Humor in History

Heather Cox Richardson

In an era when an escaped cobra can tweet from New York’s tourist destinations, and
students have explored the dark genius of Martin Van Buren (embedded below) I guess it was only a matter of time until President Lincoln, Galileo, and Darwin showed up on Facebook.

The good news is that this is circulating widely among our students, that the jokes highlight central themes in history, and that you have to have a decent understanding of these events to understand the jokes.

It also highlights that humor is not a bad way for historians to reach an audience. For a generation, historians have taken their work—and themselves—Very Seriously. Studying history is Work, we seem to be saying.

But there’s plenty of room for play in what we do, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., made clear when he described Henry Ford:

He carried a gun, believed in reincarnation, and hated bankers, doctors, Jews, Catholics, fat men, liquor, tobacco, prisons and capital punishment. His impulses were vagrant and confused, and too often he acted on them. In 1916 he had sent the Peace Ship to Europe in order to end the First World War; in 1918, at Woodrow Wilson’s personal request, he was a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate; and in 1920 he began to
publish the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Dearborn Independent. He believed always that God was with him: ‘I’m guided,’ he told his friends, pointing to his head. ‘I’m guided.’ (The Crisis of the Old Order, p. 73).

How could you ever forget Henry Ford’s foibles after reading Schlesinger’s tongue-in-cheek description?

Then there’s my favorite paragraph ever in a history book, from George E. Hyde’s A Sioux Chronicle. It’s about Indian Agent Valentine McGillycuddy, just after he took a position at the Pine Ridge Agency in Dakota Territory:

In both speaking and writing, McGillycuddy had a most effective style: terse, biting, and at times highly humorous. When engaged in one of his innumerable feuds, he simply diffused haughtiness, scorn, and ridicule in every direction, assailing his opponents with a vigor and variety of language that generally left them speechless and aghast. Even in his official reports he displayed an originality in phrase and treatment that made his writing stand out in marked contrast with the dull and plodding compositions of the other Sioux agents. In his very first report we find this:

Through carelessness or design, and directly against the orders of the Interior Department, this agency was, in the fall of 1878, located in the southwest corner of Dakota, within 1 ¾ miles of the Nebraska line, so that when I assumed charge here in 1879 we were furnished with the luxuries and accommodations of civilization by having a well supplied whisky ranch in full blast, almost within gunshot of the agency, which forced the agent to add the labor of coroner and undertaker to his other duties by making periodical trips into Nebraska to gather up dead Indians and half-breeds, killed in drunken quarrels.

This single sentence produced an uproar, certain Indian Office officials considered that the first four words aspersed their honor, while wrathful Nebraska frontier editors commented bitterly on this agent’s false statements concerning the activities of the citizenry on the Pine Ridge border. McGillycuddy did not care. He adored a fight (p. 33).

In this one short description, Hyde managed to sum up McGillycuddy, his autocratic style, the fights he would have with, well, everyone, and to give a picture of the troubled life on the reservation.

There’s a reason Abraham Lincoln made his points through funny stories. It is, perhaps, no wonder that his followers have taken to Facebook.