Speed Reads

The politics of steel

The time Abraham Lincoln almost fought a broadsword duel for making up lies about a political opponent

The time Abraham Lincoln almost fought a duel of broadswords

This amazing anecdote comes from the New York Review of Books, in a piece about how political media was quite different back in Lincoln's day. Back then, newspapers wouldn't hesitate to print (or fabricate) damaging gossip about politicians, who in turn would often respond with violence:

On one occasion, in 1841, that happened — and it involved not only Lincoln but his fiancée Mary Todd. The two had collaborated on a series of scurrilous letters from a fictitious "Rebecca" that vilified James Shields, a rising candidate in the Democratic Party (he would later be elected a senator three times from three different states). The fake Rebecca, who claimed Shields was a former beau, mocked his Irish origin and declared him "a fool as well as a liar.... With him truth is out of the question."

Shields stormed into the office of the Sangamo Journal, demanding that the editor, Simeon Francis, tell him who was behind the Rebecca letters. When Francis asked Lincoln what he should do, Lincoln, in order to shield his Mary, took sole responsibility (without admitting he wrote anything). Shields challenged him to a duel, and they actually met on the dueling ground — but Lincoln, as the one receiving the challenge, had the right to choice of weapons. When he called for broadswords, this gave him, with his long and strong right arm, a ludicrous advantage, and the fight was called off. [New York Review of Books]

The lesson here: don't mess with a rail-splitter when he has blade in hand.