History is filled with ‘what if’ moments, those occasions where a slightly different result or outcome may have radically altered history as we know it. One such moment occurred on 22nd September 1842, when Co. Tyrone native James Shields prepared to face a fellow Illinois politician in a duel. Shields’ opponent had selected swords as the weapon of choice, confident that his longer reach would be an advantage in the contest to come. He was indeed a man with a distinct height advantage over other men, and his long reach would be felt down through the pages of history; Shields’ opponent was none other than future United States President Abraham Lincoln.
The sequence of events that led to the duel began with decisions that Shields, a democrat, took as Illinois State Auditor. A financial crisis termed the ‘Panic of 1837’ had swept across the country, with banks responding by accepting only gold and silver as payment. In turn, Shields felt it necessary in order to maintain state credit to insist that all taxes in Illinois also be paid in gold and silver. This incensed the Whigs, the party of which Lincoln was a member. Lincoln published an anonymous letter dated August 27th 1842 in the Springfield Journal, signed ‘Rebecca of the Lost Townships’ in which the fictitious Rebecca has a conversation with a farmer about the unjustness of Shields’ policy.
The situation escalated when Lincoln’s friends Mary Todd (his future wife) and Julia Jayne became involved in writing further letters from ‘Aunt Rebecca’ in which Shields was compared to ‘cat’s fur’ and was described as being ‘mad as a march hare’ among other insults. Unable to bear the ridicule any longer, Shields demanded that the paper’s editor reveal the author of the letters. Lincoln felt honour-bound not to mention the ladies involvement and so accepted responsibility for all of the correspondence. Shields demanded the retraction of the statements regarding his personal character, though Lincoln refused to do so as he felt the initial request was written in a menacing fashion. Shields the sought satisfaction, and so a duel was arranged.
Lincoln selected broadswords of the same size for the contest, and both parties with their seconds travelled to an island in the Mississippi River claimed by Missouri- duelling was illegal in the state of Illinois. As their friends continued to intercede to try to arrange a peaceful resolution, it was made clear to Shields that Lincoln had not in fact been the author of all of the letters. Lincoln admitted to having written the first letter and also stated that he had no intention of injuring Shields’ personal or private character, and held no personal grudge against him. With this apology and the knowledge that Lincoln had in fact been protecting the reputation of his soon to be wife, Shields withdrew the challenge and the duel was avoided.
It is interesting to consider the consequences of the duel had it proceeded. Although Lincoln had a significant height advantage, Shields had some military training and was accustomed to fighting with swords. The outcome would have been far from certain, and had Lincoln fallen the historical ramifications would have been immeasurable. Happily the duel did not take place, and Lincoln went on to become the 16th President of the United States. James Shields became the only person to represent three different states as a senator (Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri) and served as a Brigadier-General in the Mexican War. During the Civil War, he commanded a division against Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley but resigned his commission in 1863. He died in Iowa in 1879 and is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Carrollton, Missouri.