The Duel on Sunflower Island

September 22 1842

On hundred and seventy years ago today, two ambitious young men in their early thirties crossed the Illinois –Missouri border.

The cause for their mysterious journey to Alton was a public dispute between the State Auditor and a former friend and colleague on the Illinois Legislature. And because of their desire to further progress their prestigious careers, both men desperately needed the matter to be settled privately outside the jurisdiction of the State Law.

They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Thirty-three year old country lawyer Abraham Lincoln rose to the White House, and is generally considered the greatest President in the history of the United States. His adversary thirty-two year old James Shields served with distinction in the Mexican-American and US Civil Wars, becoming the only man ever to serve as US Senator in three different states.

But before they could blaze a path through history, they had a score to settle. And in the odd manner in which they did it, we can discern unmistakeable character traits that would shape the curves of their respective destinies.

Since his appointment as State Auditor, Shields had made some early decisions that had generated widespread controversy. Lincoln for one greatly objected. And of course we must remember that this younger man was not yet the historic colossus we admire in stone in Washington.  This was the more head strong, outspoken “flesh and blood” individual who was to earn the derisive label “Spotty Lincoln” for opposing President Polk’s Mexican War Plans with his much ridiculed “Spot Resolutions” in the US Congress.

Using words of biting satire, he published articles in a Illinois newspaper, the Sagamon Journal. In this endeavour he was greatly encouraged by one Mary Todd, the daughter of a wealthy slave-holding family in Lexington, Kentucky. The couple would marry less than two months after the duel on Sunflower Island, which Shields demanded for the purpose of the “satisfaction” of restoring his honour.

By custom, Lincoln had the choice of terms. He selected broadswords in a twelve feet deep pit separated by a piece of plywood where the two adversaries could not cross onto the opponents side. And in so doing he revealed the tactical genius (some would say guile) of the later Lincoln; because of his superior height, it would be impossible for Shields to win such a confrontation. To drive home this obvious point, Lincoln menacingly used the broadsword to sweep brush immediately above Shield’s head.

Sensing his mistake, Shields indicated to his intermediaries that he was prepared to negotiate. In a gentlemanly fashion, Lincoln took full responsibility by acknowledging his authorship of the letters, and apologizing in writing for the offence that had been caused.

In this episode we can learn a great deal about the thought processes of a great man who would be burdened with the biggest public dispute in the history of the Republic. And the stoicism with which he would bear those burdens.

Perhaps also we might take a moment to wonder whether he learned a few lessons on Sunflower Island about himself. Perhaps he applied those lessons in his studied silence during the crisis of 1860-1, or in his careful public utterances that ensured that the Border states remained in the Union.

For had he chosen otherwise, then surely our history would have been written very differently. Let us take the opportunity to reflect about the careful choices of a masterful man on this day in history. A man who repeatedly sought to avoid conflict, but when so confronted, threw himself into the business of war with a breathtaking single-mindedness of purpose.

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