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Working the Room

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By all outward appearances, Abraham Lincoln was one of our least electable presidents. Tall and thin, with a long torso and big ears, his arms flailed when he spoke, and his voice was “not melodious,” but instead “shrill and piercing.” One friend said that “he provoked as much laughter by the grotesque expression of his homely face as by the abstract fun of his stories.” In the way he spoke, his carriage, his uncontrollable expressions, and his “shrill” voice, Lincoln was, according to modern TV-ready requirements, decidedly unpresidential. But what he lacked in physical appeal—it was an eleven-year-old girl who first suggested he grow a beard—he put right with words. Abraham Lincoln was funny.

Laced with a Southern accent, Lincoln’s stories and jokes reflected his rural, homespun education. According to Judge David Davis, Lincoln’s humor was:

In many respects unique, if not remarkable. His countenance and all his features seemed to take part in the performance. As he neared the pith or point of the joke or story, every vestige of seriousness disappeared from his face. His little gray eyes sparkled; a smile seemed to gather up, curtainlike, the corners of his mouth; his frame quivered with suppressed excitement; and when the point—or “nub” of the story, as he called it—came, no one’s laugh was heartier than his.

In 1848, as a young representative from Illinois, Lincoln took the House floor in support of the Whig presidential candidate, Zachary Taylor. He mocked his Democratic opponents for not gathering behind a single candidate by telling a curious anecdote:

I have heard some things from New York, and if they are true, we might well say of your party there, as a drunken fellow once said when he heard the reading of an indictment for hog stealing. The clerk read on till he got to, and through the words, “did steal, take, and carry away, ten boars, ten sows, ten shoats, and ten pigs” at which he exclaimed, “Well, by golly, that is the most equally divided gang of hogs I ever did hear of.” If there is any gang of hogs more equally divided than the Democrats of New York are about this time, I have not heard of it.

When Lincoln finished with a remark, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “He looks up at you with a great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs.”

Lincoln had an ear for entertaining, collecting anecdotes like the drunken hog-stealing tale and keeping them at the ready to make a point. “I remember a good story when I hear it,” he said, “but I never invented anything original. I am only a retail dealer.” We should perhaps take the comment as something of a dissemblance. It is difficult to imagine who else could have originated this snide remark in a letter to Gen. George B. McClellan, his eventual opponent in the 1864 election, when the general failed to advance against the Confederacy with the speed Lincoln would have liked: “If you don’t want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for a while.”

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Politics
About the Author

Michael Phillips-Anderson is a professor of communication at Monmouth University, where he teaches about rhetoric, politics, and humor. He is working on a book about satirical presidential campaigns.

The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.
G. K. Chesterton, 1908
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