4 Lessons From Abraham Lincoln’s Saber Duel Challenge

Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Last year, Hollywood taught us that Abraham Lincoln could deftly work a bill through Congress after killing lots of vampires. But both movies about Honest Abe skipped one of his greatest moments while a member of the Illinois legislature: accepting a challenge from a political rival, James Shields, to a saber duel.

Yes, Lincoln almost participated in a sword fight to the death. He created a perfect blueprint for all of us to follow when dealing with an enemy.

1. Publicly Humiliate Your Rival

Although Lincoln and Shields often worked together, their political relationship soured over disagreements on debt and taxes. Lincoln published a letter ridiculing Shields in a local newspaper. This got Shields angry enough to want revenge, and an angry rival doesn’t think straight. As the receiver of the challenge, it was Lincoln’s privilege to decide the terms of the duel, which gave him the upper hand.

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2. Know Your Rival’s Strengths (And Weaknesses)

Why did Lincoln select dueling with a saber instead of a pistol? Because he had a much better chance of winning a sword fight than a shooting match. Shields was a military veteran, capable with a gun, but at 5’9″ he had much shorter arms than 6’4″ Abe.

3. Outsmart Your Rival

Victory requires more than power or speed; it requires brains. Lincoln demanded that a plank be placed on the ground that neither man would be able to step across. That sounded fair to Shields, who didn’t realize it increased Lincoln’s reach advantage by several more inches. Sounds like a cheap move? Maybe, but a brilliant one.

4. Accept A Truce

When the duel began, Lincoln chopped the branch off a tall tree above Shields’s head to illustrate the handicap. Shields realized he stood little chance, and backed down. Even though Lincoln could’ve easily drawn blood, he took the conciliatory approach.

The story goes that they returned from battle laughing as friends, even pranking the gathered crowd by covering a log with a coat to make it look like a dead body. If only winning the Civil War had been so jolly.

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Neal Stastny (@NealStas) is a comedian and writer in New York.