Physical Courage

Mr. Lincoln was “as brave a man as ever lived,” said longtime friend William Greene.1 Mr. Lincoln backed up his friendship with sheer physical courage. A story from the Black Hawk War cemented Mr. Lincoln’s reputation for bravery. His company came across an old Indian who the soldiers wanted to kill. “Mr. Lincoln in the goodness & kindness and humanity & justice of his nature stood – got between the Indian and the outraged men – saying – ‘Men this must not be done – he must not be shot and killed by us,” reported New Salem friend William G. Greene. Although some of their friends charged that the Indian was a spy, “Still Lincoln stood between the Indian & the vengeance of the outraged soldiers – brave, good & true. Some of the men said to Mr Lincoln – ‘This is cowardly on your part Lincoln.'” Rising to his full height, Mr. Lincoln challenged any man who thought he was a coward to test that conviction.

One soldier responded: “Lincoln – you are larger & heavier than we are’. He replied “This you can guard against – Choose your weapons.” Greene reported that this ended all charges of cowardice: “This is the first time or amongst the first times I ever saw Mr Lincoln aroused. He was unusually kind, pleasant – good humored, taking any & all things. But this was too much for Lincoln. This hushed up at once all disputes about Lincolns courage.”2

Historian Douglas L. Wilson observed that Mr. Lincoln’s priorities underwent a change: “After proving himself a formidable fighter, in a place where fighting was commonplace and nearly unavoidable, he opted for the more civilized and rule-bound contests of wrestling, and became a peacemaker, actively breaking up and preventing fights.”3 Historian Gerald J. Prokopowicz argued: “The primary motive for Lincoln to go to war in person was the opportunity to make a public display of his personal bravery. Physical courage, Lincoln knew, was an important aspect of political as well as military leadership in a society that lionized war heroes like George Washington and Andrew Jackson.”4

“He was the strongest man I ever knew, and has been known to lift a man of his own weight and throw him over a worm fence. Once, in Springfield, the Irish voters meditated taking possession of the polls. News came down the street that they would permit nobody to vote but those of their own party. Mr. Lincoln seized an axe-handle from a hardware store, and went alone to open a way to the ballot-box. His appearance intimated them, and we had neither threats nor collisions all that day.”5

In his first legislative campaign Mr. Lincoln displayed a characteristic which was to define his early personal and political image – a willingness to come to the physical defense of his friends. William H. Herndon wrote: “His maiden effort on the stump was a speech on the occasion of a public sale at Pappsville, a village eleven miles west of Springfield. After the sale was over and speechmaking had begun, a fight – a ‘general fight,’ as one of the bystanders relates – ensued, and Lincoln, noticing one of his friends about to succumb to the energetic attack of an infuriated ruffian, interposed to prevent it. He did so most effectually. Hastily descending from the rude platform he edged his way through crowd, and seizing the bully by the neck and seat of his trowsers, threw him by means of his strength and long arms, as one witness stoutly insists, ‘twelve feet away.’ Returning to the stand and throwing aside his hat he inaugurated his campaign….”6

Politicians learned that Mr. Lincoln was a good person to defend their principles and their persons. On one occasion, Whig attorney Edward D. Baker “was speaking in a court-house, which had once been a store house, and, on making some remarks that were offensive to certain political rowdies in the crowd, they cried: ‘take him off the stand.’ Immediate confusion ensued, and there was an attempt to carry the demand into execution,” wrote biographer Joseph Holland, retelling a story told him by then Whig lawyer Usher F. Linder. “Directly over the speaker’s head was an old scuttle, at which it appeared Mr. Lincoln had been listening to the speech. In an instant, Mr. Lincoln’s feet came through the scuttle, followed by his tall and sinewy frame, and he was standing by Colonel Baker’s side. He raised his hand, and the assembly subsided immediately into silence. ‘Gentlemen,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘let us not disgrace the age and country in which we live. This is a land where freedom of speech is guarantied. Mr. Baker has a right to speak, and ought to be permitted to do so I am here to protect him and no man shall take him from this stand if I can prevent it.'” Mr. Lincoln’s dramatic entrance and dramatic declaration quickly subdued the crowd.7

During the 1840 presidential campaign, Baker and Mr. Lincoln were present when Linder who gave a rousing partisan speech at the Springfield State House. The crowd grew rowdy and Mr. Lincoln determined that Usher might need some protection. He and Baker constituted themselves as bodyguards on the speaker’s platform. After Usher concluded, Mr. Lincoln said: “Linder, Baker and I are apprehensive that you may be attacked by some of those ruffians who insulted you from the galleries, and we have come up to escort you to your hotel. We both think we can do a little fighting, so we want you to talk between us until we get you to your hotel. Your quarrel is our quarrel and that of the great Whig Party of this nation; and your speech, upon this occasion, is the greatest one that has been made by any of us, for which we wish to honor, love, and defend you.” Linder said: “This I consider no ordinary compliment, coming from Mr. Lincoln, for he was no flatterer, nor disposed to bestow praise where it was undeserved.8

Occasionally, Mr. Lincoln used his mind rather than his body to break up a fight. Fellow state legislator Robert L. Wilson remembered one campaign debate in 1836 at the Springfield Court House: “Dr. Early one of the Candidates on the Democratic Side made some charge that N[inian] W. Edwards one of the Whig Candidates deemed untrue, climbed on a table so as to be seen by Dr Early and every one in the house, and at the top of his voice told Early that the charge was false. The excitement that followed was intense, so much so, that fighting men [said] that a duel must Settle the difficulty, Mr Lincoln by the programme followed Earley, he took up the subject in dispute and handled fairly, and with such ability, that every one was astonished, and pleased. So that difficulty ended there. Then first time develloped by the excitement of the occasion he spooke [sic] in that tenor intonation of voice that ultimately settled down into that clear Shrill monotone Style of Speaking, that enabled his audience, however large, to hear disti[n]ctly the lowest Sound of his voice.”9

When challenged to a duel by James Shields in 1842, Mr. Lincoln didn’t back down. But Lincoln allowed friends like Whig attorney John Hardin to negotiate his way out of the confrontation. He later told Usher Linder: “To tell you the truth, Linder, I didn’t want to kill Shields and felt sure I could disarm him, having had about a month to learn the broadsword exercise; and furthermore, I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I rather think he would have done if we had selected pistols.”10 But Mr. Lincoln was not proud of the duel. When he was asked by an army officer during the Civil War about the duel story, Mr. Lincoln said: “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention the circumstance again.”11

As President, Mr. Lincoln periodically displayed courage – while regularly disclaiming that he had any. Journalist Noah Brooks wrote that President Lincoln “said that he thought himself a great coward physically and was sure that he should make a poor soldier, for, unless there was something in the excitement of a battle, he was sure that he would drop his gun and run at the first symptom of danger. That was said sportively, and he added, ‘Moral cowardice is something which I think I never had.'”12


  1. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (James Q. Howard, Biographical Notes, May 1860).
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 18-19 (William H. Herndon interview with William G. Greene, May 30, 1865).
  3. Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Lincoln Enigma, p. 26 (Douglas L. Wilson).
  4. Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Lincoln Enigma, p. 59 (Gerald J. Prokopowicz).
  5. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 176-177.
  6. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 85-86.
  7. Joseph G. Holland, Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 96-97.
  8. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 175-176.
  9. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 203 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
  10. Usher Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois, p. 66-67.
  11. Alonzo Rothschild, Lincoln, Master of Men: A Study in Character, p. 74.
  12. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 205 (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” first published in The Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).