The tremendous seriousness with which the Englishman takes himself and everything else is practically unknown in America; and the ponderous machinery of commercial and political life is undoubtedly facilitated in its running by the presence of the oil of a sub-conscious humorous intention. The American attitude, when not carried too far, seems, perhaps, to suggest a truer view of the comparative importance of things; the American seems to say: “This matter is of importance to you and for me, but after all it does not concern the orbit of a planet and there is no use talking and acting as if it did.” This sense of humour often saves the American in a situation in which the Englishman would have recourse to downright brutality; it unties the Gordian knot instead of cutting it. A too strong conviction of being in the right often leads to conflicts that would be avoided by a more humorous appreciation of the relative importance of phenomena. To look on life as a jest is no doubt a deep of cynicism which is not and cannot lead to good, but to recognise the humorous side, the humorous possibilities running through most of our practical existence, often works as a saving grace. To his lack of this grace the Englishman owes much of his unpopularity with foreigners, much of the difficulty he experiences in inducing others to take his point of view, even when that point of view is right. You may as well hang a dog as give him a bad name; and a sense of humour which would prevent John Bull from calling a thing “un-English,” when he means bad or unpractical, would often help him smoothly towards his goal. To his possession of a keen sense of humour the Yankee owes much of his success; it leads him, with a shrug of his shoulders, to cease fighting over names when the real thing is granted; it may sometimes lean to a calculating selfishness rather than spontaneous generosity, but on the whole it softens, enriches, and facilitates the problems of existence. It may, however, be here noted that some observers, such as Professor Boyesen, think that there is altogether too much jocularity in American life, and claim that the constant presence of the jest and the comic anecdote have done much to destroy conversation and eloquence.
Humour also acts as a great safety-valve for the excitement of political contests. When I was in New York, just before the election of President Harrison in 1888, two great political processions took place on the same day. In the afternoon some thirty thousand Republicans paraded the streets between lines of amused spectators, mostly Democrats. In the evening as many Democrats carried their torches through the same thoroughfares. No collisions of any kind took place; no ill humour was visible. The Republicans seemed to enjoy the jokes and squibs and flaunting mottoes of the Democrats; and when a Republican banner appeared with the legend, “No frigid North, no torrid South, no temperate East, no Sackville West,”