Abraham Lincoln was a lot funnier than you might think

Claudine Zap
Movie Talk

Abraham Lincoln. Sixteenth president of the United States. Author of the Emancipation Proclamation. Comedian. Wait, what?

It's true - the man who presided over one of the most horrific episodes of the country's history, the Civil War, was also a jokester, and was known as such during his presidency. But the stern-looking, stressed-out Lincoln is the one Americans tend to think of now.

The movie "Lincoln" introduces audiences to the revered figure as a guy who could tell an off-color joke. He also had a dark wit.

[Related: See showtimes for 'Lincoln']

Harold Holzer, author of "Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America, A Companion Book for Young Readers to the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln," recounted on the phone to Yahoo! that what was amazing about Lincoln's storytelling, "aside from the fact that he did it all the time," was calling up the "appropriate tale for the appropriate situation."

When people joked about his appearance, he had a self-mocking tale at the ready. Holzer recounted, "Riding one day, he was confronted by a hideously old woman aiming a shot gun in his face. She told him, 'I always said if I ever met a man uglier than myself, I would shoot him on the spot.' He replied, 'Ma'am, if I'm uglier than you, fire away.'"

In the film, which draws from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, "Team of Rivals," Lincoln tells one of his favorite stories -- true or not is unclear -- of Ethan Allen's visit to England. As described in the book:

"One of Lincoln's favorite anecdotes sprang from the early days just after the Revolution. Shortly after the peace was signed, the story began, the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen 'had occasion to visit England,' where he was subject to considerable teasing banter. The British would make "fun of the Americans and General Washington in particular and one day they got a picture of General Washington" and displayed it prominently in the outhouse so Mr. Allen could not miss it. When he made no mention of it, they finally asked him if he had seen the Washington picture. Mr. Allen said, 'He thought that it was a very appropriate [place] for an Englishman to Keep it. Why they asked, for said Mr. Allen there is Nothing that Will Make and Englishman s**t So quick as the Sight of Gen. Washington.'"

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His on-the-spot wit was also evident. The commander in chief was asked to review a court-martialed solider who had deserted one Colorado regiment in 1862, but was fighting for another when he was arrested. Lincoln overturned the death sentence since the man had re-enlisted, writing simply, "Let him fight instead of being shot."

Some members of his Cabinet were put off by the commander in chief finding solace in humor during the most somber of situations - for example, reading from a joke book before presenting a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet.

Lincoln scholar Holzer also noted that Lincoln had an answer for that. "When Edwin Stanton, secretary of war, a dour kind of a man, grew impatient when Lincoln lapsed into one of his stories, asking, 'Mr. President, why are you always joking?' Lincoln replied, 'Stanton, don't you understand? If I can't laugh, I would die.'" Holzer added, "Jokes were his salvation, all that kept him from crying or dying."

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Lincoln supporters actually published a book of his stories, "Old Abe's Jokes," during his bid for re-election in 1864, so they could be widely read and enjoyed.

As Holzer noted, "Maybe if the nation couldn't laugh, it would die, too."

See the trailer for 'Lincoln':

'Lincoln' Theatrical Trailer