Young Abe Lincoln Almost Killed A Man — and Threatened Those Who Asked About It

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Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator… it’s hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln settling his scores with a duel. But that’s — almost — what happened in 1842. Lincoln, then a 33-year-old prairie lawyer, was challenged to a deadly showdown by state auditor James Shields.

In true Lincoln fashion, their dispute stemmed from a disagreement over Illinois’ banking regulations.

A Scandal in the Newspaper

In 1842, Illinois was embroiled in economic conflict. The Illinois State Bank went bankrupt and stopped accepting its very own paper currency, in favor of gold and silver — which of course, your average Illinois farmer did not have lying around. Enter James Shields: a high-profile auditor with the state. He sided with his own Democratic party in support of the elite measure. Though Shields would go on to have a prominent political career — he became the only senator in U.S. history to serve for three different states — he faced harsh criticism for this move as auditor, presenting himself as an easy target for the Whigs, the early party of Abraham Lincoln.

At the time, Lincoln was living in Springfield, practicing as a lawyer and serving on the Illinois state legislature. A man about town, he was also quite friendly with the editor of the local Sangamo Journal, Simeon Francis. Francis allowed Lincoln to write an op-ed under the feminine pen name “Rebecca,” in which the author tore into Shields… for not only his political position but also for his personal failings.

In the piece, “Rebecca” described the physical exhaustion of farming which, without paper money, still leaves her unable to pay off debts. “Lo and behold, I find a set of fellows calling themselves officers of State, have forbidden to receive State paper at all; and so here [the debt] is, dead on my hands,” the letter reads.

However, the words stray from any strict focus on legal tender. The author, Lincoln, goes on to taunt Shields’ failed attempts at womanizing. As Rebecca, he reports hearing:

“His very features, in the ecstatic agony of his soul, spoke audibly and distinctly– ‘Dear girls, it is distressing, but I cannot marry you all. Too well I know how much you suffer; but do, do remember, it is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting.”

From Lincoln’s handwritten “Rebecca” letter

Lincoln’s original letter was edited by Mary Todd, his then-fiancé, who loved the idea. She even submitted her own, similar critique to Journal under the pseudonym “Cathleen.”

So, as the publication gained traction, an enraged Shields called on Francis to reveal Rebecca’s true identity. Francis did, and in turn, Shield demanded a retraction from Lincoln through an threatening, handwritten note. Lincoln refused, noting that Shields should try asking in a more “gentlemanly” manner.

So Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel.

The Duel That Never Was

As was tradition, Abraham Lincoln, who accepted the challenge, picked the weapon: large cavalry broadswords. This choice was notable, since it represented the physical differences between both participants, placing Lincoln at a clear advantage. Lincoln, at six feet and four inches, towered over James Shields who was 5’9″.

Any would have presented a grave danger to Lincoln, with his massive size. “I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols,” Lincoln later told his biographer and friend William Herndon. But he felt “sure” he could disarm Shields using a blade.

Since dueling was illegal in Illinois, Lincoln met Shields in Missouri, at Bloody Island, for the face-off on September 22, 1842. But as they moved toward one another, Lincoln swung his sword high into the air, slicing a tree branch easily. The move demonstrated not only his strength, but his reach; neither participant was allowed to cross a plank set on the ground between them. That broken branch was a warning. And things were not looking good for Shields.

With the encouragement of two bystanders, John J. Hardin and R. W. English by some accounts, the men decided to call off the fight.

From Foes to Friends?

Abraham Lincoln and James Shields would cross paths for the rest of their lives. In 1855, Lincoln ran against Sheilds’ re-election senate bid; both were beat by Lyman Trumbull after a three-way runoff. And though Lincoln would eventually earn that Illinois seat, Shields moved on to Minnesota, then Missouri, becoming a senator for both states. He eventually moved on to California, where he was living when the Civil War broke out in 1861.

As Lincoln ruled the Union, Shields volunteered in the army, quickly becoming a Brigadier General for the Army of the Potomac. It was Shields’ troops who beat General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson the historic Battle of Kernstown: Stonewall Jackson’s only tactical defeat. Sheilds was injured during the battle and President Lincoln promoted him to major general the next day as a sign of respect. (The appointment was later overturned and Sheilds soon left the service.)

However, even as the years passed, Lincoln refused to speak of their almost-duel. He even threatened an acquaintance who once asked about it, according to David Donald’s 1995 biography Lincoln. While speaking in the Oval Office, this officer asked if it was indeed true that the president had “once went out, to fight a duel and all for the sake of the lady by your side?” And Lincoln replied: “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.”

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