Abraham Lincoln, at 6’4″, is the tallest President in American history (tied with Lyndon B. Johnson). And while being tall can’t hurt for those aspiring to a career in politics, it probably was not a core reason for his rise to fame. But in 1842, his stature — combined with some creativity — saved him from potentially life-threatening danger at the hands of James Shields, pictured above.
In the late 1830s, Lincoln, then a member of the Whig Party, and Shields, a Democrat, were both members of the Illinois state legislature. While the two often did not see eye to eye politically, at times they were the key players in resolving inter-party differences and moving the state government forward. But whatever mutual admiration they had for one another waned shortly after Shields was named State Auditor.
In the early part of 1842, the state bank defaulted and the governor and treasurer wanted tax collectors to only accept gold and silver — and not paper money. Shields agreed, and, shortly thereafter, found himself mocked in the press. Seemingly random people were writing letters to the editor of a local paper excoriating Shields, with the first two — “Jeff” and “Rebecca” — calling him a fool and a liar. Shortly thereafter, other letter writers aired their grievances with Shields in the paper, with a tone of increasing hostility. Finally, Shields had enough, and pressured the newspaper editor to reveal the true identities of the letter writers. The editor told him that Lincoln was the culprit.
Shields wrote a note to Lincoln in response, one the Civil War Times called “menacing,” and demanded that Lincoln print a retraction. Lincoln took issue with Shields’ tone and refused, expecting Shields to, in turn, make the same request in a less threatening manner. Instead, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel and given the culture of the times, Lincoln had no choice to accept, even though the future President had no desire to actually fight Shields.
But as the challenged, Lincoln had the right to pick the terms of the duel. He proposed a curious and unique manner of battle: a clash of broad swords in a 12 foot deep pit, with two sides separated by a piece of plywood which neither combatant could cross. These rules were designed to make it all but certain that Lincoln would prevail, as Lincoln was much taller than his irate foe. Shields, nevertheless, accepted the terms. The two were scheduled to duel on September 22, 1842.
Before the duel began, Lincoln found a way to get Shields to back down. Lincoln cut down a tree branch above Shield’s head, demonstrating his height advantage and the certainty of his victory. Lincoln’s and Shield’s “seconds” — friends who could negotiate a truce on the behalf of the duelists — came to an agreement: no duel. This was made easier by a heretofore omitted fact, only then disclosed to Shields: while Lincoln wrote the relatively tame letters from “Jeff” and “Rebecca,” he did not author the more insidious follow up missives to which Shields took umbrage. Those were written by two friends of Lincoln, one of which, Mary Todd, would become his wife just six weeks after the would-be duel.
Lincoln and Shields reconciled soon after the non-duel. When the Civil War broke out two decades later, Shields served as a brigadier general for the Union Army, an appointment which had to be approved by the sitting President — Abraham Lincoln.
Double bonus!: That special election was not the first Shields won. Shields was elected to the Senate (from Illinois) in 1848, but that election was voided because Shield was ineligible for the seat. Born in Ireland, Shields became a U.S. citizen on October 21, 1840, and the Constitution requires that Senators be citizens for at least nine years. So in 1849, Illinois held a special election to fill the seat left vacant by Shields’ constitutional miscue. Shields, now eligible, ran again — and won, again.
From the Archives: John Wilkes Booth’s Heroic Brother: Another odd tale from Lincoln’s life.
Related: “Speeches and Letters of Abraham Lincoln, 1832-1865,” free on Kindle. For those without a Kindle, there’s this hardcover book, but it only covers 1859-1865, and is $22 new (but $6 used). For everyone else, there’s an Abraham Lincoln Chia Pet.