By Nathan Cooper
One of the most surprising stories of Abraham Lincoln’s life is the time that his razor-sharp wit almost got him tangled up in a duel. It’s a story captured in letters and newspapers items collected by the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at www.PapersOfAbrahamLincoln.org. The Papers is a documentary editing project dedicated to finding, annotating and sharing all documents written by or to Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime.
In 1842, the state of Illinois ran out of money and decided that it would no longer accept its own printed money as a form of currency. Citizens would only be able to pay taxes with silver and gold, which most did not have. This decision was obviously very unpopular, as it made the state’s paper money virtually worthless.
James Shields, the state auditor, sided with the Democratic Party on rejecting currency and shutting down the State Bank of Illinois. That made him a target for attacks by members of the Illinois Whig Party. Lincoln, then a 33-year-old Whig and state legislator, strongly opposed the Democratic financial plan and wrote attacks against Shields.
Lincoln was friends with Simeon Francis, the editor of the Sangamo Journal, and was allowed to publish a letter on August 27, 1842, under the false name “Rebecca.” It is written from the perspective of an Illinois farm wife whose neighbor cannot pay his taxes due to the rejection of state currency. The farmer, a man named Jeff, attacks this policy before going on to attack Shields individually. Lincoln, writing as the farm wife, calls Shields a “fool” and a “liar.”
The original, handwritten "Rebecca" letter
He then mocks Shields as a womanizer, stating "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.’”
Shields asked the editor of the paper for the author’s true identity and was given Lincoln’s name. Shields followed Lincoln, then out riding the legal circuit, to Tremont in Tazewell county.
The Tazewell County Courthouse
Shortly after arriving, Shields had an angry letter delivered to Lincoln, demanding an apology and a retraction of all negative statements. Otherwise, he said, there would be “consequences which no one will regret more than myself” -- in other words, a duel.
Lincoln responded later that same day, refusing to retract the statements and stating that Shields assumed too many facts for a response to be worth his time. Lincoln’s letter also ended with a veiled threat: “… the consequence to which I suppose you allude, would be matter of as great regret to me, as it possibly could to you.” (The messages back and forth between Lincoln and Shields were later printed in the newspaper.)
Lincoln's response to Shields' first letter. This is a newspaper printing of a handwritten letter.
After more angry statements and letters from both parties, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln responded with a final call for peace, writing that he would admit to being the author of the original newspaper letter and would apologize if Shields would retract his earlier letters and rewrite them in a more polite manner. If this request was not met, he would fight the duel. As the person being challenged, Lincoln got to set the rules. Among other things, there was to be a line between the two of them, and crossing over this line would result in death. The duel was to be fought in Missouri, as dueling was still legal there, and the weapons would be broadswords.
Detail from Lincoln's duel instructions. It was to be fought using "Cavalry broad swords of the largest size, precisely equal in all respects."
Lincoln and Shields met for their duel on “Bloody Island,” a sandbar in the Mississippi River right outside of Alton. To demonstrate his advantage in height and reach, Lincoln swung his sword over his head and chopped down a high tree branch. This was enough to convince Shields to reconsider the wisdom of battling the much larger Lincoln, and the two called a truce.
The duel between Abraham Lincoln and James Shields
Years later Shields served as a brigadier general for the Union during the Civil War. Lincoln promoted him to major general after Shields was wounded at the Battle of Kernstown, where his forces defeated the Confederacy’s Stonewall Jackson. Unfortunately for Shields, a Democrat, his promotion was blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate. However, this nomination proved once and for all that any hard feelings between Lincoln and Shields were forgotten at last.
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln publishes more Lincoln documents every week, along with extensive annotations and supporting material to explain their meaning. Anyone is free to explore them at www.PapersofAbrahamLincoln.org.
Nathan Cooper is a graduate student in history at the University of Illinois Springfield and an intern at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.