On this day in 1842, Abraham Lincoln nearly fights a duel. How on earth did “Honest Abe” manage to find himself in such a scrape?
Lincoln would reportedly call it “the meanest thing he ever did in his life.”
Of course, it wasn’t only Lincoln. His future wife, Mary Todd, carried a fair share of the blame, too. And a local politician, James Shields, contributed to the mess. Indeed, things might never have spun out of control if Shields could have laughed at himself, just a bit.
When you think of Mary Todd, you probably think of the older version of her. However, in September 1842, Mary was only 23 years old. She was bright and sociable—and she could get herself into a bit of trouble from time to time.
You can only imagine what she would do with the local politics of the day! It was a time when anonymous letters routinely appeared in newspapers. Perhaps they were the anonymous Twitter accounts of their time? The articles were, to say the least, less than kind.
In early August 1842, a letter appeared in a local newspaper. It was signed by “Rebecca,” and it poked fun at Shields, who was then the Illinois State Auditor. Lincoln soon wrote a second such letter, blasting Shields as a “fool as well as a liar.”
Shields obviously considered himself quite the ladies’ man, and Lincoln might have made fun of that just a bit, too.
Unfortunately, Mary and a friend decided to follow suit. They stuck with the “Rebecca” or “Aunt Becca” pseudonym, but they carried the joke even further than Lincoln had. And they didn’t stop with just one letter.
Shields, the young women mused, was nothing but “a ballroom dandy, floatin’ about on the earth without heft or substance, just like a lot of cat fur where cats had been fightin.” They offered a response to Shields’s public agitation about the “Rebecca” letters: “Let him only come here, and he may squeeze my hand. . . . If that ain’t personal satisfaction, I can only say that he is the fust man that was not satisfied with squeezin my hand.”
One letter even imagined a fake marriage between Aunt Rebecca and Shields.
Shields didn’t think it was funny—not at all! He confronted the newspaper editor and demanded to know the names of his tormentors.
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Lincoln took responsibility for what had happened—and the thin-skinned Shields promptly challenged him to a duel. Lincoln had the choice of weapons, and he chose swords. “I did not want to kill Shields and felt sure that I could disarm him,” Lincoln later said, “having had about a month to learn the broadsword exercise: and furthermore, I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I rather think he would have done if we had selected pistols.”
Dueling was illegal in Illinois, so Lincoln and Shield traveled out to Bloody Island in Missouri. Fortunately, when they arrived, they were met by some mutual friends who brokered a reconciliation and put an end to the duel before it ever began.
Lincoln was apparently pretty embarrassed by the situation, and he asked Mary never to speak of it. But the matter wouldn’t be permanently buried. Many years later, when he was President, an army officer took it upon himself to ask about the duel. “I do not deny it,” Lincoln responded, “but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.”
“If all the good things I have ever done are remembered as long and well as my scrape with Shields,” Lincoln would say, “it is plain I shall not soon be forgotten,” he concluded.
Perhaps he’d be happy to hear that most modern Americans have no idea that his “scrape with Shields” ever happened.
Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Roy P. Basler, ed. 1953) (reprinted HERE)
David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (1995)
Douglas L. Wilson, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (1998)
Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln: A Narrative and Descriptive Biography with Pen-pictures and Personal Recollections by Those who Knew Him (1915) (reprint available HERE)
Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (reprint edition 2013)
Paul Selby, Lincoln’s Life, Stories, and Speeches (1902) (reprint HERE)
Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Don Fehrenbacher & Virginia Fehrenbacher eds. (1996)
Stacy Pratt McDermott, Mary Lincoln: Southern Girl, Northern Woman (2015)