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Pistols For Two … Coffee For One
“It is astonishing that the murderous practice of duelling should continue so long in vogue,” said Benjamin Franklin. Yet continue it did, often with peculiarly American variations
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Few boys survive their school days without using their fists now and then. If these fights are extemporaneous affairs, fought in the immediate heat of anger, they are little more than animal reflex actions. But if they are of the “I’ll see you after school” variety, allowing time for rage to be replaced by trepidation, they become highly complex manifestations of human emotions and social pressures. By the time the young gladiators arrive on the field of combat, usually one or both of them would much prefer to be home watching television. Nevertheless, urged on by the crowd and the fear of showing fear, even to themselves, they do battle.
This type of fight has many of the elements of a duel, though there are important differences and the absence of lethal weapons is only one of them. The custom of duelling in America was an inheritance from Europe, where it was a debasement of what .had once been a far nobler, if misguided, means of settling disputes. Benjamin Franklin’s comment is pertinent: It is astonishing that the murderous practice of dueling … should continue so long in vogue. Formerly, when duels were used to determine lawsuits, from an opinion that Providence would, in every instance, favour truth and right with victory, they were excusable; at present, they decide nothing. A man says something, which a man tells him is a lie—they fight; but which ever is killed, the point in dispute remains unsettled. … These petty princes in their own opinion, would call that sovereign a tyrant, who would put one of them to death Cor a little uncivil language, though pointed at a sacred person; yet every one oC them makes himself judge in his own cause—condemns the offender without a jury—and undertakes himself to he the executioner.
Despite Franklin’s condemnation duelling continued in this country for nearly a hundred years after his death; its high tide, in fact, was during the first half of the nineteenth century. The immense popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels may have had something to do with this. Particularly in the South people became obsessed with notions of chivalric derring-do, thrown-down gauntlets, the glory of broken lances, and all the attendant claptrap. But the consequent attitudes were not a pose; they rested upon a solid foundation of armed self-reliance already developed in the American character, and the results were deadly.
If there was anything peculiarly American about duels on this side of the water, it lay in their infinite variety, ranging from the bizarre to the suicidal, and the almost exclusive use of knives and firearms rather than swords. For a rather brief period in New Orleans and other settlements of French origin the fencing master influenced the choice of weapons, but elsewhere few men devoted enough time to swordsmanship to stake their lives upon it.
Oddly enough Abraham Lincoln was one of those who did. At least he chose cavalry sabers for his one appearance on the duelling ground, though it is doubtful if he had ever wasted much effort in practice. During his salad years as an Illinois politician, before he was married to Mary Todd, he wrote an article for the Sangamo journal lampooning a Democratic politician named Shields who was auditor of the state and was refusing to accept various issues of paper money in payment of taxes. Lincoln used the nom de plume “Rebecca,” and Mary Todd thought the lampoon was extremely funny. Mr. Shields was not amused, and the truth is that the humor was not up to Lincoln’s later standard. It was pretty crude backwoods stuff, and Shields can scarcely be blamed for resenting statements that he was a fool as well as a liar and could easily be recognized by his smell. Mary Todd was so intrigued that she and her friend Julia Jayne followed up the article with another in the same vein and also signed “Rebecca.”
One cannot help being bemused byMary Todd. Didn’t she realize she was risking the loss of a future husband? Or was the fear counterbalanced by the possibility of having a hero in the family? Certainly Shields had no trouble identifying Lincoln as the original Rebecca and promptly delivered a challenge. As the challenged party Lincoln had the choice of weapons. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that he suggested to Shields’s second: “How about cow dung at five paces?” Another account has it that he specified broadswords, not cavalry sabers. This seems doubtful, as broadswords must have been rare indeed in the Illinois of the time—or would that have been his reason for choosing them?
The laws against duelling were rather strict in Illinois but practically nonexistent in Missouri, so a sandbar on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River was chosen as the site. Upon his arrival Lincoln is said to have drawn his saber and swished it back and forth as a warming-up exercise. It is not clear whether Shields was in a position to see this. If so, it must have been a fearsome sight—that long rail-splitter’s arm with three feet of steel slicing the air. At any rate Lincoln’s and Shields’s seconds were busily conferring and came to the joint conclusion that though Lincoln was admittedly the author of the offensive article, “he had no intention of injuring the personal or private character or standing of Mr. Shields as a gentleman or a man, and that Mr. Lincoln did not think, nor does he now think, that such an article could produce such an effect; and had Mr. Lincoln anticipated such an effect, he would have foreborne to write it; said article was written solely for political effect and not to gratify any personal pique against Mr. Shields, for he had none and knew of no cause for any.”