Abraham Lincoln experienced many hardships in his life, suffering from what in his day was known as “melancholy,” but today we would call clinical depression. Despite this, the United States’ 16th President loved to laugh and tell jokes. His many witty stories elicited chuckles and groans in equal measure, while his sharp one-liners were used to poke fun at his rivals as well as at himself.
Humor was a release mechanism for Lincoln, who was constantly under great strain, especially during the American Civil War. During critical cabinet meetings, he would often start by reading a passage from one of his favorite humorists. On one occasion, when those gathered for the somber meeting failed to appreciate the humor, Lincoln reportedly said, “Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh occasionally I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”
This statement, perhaps better than any other, demonstrates Lincoln’s use of wit and humor. Much like Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, Lincoln knew how powerful laughter could be in dark times. As the following quotes show, Lincoln’s sharp wit was both self-deprecating and, at times, a potent weapon in the political realm.
I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying; and for this reason: I can never be satisfied with anyone who would be block-head enough to have me.
Abraham Lincoln poked fun at himself as much as at anyone else, as shown in this line from a letter written to Mrs. Orville H. Browning in 1838 (four years before he married Mary Todd).
I didn't want the [damned] fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols.
In 1842, the young Abraham Lincoln publicly ridiculed politician James Shields during a debate about banking in Illinois, leading Shields to challenge Lincoln to a duel. Being the far larger and stronger man , Lincoln, who had the privilege of choosing the weapons, went with “cavalry broadswords of the largest size.” The two men later called a truce on the day of the duel.
Shoot me, for if I am an uglier man than you I don’t want to live.
One of Lincoln’s favorite stories involved an encounter with a stranger who apparently told him, “Some years ago I swore an oath that if I ever came across an uglier man than myself I'd shoot him on the spot.” It may be a tall tale, but Lincoln’s response is funny nonetheless.
He has a good deal of trouble with his popular sovereignty. His explanations explanatory of explanations explained are interminable.
This zinger is from a 1858 presidential debate with Stephen Douglas. Lincoln poked fun at his opponent’s seemingly contradictory ideas regarding popular sovereignty, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Honestly, if I were two-faced, would I be showing you this one?
This self-deprecating comment is perhaps the most famous Lincoln one-liner from the Douglas debates. Lincoln made the quip in response to Douglas’ accusation that he was two-faced.
I am rather inclined to silence, and whether that be wise or not, it is at least more unusual nowadays to find a man who can hold his tongue than to find one who cannot.
During an 1861 speech in Pittsburgh, Lincoln addressed a supportive and vocal crowd who were more than willing to laugh at his jokes — especially this one, which poked fun at the chattering political class in general.
My dear McClellan: If you don't want to use the Army I should like to borrow it for a while.
During the Civil War, Lincoln became increasingly frustrated by Union General George McClellan’s unwillingness to attack the Confederate Army. Lincoln recalled him to Washington with the simple but barbed message above.
My dear girl, the ball that hit him, would have missed you.
While visiting a wounded soldier, Lincoln noticed a young woman asking the injured man where he had been shot. The soldier had been shot through the testicles and didn’t wish to give the woman an answer. After talking with the soldier, Lincoln gave the woman this delicate explanation.
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