Abraham Lincoln was a man famous for using his words, but in one situation he came very close to physical — and potentially deadly — blows. When Lincoln was challenged to a duel with a political rival in 1842, the future president was honor-bound to accept. But he thought his best chance for survival was to duel with broadswords — or at least pretend he would.
mental_floss reveals the story of how young Mr. Lincoln came to be standing on an island in the Mississippi holding a broadsword. Then-Whig Lincoln and Democrat James Shields had been colleagues in the Illinois state legislature, but after Shields became State Auditor, he began to institute policies with which Lincoln intensely disagreed, including a measure that prohibited Illinois from accepting its own paper money for the payment of taxes and other debts. Lincoln decided to combat Shields with a bit of ruthless satire, penning pseudonymous letters to a Springfield paper, mocking both Shields' policies and his pomposity. Even Lincoln's future wife Mary Todd and her friend Julia Jayne even got in on the act, adding their own wicked quips.
Shields wasn't exactly pleased to be made a laughing-stock, and quickly discovered that Lincoln was behind the joke. Rather than get back at his rival with similarly sharp prose, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln accepted, but, fearing that a gun duel would quickly result in his death, opted for cavalry broadswords as the weapon of choice.
Since dueling was illegal in Illinois, the two men met on an island across the Mississippi. Lincoln tried to intimidate Shields into withdrawing from the duel, creating conditions that would favor Lincoln's superior height and showing off his reach by slicing a branch off a nearby tree. Fortunately, some mutual friends intervened, and what could have been a deadly battle ended in friendly laughter. Once they decided not to kill each other, Lincoln and Shields remained lifelong friends.
Head over to mental_floss for more details on the duel, including the prank a mutual friend a mutual friend played on the spectators back on the shore and how Lincoln felt about his brush with dueling.