In the early days of the formation of the United States, politics was a serious and sometimes dangerous subject. The people of America had fought a war to earn the right to govern themselves. However, fierce differences of opinion persisted, and the wrong remark at the wrong time could become a matter of life and death. It was early in his political career that Lincoln learned just how deadly it could be.

In 1842 Lincoln was challenged by James Shields, the state auditor for Illinois, over an article Lincoln had written. The ‘Lost Township’ article was published in the Sangamon Journal and signed ‘Rebecca’. Shields took offence at remarks in the article that he felt were directed at him. He demanded Lincoln retract the article. Correspondence between the two failed to satisfy Shields and he set forth terms for a duel. Lincoln met with Shields on Sunflower Island in the Mississippi River near Alton, Illinois, on 22 September 1842. At the last moment, the ‘seconds’ chosen by the two duellists convinced Lincoln and Shields to call off the fight.

If a man was willing to kill over an insult, a difference in political opinion could be even more dangerous. Opposition to slavery could be a risky political choice for a politician during Abraham Lincoln’s time. While Lincoln made his position on slavery clear, he denied allegations that he was an abolitionist. Such an accusation held the potential to alienate voters who opposed slavery.

Abolitionists had earned a reputation for knowingly ignoring law regarding the rights of slaveholders. At a time in United States history when African Americans were not regarded as equals, white abolitionists violated social mores of the day by openly associating with freed slaves. Violating the laws of government and society often resulted in alienation from the community. For a political candidate, it could prove the end of a career.

The concern of those who supported slavery was that an abolitionist in public office might attempt to outlaw slavery. Such laws would destroy the economy in the agrarian South, where slaves provided the necessary labour force. In the North, there was widespread fear that freed slaves would increase competition for low-income jobs that were already scarce. There was more at stake, however, than economics. Both sides were concerned that former slaves left to freely roam the country might turn to criminal activities to support themselves or possibly even violence to avenge themselves against former slaveholders.

Lincoln insisted ‘I do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.’ In spite of such concerns regarding allegations of abolitionism, Lincoln’s talent as a speaker and skill at debate drew the attention of other politicians. He had been successful in the courtroom and the political arena once before. With strong political support, his status began to rise once again. His political career would include helping to establish one of the strongest political parties in the United States – the Republican Party.

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