspapers advise the President to keep his fingers out of the military pie, and all that sort of thing. The truth is, if he did, the pie would be a sorry mess. The old man sits here and wields like a backwoods Jupiter the bolts of war and the machinery of government with a hand equally steady and firm."

On October 31, 1863, a Washington correspondent reported to his paper: "Such a thing as a Cabinet Council has not been held since Mr. Lincoln became president. There have been Cabinet Meetings, but there have been no genuine consultations over the great questions of the day. The most important questions have been decided upon by the President in consultation only with one, or at the utmost, two of his constitutional advisers."

After Lincoln's death Ralph Waldo Emerson said of him: "On the day of his death this simple Western Attorney, who according to one party was a vulgar joker and whom the doctrinaires among his own supporters accused of wanting every element of statesmanship, was the most absolute ruler in Christendom, and this solely by the hold his good humored sagacity had laid on the hearts and understanding of his countrymen. Nor was this all, for it appeared that he had drawn the great majority, not only of his own fellow-citizens, but of mankind also, to his side."

Emerson was speaking of a dictator who was the greatest exponent of freedom the world has ever known. A man of a marvelous sense of objectivity and tolerance. And yet Ben Wade would come blustering in and say to Lincoln, "You are the father of every military blunder that has been made during this war. This government is on the road to hell, sir, by reason of your obstinacy, and you are not a mile from there this minute." What did this dictator do? Put him in irons? Start a blood purge? He just agreed with him, saying that his judgment of distance was about right! It was just a mile from the White House to the Capitol where Congress met! "His good humored sagacity" had saved him from a crisis.

Lincoln the story-teller had that sense of proportion which makes the man of humor. To be a humorist one cannot have a one-track mind. He must be like Lincoln. He must knowthat there are not merely two sides to a question, your side and my side; there is also the right side, which may be a far different matter. "His good humored sagacity" not only saved his sanity; it saved the nation.

One evening I was giving an after-dinner speech and I told a perfectly good joke. Just two people laughed: one who had heard it before and one of those kindly souls who always laugh just to encourage the speaker. I stopped in the middle of the address and told them that old one, that a joke is kind of an intelligence test, and if they did not see the point that was not the fault of the joke; it was theirs. Everybody howled at my poorest attempts the rest of the evening. They were not going to be caught again. But what I was saying in jest is a profound fact. Only those of sound sense can see the point of a joke.

The fact that every president from the time of Lincoln has tried to think of himself as another Lincoln is one of our greatest national safeguards. Carlyle once remarked: "Tell me whom you admire and I will tell you what manner of man you are, for you reveal the manner of man you would like to be." May this prophecy come true, "We all, beholding, shall be changed into His likeness."

Let us look at this humorist and his stories. There was never a time in the history of our republic when a president had so many court jesters. Petroleum V. Nasby, Artemus Ward, Sut Lovingood, The Disbanded Volunteer, Orpheus C. Kerr, with Mark Twain tip-toeing on the horizon—they laughed at him, they laughed for him, they laughed with him. And he laughed loudest of them all! They understood him and he understood them, for he was a teller of tall tales himself. A product of the frontier, he had been schooled in the only culture of the backwoods—the gift of narrative. He could use better than any one the clinching argument of an illustration. Schooled in the university of adversity he could recognize insincerity wherever he saw it. Did some one of his political friends ask for the appointment of some incompetent to office, he heard again from Lincoln's lips the famous "Jackass" story, told for generations by thousands of knee-slappers:

Wunce they was a king, who hired him a prophet to prophet him his weather. And one day the king notioned to go fishin' but the best fishin' place was nigh onto where his best gal lived. So he aimed to wear him his best clothes. So he called in his prophet and he says, "Prophet, is hit a comin' on to rain?" And the prophet says, "No, king, hit aint a comin' on to rain, not even a sizzle-sozzle," So the king he put on his best clothes and he got his fishin' tackle, and he started down the road towards the fishin' place and he met a farmer ridin' a jackass. And the farmer says, "King, if ye aint aimin' to get yore clothes wetted, ye'd best turn back for hit's a comin' on to rain, a trash-mover and a gulley-washer." But the king drewed himself up and he says, "Farmer, I hired me a high-wage prophet to prophet me my weather and he 'lows how hit hain't a comin' on to rain not even a frog-duster." So the king he went a fishin' and hit come on to rain, a clod-buster and a chunk-mover. And the king's clothes wuz wetted and they shrunked on him, and the king's best gal she seen him and laughed and the king was wroth and he went home and he throwed out his prophet and he says, "Farmer, I throwed out my other prophet and I aim to hire you to prophet me my weather from now on'ards." And the farmer says, "King, I haint no prophet. All I done this evenin' was to look at my jackass' ears. For if hit's a comin* on to rain his ears lops down and the harder hit's a comin' on the lower they lays, and this evenin' they was a layin' and a loppin'." And the king says, "Go home farmer, I'll hire me the jackass." And that's how it happened. And the jackasses have been a hold in' down all the high wage governmint jobs ever since!

I chance to be a member of our local draft board, and I would give a great deal if we had today a David Ross Locke who could write concerning the draft as he did in Lincoln's time: 

"August 6, 1862.

"I see in the papers last nite that the Government hez inst itooted a draft, and that in a few weeks sum hundreds uv thousands uv peeceable citizens will be dragged to the tented field. I know not wat uthers may do, but ez for me, I cant go. Upon a rigid eggsam in ashen uv my fizzlcklc man, I find it wood be wus nor madnis for me to undertake a campane, to wit:

1. I'm bald-headid, and hev bin obliged to wear a wig these 22 years.

2. I hev dandruff in wat scanty hair still hangs around my venerable temples.

3. I hev a kronic katarr.

4. I hev lost, sence Stanton's order to draft, the use uv wun eye entirely, and hev kronic inflammashen in the other.

5. My teeth is all unsound, my palit ain't eggsactly rite, and I hev hed bronkeetis 31 yeres last Joon. At present I hev a koff, the paroxisms uv wich is friteful to behold.

6. I'm holler-chestid, am short-winded, and hev alluz hed pains in my back and side.

7. I'm afflicted with kronic diarrear and kostivniss. The money I hev paid (or promist to pay) for Jayneses karminnytiv balsam and pills wood astonish almost enny body.

8. I am rupchured in nine places, and am entirely enveloped with trusses.

9. I hev verrykose vanes, hev a white-swellin on wun leg and a fever sore on the uther; also wun leg is shorter than tother, though I handle it so expert that nobody never noticed it.

10. I hev korns and bunyons on both feet, wich wood prevent me from marchin. I don't suppose that my political opinions, wich are aginst the prossekooshn uv this unconstooshnel war, wood hev any wate with a draftin orfiser; but the reesons why I cant go, will, I make no doubt, be suffishent."

—Petroleum V. Nasby.

Lincoln told Charles Sumner that he would gladly give up his office if he could write such lines.

But it is not for his humor that we remember Lincoln. His appreciation of humor and that inherent sense that made him a humorist also made him the man of sorrows whose pulse throbbed with the heart-beats of his fellow men. It was the humorist, delving into the hearts of men, who spoke at the Sanitary Fair in Baltimore in April, 1864. Baltimore! Which had plotted his murder on his way to his inauguration. Baltimore! Which in '61 had stoned the Massachusetts troops going to the relief of Washington. And yet this man of fine balance laid it not to the best of Baltimore but understandingly laid it at the feet of its worst elements and laid a crown of glory on that city for the work done by brave-hearted men and women. It was at Baltimore that Lincoln defined Liberty in terms we will never forget:

"The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using thesame word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.

"The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the process by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty, and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf's dictionary has been repudiated."

If we should substitute the name of nearly any modern country for the state of Maryland, we would sense the timelessness of Lincoln's remarks. No president prepared his public utterances with greater care than did Mr. Lincoln. He had the humorist's sense of timing, so he deliberately timed his addresses for their greatest effect.

We have all been told the old story that the Gettysburg address was jotted down on the back of an old envelope on the train enroute from Washington to Gettysburg, but nothing could be further from the fact. Many times, Mr. Lincoln declined to speak to groups which were serenading him because he was not prepared. The night before the Gettysburg Address was delivered such a group called on him and this was the response he made: I give it merely for the sake of comparison.

"I appear before you, fellow citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a fair one that you would hear me for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have not a speech to make, In my position it is sometimes important that I should not say foolish things. (And here a voice from the crowd interrupts, "If you can help it!") It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further."

That speech would get no votes. But Lincoln was not thinking of votes nor was he thinking of the crowd out in front of the old Wills House in Gettysburg that night. He was thinking of his "few remarks" for the morrow. That was the time, Gettysburg was the place, and what the Beatitudes are to religion the Gettysburg Address is to democracy. He, who was pronounced the greatest dictator of his time phrased for us the living of this generation, and for all generations to come the perfect principles of a perfect democracy. These are not the words of a dictator but of a homely man with a wise and understanding heart, whose life had been spent among the common people: whose face had been crow-footed by the tears and joys of the masses; whose thoughts had soared to such heights that we can only account for them by calling them sheer inspiration.

In these days of dwindling rights and mounting dictators shall we not comfort and inspire ourselves by the loftythoughts and challenging sentences of that famous Address which every school boy memorizes and we older folk are too prone to forget.

"Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us,—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

There has been a great deal of divergence of opinion concerning the way Mr. Lincoln uttered these famous words. Possibly on November 19, 1863, he was heard only by those who stood closest to him. Possibly his voice reached only the few. But he was wrong when he said that the "world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here." Millions of "Little Peterkins" who may know nothing about the "famous victory" will learn to recite that address, not because of its historic setting, not because of the sublimity of its language but because it is the voice of the people. As Carl Sandburg would say, "The People, Yes!" In these last resounding phrases I believe, though I may not be able to prove, that Lincoln did not accent the prepositions but the nouns, and "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."