The man who would later become the President of the United States of America signed his letter Rebecca. It was a letter to the editor criticizing James Shields, State Auditor of Illinois. When Shields opened up the newspaper and read the criticism, he was angry. He stormed into the editor’s office and demanded to know the identity of Rebecca. The editor explained that Rebecca was just a pen name. Rebecca was actually a man.
Shields was infuriated. He learned this man was a country lawyer. Shields wrote him and demanded a retraction. The lawyer responded that if Shields were to reframe his request more politely, he would consider. This further angered Shields. How dare this man add insult to injury by lecturing him about manners. Shields wrote again, and this time he demanded justice. He challenged the lawyer to a duel with pistols. The lawyer accepted the challenge but according to custom, it was his right to choose the weapons and the place. He said forget the pistols. Let’s use swords. He also had some unusual rules and conditions. He proposed they fight in a deep pit with a plank of wood between them. Stepping over the plank would be forbidden.
The lawyer was a giant of a man compared to the much smaller Shields. With much longer arms, he would easily be able to cut Shields into pieces when separated by the wooden plank. Shields knew he was outmatched, but his reputation was on the line. Running from a duel was out of the question. The lawyer swung his sword high above Shields’ head cutting off a tree branch. After witnessing his power and reach, Shields agreed to a truce and no blood was spilled that day in 1842.
The lawyer later explained that he had no intention of killing Shields. He said, “I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols…” But he was confident he could have disarmed Shields with a sword without taking his life.
Two decades later, the two men would again cross paths. Abraham Lincoln, the lawyer who would later become the President of the United States, would also become Shields’ boss promoting him to Major General during the Civil War.
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