How Abraham Lincoln Learned To Be A Gentleman

Today I would like to examine at some length a perhaps little known issue from the life of Abraham Lincoln that serves to highlight the question of jurisdiction and relevance of moral and legal standards in a particularly relevant way. The incident as a whole serves a pivotal place in the Lincoln Prize-winning book about Abraham Lincoln’s early adulthood in New Salem and Springfield, called Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, by Lincoln historian Douglas Wilson [1].

During Abraham Lincoln’s early adulthood, he regularly engaged in the writing of pseudonymous satires and slanders against his political rivals. Growing up among the roughnecks of fellow Border South migrants to the Old Northwest in Indiana and Illinois, he was not a born and bred gentleman. Despite his own ambitions for advancement, he had failed for many years to live according to the code of honor by which gentlemen engaged in face-to-face debate with their opponents rather than in pseudonymous mudslinging behind false identities (a common problem today on internet fora). Many of the gentlemen of his age would have been reluctant to challenge Abraham Lincoln by the gentleman’s code of honor because to do so would be to concede his standing as a gentleman.

However, in September of 1842, Abraham Lincoln wrote a biting satire directed at Democratic State Auditor (and later U.S. Senator) James Shields. Like Abraham Lincoln, the Irish immigrant bachelor James Shields was an elite aspirant somewhat insecure about his status, and with a very short temper to those who mocked him. As Lincoln’s satire about him was ungentlemanly and unmanly, being pseudonymous, Shields took full advantage of the gentleman’s code of honor to challenge Lincoln to a duel upon knowing his identity and not receiving satisfaction (i.e. a humbling apology).

Slandering a man in 19th century America could be a life or death matter if that man happened to be a gentleman with a prickly sense of honor and you and him were on the same level of gentlemanly status. If the slanderer was judged as being not a gentleman, the offended party could have his friends give the rascal a thrashing and would be considered blameless for so doing. Often I wonder if people would be a lot more careful about making false accusations if they faced serious bodily harm, since other less material repercussions are often not enough to deter such wicked behavior. However, by appealing to the code of honor, Shields both made a claim as to his own gentlemanly status and reminded Abraham Lincoln as to his own responsibility to behave by civilized codes (which fell short of the Christian duty for all conversation to be noble and honest and true and honorable, regardless of the status of the person being talked about).

Since dueling was illegal in Illinois, Lincoln and Shields (who were to duel with broadswords–the challenged party had the right to set the terms of the duel) fled to an island in the Mississippi River out of Illinois’ jurisdiction to conduct their duel of honor. At the last minute, an adjustment was forced on the unwilling Shields by everyone else, as his honor was considered satisfied. Lincoln apologized, saying he had written the libel “solely for political effect” and that he denied seeking to injure “the personal or private character or standing of Mr. Shields as a gentleman or a man [2].” If only some of the slanderers of modern days could be so honorable in making apologies for their own libels.

Let us examine the issue of jurisdiction and relevance here. For one, Abraham Lincoln learned the lesson that he was accountable to the standards of gentlemanly behavior if he wished to be accorded the respect (which he sought) of being a gentleman. Being a gentleman meant more than wealth and privilege and lording it over others, but required obedience to a code of behavior that regulated conduct. Some people, it would seem, need to be similarly reminded that being given respect as gentlemen requires they behave in a respectable manner–which would preclude one from engaging in writing libels under false identities. Lincoln came to the understanding that he was accountable to the standard of honorable behavior, and afterward behaved in such a fashion, developing a well-recognized gift for debating people honorably and openly, which later served his ambitions for higher office well in winning him the presidency. By learning how to act as a man of honor and integrity towards others he served his own goals and ambitions for respect and honor.

The second issue of jurisdiction was that of the anti-dueling laws of Illinois. In order to meet the standards of the code of honor it was necessary to go outside of the jurisdiction of the state of Illinois, though ultimately (and fortunately) the duel was adjusted once Mr. Shields’ honor was no longer at stake, having received a public apology for the libel. Nonetheless, the issue of jurisdiction of both moral and legal standards is an important one that we ought to consider in these days, even when people appear to behave less honorably than they did when the consequences were real and potentially fatal.

[1] A more complete description of the event and its importance is in Chapter Nine of the work, appropriately entitled “Honor.” Douglas Wilson, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, (New York, Vintage Books: 1998), 264-292.

[2] Douglas Wilson, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, (New York, Vintage Books: 1998), 282.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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