The Time Abraham Lincoln and a Political Rival Almost Dueled on an Island
Exactly 170 years ago today, the Mississippi River levee in Alton, Illinois, was crammed full of spectators awaiting the results of a highly anticipated duel -- a smackdown between Abraham Lincoln and political rival James Shields. Only one man could emerge victorious. Onlookers held their breath in suspense as they spotted a boat approaching with a blood-soaked body draped over the bow.
It had all started where so many skirmishes do: the Illinois state legislature.
Though at the time Lincoln was a Whig and Shields was a Democrat, the two politicians had an amicable relationship and worked together to address the state’s enormous debt problem.
The relationship cooled, however, when Shields became the State Auditor. He passed a number of controversial measures and even instituted a policy whereby the state stopped accepting its own paper money as payment of taxes and other debts.
Lincoln expressed his disapproval in the most professional, statesman-like fashion he could think of: by anonymously lampooning Shields in print. He began composing letters to a Springfield paper deriding Shields' character as well as his policies.
Poking fun at Shields wasn’t hard to do. He was notoriously pompous, vain, and a tad eccentric. Opponents dubbed him “an irresistible mark for satire.” Putting his infamously sarcastic wit to work, Lincoln created two fictitious characters -- Jeff and Rebecca -- who were unable to pay their debts because the state no longer accepted paper money.
He also poked fun at Shields' lack of romantic game. One letter, signed "Rebecca," quoted Shields as saying, “Dear girls, it is distressing, but I cannot marry you all . . . It is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting.”
Before sending his note off to the editor, Lincoln shared it with his soon-to-be-wife Mary Todd and her friend Julia Jayne. The two women contributed a few quips to Lincoln’s letter and even began writing memos of their own.
The letters soon became the talk of the town. Though Shields was generally well liked, people got a kick out of Lincoln’s hilariously spot-on satire. Shields, however, didn’t get the joke. Incensed, he contacted the paper’s editor and demanded to know “Rebecca’s” identity. The editor gave him Abe’s name – as per Lincoln’s instructions.
Upon learning the identity of his defamer, Shields decided to settle the matter by challenging Lincoln to a duel. Though Lincoln thought the whole thing was absurd, he knew that backing down from a duel was never the honorable thing to do.
As the one who’d been challenged, Lincoln got to select the conditions of the duel. He had a grand old time conjuring up the most ridiculous set of circumstances possible. To begin with, he named the cavalry broadsword as the weapon of choice. (“I didn't want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols,” he later explained.)
Next, Lincoln decided that the duel should be held on an island across the Mississippi (dueling was illegal in Illinois). He also stipulated that the two men face off in the bottom of a 12-foot-deep pit divided by a wooden plank that neither man was allowed to cross.
These conditions gave the 6’4” Lincoln a serious advantage over his 5’9” opponent. Lincoln was sure Shields would back down.
Not the case.
On September 22, 1842, Shields arrived at the duel site near the city of Alton, ready to face any challenger who might be foolish enough to face him.
While the two men were gearing up to face off, one spectator noted how grave and serious Lincoln looked. “I’d never seen him look so long before making a joke, and began to believe he was getting frightened.” But all of a sudden, Lincoln reached up and casually sliced off a branch with his sword. Again, it was an effort to scare Shields into submission.
But his opponent’s impressive display of arm-span still didn’t deter the scrappy Shields. The duel was about to commence when a few mutual friends arrived and intervened. Colonel John Jay Hardin helped the two reach a face-saving compromise, working it out with words instead of swords. Lincoln offered up a mea culpa and admitted that he’d authored the letters.
Everyone standing on the levee was relieved (but probably a hair disappointed) to learn that the “body” on the boat returning from the island was really just a log in a red shirt – a simple prank set up by a mutual friend.
When the boat reached land, Lincoln and Shields stepped off together, chummily chatting away. Upon viewing spectators’ horrified reactions, they both broke into fits of laughter at how absurd the whole situation had been.
The two men buried the hatchet (or broadsword) and remained friends from then on. Lincoln wasn’t exactly proud that he’d almost dueled against a political opponent. In fact, he was pretty embarrassed. When an officer asked him about the event years later, he replied, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship you will never mention it again.”