In September 1842, while working as a lawyer in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln wrote a series of articles published in the Sangamo Journal under the pen name of “Rebecca.” In these
commentaries, Lincoln repeatedly mocked a man named James Shields. Shields, who was State Auditor at the time, recently took a position opposite Lincoln in a regional debate about the bankruptcy of the Illinois State Bank.
After pressing the editor of the Journal for the identity of “Rebecca,” Shields sent a letter to Lincoln demanding that only a full retraction of the statements made would “prevent consequences which no one will regret more than myself.”
Sending his response the very same day, Lincoln, who seemed amused at the escalation of the episode, reprimanded Shields for coming at him with “so much assumption of facts, and so much of menace as to consequences,” further recommending that he withdraw passing letters to him and try to be more of a “gentleman.”
Furious, Shields decided to challenge the young lawyer to a duel. Now, it must be known that at the time, it was common practice for two men to settle disputes through dueling. A duel was based on a code of honor among men, and especially on their willingness to put their very lives at risk in the defense of that honor.
Knowing better than to back down from the challenge and be marked as a coward, Lincoln embraced his quick wit to retain control of the engagement, and also to make his future opponents think twice before attempting to come after him.
According to custom, the individual who was challenged to a duel determined the conditions of it (i.e., choice of weapons, place, time, etc.). After consulting his friend Dr. Elias Merryman, Lincoln chose the following parameters for the event:
1st. Weapons– Calvary swords of the largest size, and precisely equal in all respects.
2nd. Position– A plank ten feet long, from nine to ten inches broad; not allowing that either man step foot off of that singular plank, lest he forfeit the entire contest.
3rd. Time– Thursday evening at 5 0’clock.
4th. Place– Within three miles of Alton, on a site agreed upon by both participants.
On the following Thursday evening, Jason Shields and Abraham Lincoln, along with several witnesses, stood opposite each other at the dueling site. Lincoln, who easily stood at 6′-4″, turned to face his opponent, who, at the height of just 5′-9″, may not have, until that very moment, realized the position he was in. Lincoln then reached his arm full length and chopped a branch off of a nearby tree, demonstrating to his opponent his extraordinary reach, as the crowd now surrounding them burst into laughter at the clever hand the future President was showing.
Realizing he could not stand a chance in this particular battle, and encouraged by on-lookers, the duel was cancelled. Lincoln, of course, would go on to serve as the country’s 16th President. Shields, in his own right, would go on to become a Brigadier General in the Union Army during the Civil War, a position that, ironically, had to be approved by President Lincoln himself.