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Abraham Lincoln's Jokes: The 16th President's Forgotten Sense Of Humor

Historical Facts | September 22, 2019

The Man Certainly Knew His Way Around A Quote. Source: (azquotes.com)

Abraham Lincoln stands as one of the most revered and respected Presidents in U.S history. Though the 16th president of the United States is most remembered for helping end slavery, he also reunited the country after the bloodiest war in American history. Honest Abe established the U.S. National Banking system, created the progressive tax system, and became the only president to hold a patent.

However, Abraham Lincoln's most underrated qualities as a president were his humor and wit. Believe it or not, the towering 6'4" president was notorious for his sense of humor and uproarious banter. Clearly, ending slavery was no laughing matter, but Abraham Lincoln's jokes lightened the mood in even the heaviest of moments. How did Lincoln develop his infamous sense of humor, and how did he use it to his advantage?

Old Abe Smoking Tobacco, undated. Source: (Photo by The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)

"No Matter How Much Cats Fight, There Always Seems To Be Plenty Of Kittens."

This Abraham Lincoln joke was a ribald observation about the Union and Confederacy during the majority of Lincoln's tenure as President. They might have fought like cats and dogs, but the country, though divided, marched on and continued making babies. Even in the face of terrible tension, Lincoln found time for a joke.

Thankfully, Dashing Looks Isn't Part of the Criteria. Source: (petapixel.com)

"After 40, Every Man Gets The Face He Deserves."

In one instance, after reading the work of his favorite humorist to his cabinet, Lincoln lightly chastised them for their unrelenting seriousness. "Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do." That jest held many truths, as historians believe "Father Abraham" suffered from serious clinical depression. 

Abraham Lincoln's Business Card. Source: (americaslibrary.gov)

"How Many Legs Does A Dog Have If You Call The Tail A Leg? Four. Calling A Tail A Leg Doesn’t Make It A Leg."

While he was considered by many to possess a great sense of humor, Abraham Lincoln's jokes tended toward the dry side. You have to take into consideration the period in which Abraham was dropping the mic. Life expectancy sat around 40, people used wood for teeth, and a case of dysentery could easily end your life. 

Apparently George Clooney is Distantly Related to Old Abe. Lucky for George Looks Skipped a Few Generations. Source: (eonline.com)

“When You Reach The End Of Your Rope, Tie A Knot And Hang On.”

Obviously, Abraham Lincoln's life was incredibly stressful and perpetually difficult, yet in the face of his many challenges, he kept a level head and never got too full of himself. In fact, one of his favorite targets for humor was himself.

As anyone possessing a $5 bill could tell you, Abraham wasn't the most dashing man. Naturally, Lincoln was quite aware of his strange-looking face and used it to his advantage. When one of his many detractors called him "two-faced," he replied "If I had two faces, why would I be wearing this one?" Here's a story Lincoln would use to gain goodwill with critics:

"I feel like I once did when I met a woman riding horseback in the woods. As I stopped to let her pass, she also stopped, and, looking at me intently, said: 'I do believe you are the ugliest man I ever saw.' Said I, 'Madam, you are probably right, but I can’t help it!' 'No,' said she, 'you can't help it, but you might stay at home!'"

Painting of President Abraham Lincoln's debate with Stephen Douglas, September 18, 1856. Source: (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

"Whenever I Hear Anyone Arguing For Slavery, I Feel A Strong Impulse To See It Tried On Him Personally."

Of course, many of the anecdotes and stories about Abraham Lincoln's jokes don't quite translate. Nearly 200 years of history tend to change our conception of it. Nevertheless, many of Lincoln's supporters and opponents alike were awed by his storytelling. Even his longtime political opponent Stephen A. Douglas describes the power of Lincoln’s jokes and stories: "[They were] like a slap across my back. Nothing else—not any of his arguments or any of his replies to my questions—disturbs me. But when he begins to tell a story, I feel that I am to be overmatched."

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!