CONNECTIONS: The president’s humorist

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By Tuesday, Oct 10 Viewpoints  3 Comments
Writer and humorist Josh Billings, born Henry Shaw in 1818 in Lanesborough, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy Harvard Theatre Collection

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

They say Abraham Lincoln read aloud to his cabinet. They say he read William Shakespeare and the works of Josh Billings. Purportedly Lincoln explained the choices this way: “Next to Shakespeare, Billings is the greatest judge of human nature.”

There are a dozen stories about Billings – some true, some apocryphal – but my favorite has to do with his birth. It was 1816 and two young men were traveling through Berkshire County. Unluckily, their carriage broke down. Luckily, they were near the home of Gideon Wheeler in Lanesborough, Massachusetts. Unluckily, it was Saturday and there was no blacksmith available until Monday. Luckily, Wheeler had a large house and he invited the two to spend the weekend.

Two years later, Wheeler’s two daughters were married to those two young men. Maybe the better story would be what happened that weekend but alas of that there is no record. We do know, however, that, two years, later Ruth Wheeler was married to John Savage, who later became chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Laura Wheeler, married to the other young man, Henry Shaw, was giving birth to Henry Wheeler Shaw, born in 1818 on Constitution Hill in Lanesborough.

The infant’s grandfather, a doctor, was sent to jail for libeling John Adams, and then elected to Congress for the same reason. His father joined the family business; he entered politics. After graduating Lenox Academy at age 14, Henry W. Shaw was sent to Hamilton College. Unable to control his love for a good prank, he shinnied up and removed the clapper from the bell used to ring the beginning and end of classes. Caught, he was expelled and returned to Lanesborough in disgrace. Notwithstanding the slights exchanged in the previous generation, Henry W. was offered a job as private secretary to John Quincy Adams. He turned it down to travel. With letters of introduction from Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay, he left Lanesborough bent on making his fortune.

‘The American Humorists’ by G.M. Baker, Boston, 1869. From left: Josh Billings, Mark Twain and Petroleum V. Nasby.

Young Henry tried mesmerism (hypnotism) in the Midwest. Unfortunately, his total income seems to have been $13.60. He returned to Lansborough in defeat. There he tried his hand at real estate to no avail. To amuse his friends, he wrote humorous bits and read them aloud. The friends encouraged him to submit the pieces as letters to the editor of the Berkshire County Eagle. He adopted the nom de plume Josh Billings, sent in his letters and the rest is history. Why Josh Billings? Could it be for joshing?

Regardless of his well-placed and well-educated family, Billings adopted the persona of a country boy with down-home wit, thick dialect and misspellings. He said that he once tried to write with proper spelling and punctuation and it just was not funny; no one liked it. As Billings, writing “Tu Stay is tu win,” he was loved as witty and wise. His fame spread from Maine to California to Lincoln’s cabinet. When Josh Billings died in 1885, his body was carried by train back to Lanesborough. Mobs gathered at every station to say farewell. In the end, his métier was humor not erudition – the bell clapper, not the books. So what was it that Lincoln’s cabinet heard when he read aloud?

“I hate to be a kicker,

But the wheel that does the squeaking,

Is the one that gets the grease.”

“Consider the postage stamp, son. It secures success through its ability to stick to one thing till it gets there.”

“Solitude is a good place to visit, but a poor place to stay.”

“It is better to know less than to know so much that ain’t so.”

“There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.”

“The old miser who has accumulated his millions, and sits down on them afterwards, reminds me of a fly that has fallen into a barrel of molasses.”

When Abraham Lincoln met with his cabinet, he read Josh Billings aloud. I wonder what Donald Trump reads aloud. I wonder if Trump reads aloud. I wonder if Trump reads. I wonder if Trump meets with his cabinet. Today, I see folks wondering what to do, rise up or sit down, speak up or wait it out. Some ask my advice. I am reminded of another quote from Josh Billings: “Advice is like castor oil; easy enough to give but dreadful uneasy to take.” So I don’t give advice, but I do pass the advice of others.

Billings also said, “Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are, and doing things that ought to be done.”


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3 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Mary Kephart says:

    Carole – I love your articles and look forward to reading them. Please consider making a book from your “Connections” in the Edge.
    Mary Kephart

  2. Judy Welles says:

    I, too, wonder if Trump reads. Or even if he knows how to read. Thanks for the reflections on the value of history at the beginning of the article.

  3. Anthony Ehrlich says:

    Congratulations, Carole, on another outstanding essay. I am a great admirer of Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and now Josh Billings. And I share your curiosity about about the current occupant of the Whitehouse.

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