Communion Of Dreams

You gotta admit, the man had style.
September 18, 2009, 1:23 pm
Filed under: Government, MetaFilter, Survival, Violence

I haven’t written much about him, but I have always admired Abraham Lincoln. And not just for the usual sixth-grade Civics reasons. In early adulthood I explored the man’s personal history – his personal story – and ever since I have tried to keep up with at least some of the current scholarship about him.

Why? Well, because he was smart in how he handled himself. And furthermore, because he learned how to be even smarter as he went through life, even when he knew that he was faced with impossible situations. Here’s one example of this, which I had forgotten until a recent comment on a MeFi thread jogged my memory. Lincoln had been involved in a public argument with another Illinois politician, and had pushed the man too far – to the point where he was challenged to a duel. Here’s the full story, but I want to concentrate on this passage:

Due to the fact that Lincoln was the one who had been challenged to the duel, tradition gave him the privilege of choosing the time and location of the duel, as well as the weapons that were to be used. Being a man of humor and wit, and having no desire to kill Shields, or allow himself to be killed; Lincoln put together the most ridiculous set of circumstances that he could think of regarding the logistics of the upcoming duel.

* * *

Lincoln stated that the weapons he wished to use would be “Cavalry Broadswords of the largest size”. He figured that he could easily disarm Shields using the swords, whereas pistols would most likely lead to one of their deaths, if not both. He also added that he wanted the duel to be carried out in a pit 10 feet wide by 12 feet deep with a large wooden plank dividing the square in which no man was allowed to step foot over.

These “conditions” were designed not only to be ridiculous; but also to give Lincoln, who at 6’ 4” had longer legs and arms and towered over the much smaller Shields, a decided advantage. Lincoln hoped that these unorthodox conditions that gave him an almost unbeatable advantage would persuade Shields to withdraw the challenge and settle things in a more gentlemanly fashion.

Broadswords in a pit.

Think about that. Fuckin’ broadswords in a fuckin’ pit. Mad Max couldn’t have come up with anything better.

But then there’s this bit, about the day of the duel:

At the last minute, Lincoln demonstrated his obvious physical advantage by hacking away at some of the branches of a nearby Willow tree. The branches were high off the ground and Shields could not hope to reach them; while Lincoln, with his long arms holding a long broadsword, could reach them with ease. This final display was enough to drive home the precarious situation that he was now in, and Shields agreed to settle their differences in a more peaceful way.

And they went on to be life-long friends and political allies. No, seriously.

That, my friends, is how you use intimidation intelligently.

But Lincoln also learned from this experience (he was in his early 30s at the time) that it is possible to push people too far. He had entered into the argument with Shields in order to further his own political career, but was too clever by half in doing so. And once the duel was set in motion, Lincoln had to deal with the potentially deadly situation that he had created. Yes, he set up the conditions of the duel to maximize his intimidation of the other man, but he also knew that there was a mechanism in place (a written apology negotiated by their respective ‘seconds’) to allow the duel to be called off in a manner which would save face for both men. He didn’t seek to destroy his oppenent – he gave his opponent an out, and pushed him that direction, good and hard.

I’m not enough of a Civil War scholar to say that you can see this same approach in Lincoln’s conduct of the war. Maybe I’ll turn my attention to that in the future. But for now I feel comfortable citing the closing from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as evidence that he understood the necessity of doing more than simply triumphing over an opponent:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

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