7. Lincoln entered politics before he earned his law license
During his second trip to New Orleans the boat on which Lincoln traveled encountered difficulties passing the mill dam at the village of New Salem, Illinois. Lincoln was impressed enough by what he saw of the town to return to it in 1831 after completing his journey to New Orleans. Taking a job in a general store, Lincoln soon developed a reputation for honesty and hard work. He also became a wrestler of note in the community and his physical strength and sense of humor made him a popular member of a group of young men known as Clary’s Boys. He also organized a debating society, where his performance in political discourse drew the attention of the leading citizens of the town, including James Rutledge. In 1832 Lincoln lost in his first attempt to gain election to the legislature.
In 1834 he ran again and won. He went on to win four consecutive terms in the Illinois House of Representatives, where he argued against the development of railroads and for the improvements on the rivers which improved their navigability. It was while serving in the legislature that Lincoln began his study of law, which would serve him well financially in the two decades which preceded his election to the presidency. It was also the rough and tumble nature of frontier politics at the local level which honed his considerable political skills and instincts. It was during Lincoln’s service in the legislature that he was challenged to a duel by State Auditor James Shields, who was incensed at articles Lincoln had written in the Sangamon Journal. Lincoln accepted the challenge.
8. Lincoln prepared to fight a duel in 1842, though it was a bloodless combat
In 1842 the Sangamon Journal, a Springfield newspaper, published an article submitted in the form of a letter from the wife of a local farmer, signed by Aunt Becca. The letter had been written by Lincoln, edited by Mary Todd, his future wife, and was critical of State Auditor James Shields, referring to him as “a fool and a liar” among other things. Unbeknownst to Lincoln, Mary Todd continued to write additional letters in similar vein. In another passage in the original letter, Lincoln wrote, “If I was deaf and blind I could tell him by the smell”. Shields demanded to know the true author of the letter and satisfaction, and when Lincoln admitted his authorship a duel was arranged to be fought in Missouri, since dueling was illegal in Illinois. The choice of weapons fell to Lincoln, he chose broadswords.
Lincoln was 6’4″, while Shields stood closer to the average height of the day a 5’9″, and Lincoln had a correspondingly large advantage of reach, which he demonstrated by swinging his sword and lopping off a branch from a tree which was clearly out of his opponent’s reach as their seconds were going through the formalities preceding the duel. Whether Shields recognized the improbability of his prevailing over his opponent following this demonstration or whether cooler heads were already intervening between the seconds, hoping to avoid a fight, the duel was ended with both parties declaring themselves satisfied and no blows exchanged. Lincoln and Shields eventually became good friends, and at one point during the Civil War Lincoln offered his former adversary command of the Army of the Potomac, which Shields declined for personal reasons.