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National Joker

National Joker

Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire

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Todd Nathan Thompson


Hardcover (Other formats: E-book)
192 pages, 6 x 9, 41 illustrations


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About the Book

Abraham Lincoln’s sense of humor proved legendary during his own time and remains a celebrated facet of his personality to this day. Indeed, his love of jokes—hearing them, telling them, drawing morals from them—prompted critics to dub Lincoln “the National Joker.” The political cartoons and print satires that mocked Lincoln often trafficked in precisely the same images and terms Lincoln humorously used to characterize himself. In this intriguing study, Todd Nathan Thompson considers the politically productive tension between Lincoln’s use of satire and the satiric treatments of him in political cartoons, humor periodicals, joke books, and campaign literature. By fashioning a folksy, fallible persona, Thompson shows, Lincoln was able to use satire as a weapon without being severely wounded by it.
In his speeches, writings, and public persona, Lincoln combined modesty and attack, engaging in strategic self-deprecation while denouncing his opponents, their policies, and their arguments, thus refiguring satiric discourse as political discourse and vice versa. At the same time, he astutely deflected his opponents’ criticisms of him by embracing and sometimes preemptively initiating those criticisms. Thompson traces Lincoln’s comic sources and explains how, in reapplying others’ jokes and stories to political circumstances, he transformed humor into satire. Time and time again, Thompson shows, Lincoln engaged in self-mockery, turning negative assumptions or depictions of him—as ugly, cowardly, jocular, inexperienced—into positive traits that identified him as an everyman while attacking his opponents’ claims to greatness, heroism, and experience as aristocratic or demagogic. Thompson also considers how Lincoln took advantage of political cartoons and other media to help proliferate the particular Lincoln image of the “self-made man”; underscores exceptions to Lincoln’s ability to mitigate negative, satiric depictions of him; and closely examines political cartoons from both the 1860 and 1864 elections. Throughout, Thompson’s deft analysis brings to life Lincoln’s popular humor.


Dr. Todd Nathan Thompson earned his BA in English and political science at Kalamazoo College in 1997, his MFA in writing at the School of the Art Institute in 2000, and his PhD in English (American Literature) at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2008. He is currently an associate professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he also serves as coordinator of the MA in English: Literature and MA in English: Composition and Literature programs.


“Todd Nathan Thompson’s valuable study provides what no previous scholar has attempted: a careful, illuminating study of Lincoln’s adroit and compelling uses of satire.  The author clearly demonstrates, thoughtfully and convincingly, that Lincoln’s familiar humor often had larger political and rhetorical purposes. A useful examination that presents an even more complex Lincoln.”— Richard W. Etulain, author of Lincoln and Oregon Country Politics in the Civil War Era

“In this illuminating and subtle study, Thompson shows that Abraham Lincoln brilliantly used self-effacing humor and stories to advance his political cause.  The National Joker is an important book that anyone interested in America’s greatest president should read.”—David S. Reynolds, editor of Lincoln’s Selected Writings: A Norton Critical Edition
“Thompson has produced a shrewd and sophisticated study of the way in which Lincoln used humor, including self-deprecating, for strategic and often satirical purposes.  The National Joker is a valuable contribution to Lincoln studies.”—Richard Striner, author of Father Abraham:  Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery

"Lincoln's contemporaries best recognized his rhetorical powers through his sense of humor, which became legendary. Thompson's new book, The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politic of Satire, demonstrates just how shrewd and purposeful the president's sense of humor was. . .A strength of Thompson's book is that he shows not only how Lincoln used satire, but how it was used on him- and how Lincoln responded in turn. Lincoln was one of the most complex individuals in the nation's history, and Thompson is exploring one of his most sophisticated and fascinating (and largely unexplored) facets. Best of all, Thompson does so in a way that sheds light on the entire panorama of Lincoln's times. His insightful look at Lincoln, then, proves to be an insightful look at America." -Chris Mackowski, author of Grant's Last Battle: The Story Behind the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant 

"[Thompson's] crammed with insight. He knows his satirists, and the Civil War had them, thick as brevet generals." —Mark Wahlgren Summers, The Annuals of Iowa

"Thompson’s analysis is a quick but fascinating read, filled with political cartoons that illustrate how Lincoln was portrayed, vilified, and reimagined by the press." —Journal of Illinois History

"What sets The National Joker apart is its exploration of precisely how Lincoln leveraged his depiction in the press for political gain. As Thompson establishes Lincoln's comic sense, he supports each of his assertions with numerous examples, offers concise historical and political context, and presents the anecdote or punch-line along with an analysis of the comic function and political outcome of each of Lincoln's little stories." —Project MUSE

"Thomson shows us how Lincoln continually outpaced his opponents, using his frontier wit and comic homespun caricature to outmaneuver the press and win his way to the White House. No other American president before or since has so deftly used satire to elevate himself in the eyes of the electorate. That he did so when the nation was at war with itself, grieving over the loss of a generation of Americans, and when the Union, Confederate, and British press gave him little reason to laugh, is a testament to his resilience, and to the power of a good sense of humor. " —William Furry, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"As Thompson shows in his study, the freakishly tall man with unkempt hair, homely face, ill-fitting clothes, and a rustic way of speaking admitted his own shortcomings freely and with infectious good humor. Consciously or unconsciously, he turned satire against itself. Satire works best against those who hide behind their social prestige; however, Lincoln embraced his low-class status. His political image—the common man; roughhewn and self-made—resonated with the American public. This well-written book is recommended for students of Lincolniana, political cartoons, and propaganda." –-Stephen Curley, Texas A&M University at Galveston

"Thomposon analyzes the dialectic between the president's use of satire and the way satricial works depicted him. Exploring political cartoons, peroidicals, joke books, and campaign literature, Thompson examines the way Lincoln shifted jokes from the realm of humor into the realm of satire by using apolitical stories allegorically to describe political situations."--Shaun Horton, American Literature

Arguing that Lincoln was “adept not only at using satire but also at deflecting it,” Thompson analyzes the dialectic between the
president’s use of satire and the way satirical works depicted him. Exploring political cartoons, periodicals, jokebooks, and campaign literature, Thompson examines the way Lincoln shifted jokes from the realm of humor into the realm of satire by using apolitical stories allegorically to describe political situations."--Todd Nathan Thompson, American Literature