Abraham Lincoln Jokes: The 16th President’s Forgotten Sense of Humor

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most revered and respected presidents in US history. While the 16th president of the United States is best remembered for helping to end slavery, he also reunited the country after the bloodiest war in American history. Honest Abe established America’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 intelligence. Believe it or not, the imposing 6-foot-1 president was famous for his sense of humor and boisterous banter. Clearly, ending slavery was no laughing matter, but Abraham Lincoln’s jokes lightened the mood even in the darkest of times. How did Lincoln develop his infamous sense of humor, and how did he use it to his advantage?

“No matter how much the cats fight, there always seem to be a lot of kittens.”

This Abraham Lincoln joke was a lewd remark about the Union and the Confederacy for most of Lincoln’s term as president. They may have fought like cats and dogs, but the country, though divided, marched on and continued to make babies. Even in the face of terrible tension, Lincoln found time for a joke.

“After 40, every man gets the face he deserves.”

In one instance, after reading his favorite humorist’s work to his cabinet, Lincoln mildly chastised them for their relentless seriousness. “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the terrible strain that’s on me night and day, if I didn’t laugh I’d die, and you need that medicine as much as I do.” This joke contained a lot of truth, as historians believe that “Father Abraham” suffered from serious clinical depression. 

“How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg does not mean it is a leg.”

Although he was considered by many to have a great sense of humor, Abraham Lincoln’s jokes tended to the dry side. You have to consider the period when Abraham was leaving the microphone. Life expectancy hovered around 40, people used wood for teeth, and a case of dysentery could easily end your life. 

“When you reach the end of the rope, tie a knot and hold on.”

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

As anyone with a $5 bill could tell you, Abraham wasn’t the most dashing of men. Naturally, Lincoln was quite aware of his odd 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 is a story Lincoln would use to gain goodwill with critics:

“I feel like I once did when I met a woman riding in the woods. When I stopped to let her pass, she also stopped and, looking at me closely, said, ‘I believe you are the ugliest man that ever sawed.’ I said, ‘Ma’am, you’re probably right, but I can’t help it!’ ‘No’, she said, ‘you can’t help it, but you can stay home!’ “

“Whenever I hear someone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong urge to see it brought to trial in person.”

Of course, many of the anecdotes and stories about Abraham Lincoln’s jokes don’t translate well. Almost 200 years of history tend to change our conception of it. However, many of Lincoln’s supporters and opponents were impressed by his narrative. Even his longtime political opponent Stephen A. Douglas describes the power of Lincoln’s jokes and stories: “[They were] like a slap on the back. Nothing else – none of your arguments or any of your answers to my questions – disturbs me. But when he starts to tell a story, I feel like I must be bested. “