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Lincoln's Lie

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

I still remember all those stories about Abraham Lincoln my grade school teachers told me in order to shape me into an honest boy. About Lincoln walking miles to return three cents change to a customer? My grade school teachers had me believing that Lincoln was born without a deceitful bone in his body.

Then I grew up, and read about Lincoln on my own, and it's just as I secretly suspected back in grade school: nobody's perfect.

In 1842, Lincoln was a young attorney in Springfield, Illinois. One day a nasty, but very clever, piece of doggerel appeared in The Springfield Journal, ridiculing James Shields, Illinois State Auditor.

Shields stormed into the newspaper office and demanded the name of the author. "Abraham Lincoln," said the editor. Lincoln was attending court in Tremont, in nearby Tazewell County, where a friend of Shields found him and demanded a retraction of the offensive poem. Lincoln refused.

Shields then challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln accepted, chose cavalry broadswords as the weapon, selected the Missouri shore of the Mississippi, three miles from Alton, on September 22nd, 1842, as the place and the time.

The two duelists and their seconds met at the Mississippi on September 22nd. By then, however, friends of both men had had time to do some thinking, and, at the last minute, talked Lincoln and Shields into calling the duel off.

In his anger and haste, Shields had never bothered to ask Lincoln if he was the author of the verses. He wasn't. A few months later, after things had quieted down in Springfield, the real culprits were revealed. They were two sweet young ladies, Mary Todd and her friend Julia Jayne. You don't know Miss Julia—she became the wife of United States Senator Lyman Trumbull—but you do know Mary Todd. A few months after the Shields episode, she married Abraham Lincoln.

I'm not sure how my grade school teachers would have handled this story. Deceit is always wrong—of course. But being willing to risk your life for the one you love must have been worth at least as many points on the good side.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.