Politics is never far from a politician's mind.
And in almost every politician's letter you can find
Pointing with pride while at the same time viewing
As with wonderful dexterity he almost breaks his arm,
Spinning contradictions with such gymnastic knack
That with all humility he pats himself upon the back.
He often makes us laugh out loud; but what is most
Is why he's at his funniest when trying to be serious.
When it came to the subject of marriage, George Washington certainly was of several minds, all of them witty.
A thirty-eight-year-old bachelor, one Tench Tilghman, wrote to General Washington to explain that he had gotten married while on his overstayed leave.
Washington wrote back:
We have had various conjectures about you. Some thought you were dead, others that you were married.
Washington sent a congratulatory if slightly bizarre message to Governor Henry Lee of Virginia on the occasion of his marriage:
My dear Gov. Lee:
You have exchanged the rugged field of Mars for the soft and pleasurable bed of Venus.
About the marriage of his friend Colonel Ward, Washington wrote to a mutual friend:
I am glad to hear that my old acquaintance Colonel Ward is yet under the influence of vigorous passions. I will not ascribe the intrepidity of his late enterprise to a mere flash of desires, because in his military career he would have learnt how to distinguish between false alarm and a serious movement. Charity therefore induces me to suppose that like a prudent general, he had reviewed his strength, his arms, and ammunition before he got involved in an action. But if these have been neglected, and he has been precipitated into the measure, let me advise him to make the first onset upon his fair Del Toboso [a reference to the title invented by Don Quixote for his ladylove] with vigor, that the impression may be deep, if it cannot be lasting, or frequently renewed.
At twenty, Thomas Jefferson spent a most unpleasant night sleeping--or trying to sleep--at a friend's house. He wrote to a mutual friend on Christmas Day in 1762, describing his tribulations. The letter, in part:
The cursed rats ate up my pocketbook which was in my pocket within a foot of my head. And not contented with plenty for the present, they carried away my jemmy-worked silk garters and half a dozen new minuets I had just got.
Of this I should not have accused the devil--because you know rats will be rats.
Jefferson had a good friend, a Mrs. William S. Smith, who wrote him while he was in Paris to ask him to determine the disposition of some corsets she had ordered there some time before and had yet to receive. Jefferson bought two corsets and sent them to her with a letter explaining that he had no idea whether they would fit, because she had not sent her measurements:
My dear Mrs. Smith,
. . . If too small, then lay them aside for a time. There are ebbs as well as flows in this world. When the mountain refused to come to Mahomet, he went to the mountain.
Abraham Lincoln was always prepared to joke about himself--especially when it came to his physical appearance. By the standards of the day, he was indeed considered quite ungainly. He wrote to a friend:
One day . . . I got into a fit of musing in my room and stood resting my elbows on the bureau. Looking into the glass, it struck me what an ugly man I was. The fact grew on me and I made up my mind that I must be the ugliest man in the world. It so maddened me that I resolved, should I ever see an uglier, I would shoot him on sight. Not long after this, Andy [naming a lawyer present] came to town and the first time I saw him I said to myself: "There's the man." I went home, took down my gun, and prowled around the streets waiting for him. He soon came along. "Halt, Andy," said I, pointing the gun at him, "say your prayers, for I am going to shoot you." "Why, Mr. Lincoln, what's the matter? What have I done?" "Well, I made an oath that if I ever saw an uglier man than I am, I'd shoot him on the spot. You are uglier, surely; so make ready to die." "Mr. Lincoln, do you really think that I am uglier than you?" "Yes." "Well, Mr. Lincoln," said Andy deliberately and looking me squarely in the face, "if I am any uglier, fire away."
In a similar vein, Lincoln later wrote to a friend:
I have one vice, and I can call it nothing else: it is not to be able to say "No." Thank God for not making me a woman, but if He had, I suppose He would have made me just as ugly as He did, and no one would ever have tempted me.
Upon hearing the news in 1841 that his good friend, Joshua F. Speed, had just gotten married, Lincoln offered these words of advice:
My old father used to have a saying that "if you make a bad bargain, hug it the tighter"; and it occurs to me that if the bargain you have just closed (marriage) can possibly be called a bad one, it is certainly the most pleasant one for applying that maxim to, which my fancy can, by any effort, picture.
Not surprisingly, at twenty-eight years old, Lincoln was still a bachelor. A friend told him she would bring her sister to Springfield, Illinois, if Lincoln would consider marrying her. So queried in a confused and embarrassed moment, Lincoln agreed to this plan. The result was disastrous, as Lincoln demonstrates in this wry letter:
. . . Although I had seen her before, she did not look as my imagination had pictured her. I knew she was oversize, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff. I knew she was called an "old maid," and I felt no doubt of the truth of at least half of the appellation, but now, when I beheld her, I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother; and this, not from withered features, for her skin was too full of fat to permit its contracting into wrinkles--but from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy and reached her present bulk in less than thirty-five or forty years; and in short I was not at all pleased with her. . . .
But what could I do? I had told her sister that I would take her for better or for worse . . . and was now fairly convinced that no other man on earth would have her, and hence the conviction that they were bent on holding me to my bargain. . . .
At once I determined to consider her my wife, and this done, all my powers of discovery were put to work in search of perfections in her which might be fairly set off against her defects. I tried to imagine her handsome . . . tried to convince myself that the mind was much more to be valued than the person. . . .
After I had delayed the matter as long as I thought I could in honor do (which by the way had brought me round into the last fall) . . . I mustered my resolution and made the proposal to her direct.
But, shocking to relate, she answered No. At first I suppose she did it through an affectation of modesty, which I thought but ill became her under the peculiar circumstances of her case, but on my renewal of the charge I found she repelled it with greater firmness than before. I tried it again and again, but with the same . . . want of success.
And I then . . . for the first time began to suspect that I was really a little in love with her. . . .
I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying, and for this reason--I can never be satisfied with anyone who would be blockhead enough to have me.
A.L.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Funny Letters from Famous People by Edited and Introduced by Charles Osgood. Copyright © 2003 by Edited and Introduced by Charles Osgood. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.