On this day in history, James Shields was born in County Tyrone, Ireland. Shields was a senator from Illinois 1849 to 1855, from Minnesota from 1858 to 1859, and from Missouri from 1879 to March 4, 1879.
He also almost fought a duel with Abraham Lincoln. In 1842, Shields was serving as the State Auditor of Illinois. When the state bank defaulted in 1842, Shields allied with the state’s governor and treasurer to adopt a policy by which the state would refuse to accept its own paper money as payment of taxes and other debts. Lincoln sent an anonymous letter to the Springfield, Illinois Sangamon Journal poking fun at the policy as well as at Shields. This was followed by additional letters written without Lincoln’s knowledge by Mary Todd (his future wife) and her friend Julia Jayne.
Shields was incensed by the letters and demanded to know the authors. Lincoln chivalrously took full responsibility for all the letters himself. Shields insisted on a retraction and Lincoln refused. Then Shield challenged Lincoln to a duel.
Lincoln agreed, and as the challenged party, had the right to set the conditions. First he decided that the duel should be held on an island across the Mississippi (dueling was illegal in Illinois). He selected cavalry swords rather than pistols as the dueling weapons. He also ordered “a plank ten feet long, and from nine to twelve inches abroad, to be firmly fixed on edge, on the ground, as the line between us, which neither is to pass his foot over upon forfeit of his life.” This would allow Lincoln to take advantage of his superior reach; Shields was only five feet, nine inches tall, while Lincoln was six feet, four inches. Lincoln had hoped these conditions would induce Shields to back down, but Shields accepted, and on September 22, 1842, he arrived at the duel site near the city of Alton, ready to face Lincoln.
The duel was about to begin when a few mutual friends arrived and intervened. They helped the two reach a face-saving compromise, working it out with words instead of swords. By the time the two returned from the island, the two were chatting and laughing. Lincoln, then as in the future, had a knack for bringing enemies over to his side.