Lincoln’s funniest jokes

Abraham Lincoln told jokes as a tonic, an ice-breaker and a political weapon. From biting put-downs to bawdy quips, Richard Carwardine celebrates the president's love of humour...

Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The 16th president of the United States "understood the value of hard work, had deep beliefs and pursued them," says Alastair Campbell. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)  

Abraham Lincoln was a compulsive story teller, although the grandeur of the stern marble figure of his memorial in Washington DC, and the sombre language of his great speeches, obscure his natural sense of humour. He was the first United States president to make jokes and laughter tools of the office, and no other occupant of the White House has since matched his embrace of the jocular. John F Kennedy, widely admired as a humourist, held back for fear of appearing unstatesmanlike; Ronald Reagan, a skilful raconteur, was open to the charge that his humour was a substitute for thought. Lincoln, by contrast, suffered few of the inhibitions felt by later presidents.

Lincoln’s jokes helped define his career as politician, lawyer and war-burdened president. His laughter coexisted with self-absorbed contemplation and melancholy (he suffered from recurrent bouts of depression). Humour in wartime became a lifeline and tonic. His reputation for unrestrained humour, however, gave ammunition to his political foes, who denounced him as a “smutty joker” and “a joke incarnated”.

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