Lincoln's Biggest Mistake

We all make mistakes. But can we learn from them? Here is the story of


During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was noted for his sense of great compassion.

 He had learned this the hard way during his rather impetuous youth. Lincoln loved to play practical jokes. They were often very cruel and mean-spirited. When one of these backfired on him, it became the biggest mistake of his life -- a foolish and embarrassing mistake that could have cost him his life. As a result of this life-changing experience. Lincoln married Mary Todd and became the president of the United States.

This all came about when Lincoln poked fun in a letter at the Illinois Democrats led by James Shields. Lincoln proudly showed the letter to Mary Todd and her friend Julia Jayne. They helped him to sharpen his wit. Lincoln had recently broken off his engagement to Mary Todd but they had remained political allies. Lincoln's letter, signed with the pen name, Rebecca, appeared in the local newspaper. The letter called Shields a liar and made fun of him as a ladies' man in which women swooned at his feet.

Lincoln expected the matter to end at this point. To Lincoln's great surprise, three more letters signed with his pen name Rebecca appeared. Shields had no sense of humor. He was outraged. He demanded the editor reveal the name of his anonymous attacker. The editor asked Lincoln what he should do. Lincoln discovered that Mary Todd and her friend Julia Jayne were the authors. He decided to take the blame for all the Rebecca letters to protect the women.

Shields demanded Lincoln take back everything he had written. Lincoln made the mistake of consulting a friend who advised him not to apologize. As a result, Shields challenged him to a duel. Lincoln realized too late that he acted most foolishly by putting himself needlessly into a dangerous situation of his own making.

Lincoln chose broadswords. These are ceremonial weapons that go all the way from the top of the shoulder to the bottom of the leg. They are used for parades. Lincoln was our tallest president at six feet, four inches. His arms were even longer out of proportion to his body. Lincoln calculated that with his great height and long arms, broadswords would give him a considerable advantage over Shields, who was only five feet nine inches tall.

Dueling was outlawed by Illinois. Any fight between Shields and Lincoln had to take place outside the state. They agreed to a spot in Missouri, across the Mississippi River. Lincoln and his supporters crossed the river where they met Shields and his supporters. Just as the fight was about to begin, mutual friends of the two men helped them to make peace. "Lincoln will you apologize? "Yes!" "Shields, will you accept the apology?" "Yes!" Instead of wielding swords, Lincoln and Shields shook hands and returned home. During the Civil War, Lincoln appointed Shields a Brigadier General in the Army.

This episode remained one of Lincoln's most painful memories. He was so ashamed of it that he and Mary Todd never spoke of it ever again. For Lincoln had acted most foolishly. He was embarrassed that, as a lawyer and an officer of the court, he had disregarded the law. But what really hurt was the realization that he had allowed his tempestuous emotions to rule him. He suffered from manic depression. He struggled to control this through reason. With agony, he remembered how he had just so recently urged his fellow citizens to be guided by reason. A result of the duel was the renewal of Lincoln's engagement to Mary Todd. She was touched by his chivalry. He covered up her mischievous misdeeds that had put him in great danger.

Never again did Lincoln publish anonymous letters. He could still write very angry letters but these he would put away and never mail. The best example of this was a letter that Lincoln wrote criticizing General Meade for letting Lee escape after the battle of Gettysburg.

Lincoln now understood how his undisciplined sense of humor could hurt people. Rarely in the future did he use humor to hurt and to destroy; he had learned that his wit was most effective when directed against himself. Lincoln turned his humor from attacking others to not taking himself seriously.

Lincoln remade himself. He went from being an angry instigator to a man of compassion.

He declared, "Judge not, lest ye be judged" and "Let us pray that right makes might." Lincoln would demonstrate again and again that he was capable of growth and learning from his mistakes. If he did not have that capacity, he could not have become the president of the United States.