A letter from the lost Townships – August 27, 1842
A LETTER FROM THE LOST TOWNSHIPS
Article written by Lincoln for the Sangamon Journal in ridicule of James Shields, who, as State Auditor, had declined to receive State Bank notes in payment of taxes. The above letter purported to come from a poor widow who, though supplied with State Bank paper, could not obtain a receipt for her tax bill. This, and another subsequent letter by Mary Todd, brought about the "Lincoln-Shields Duel."
August 27, 1842
DEAR Mr. PRINTER:
I see you printed that long letter I sent you a spell ago. I 'm quite encouraged by it, and can't keep from writing again. I think the printing of my letters will be a good thing all round–it will give me the benefit of being known by the world, and give the world the advantage of knowing what's going on in the Lost Townships, and give your paper respectability besides. So here comes another. Yesterday afternoon I hurried through cleaning up the dinner dishes and stepped over to neighbor S______ to see if his wife Peggy was as well as mout be expected, and hear what they called the baby. Well, when I got there and just turned round the corner of his log cabin, there he was, setting on the doorstep reading a newspaper. "How are you, Jeff?" says I. He sorter started when he heard me, for he hadn't seen me before. "Why," says he, "I 'm mad as the devil, Aunt 'Becca!" "What about?" says I; "ain't its hair the right color? None of that nonsense, Jeff; there ain't an honester woman in the Lost Townships than…"–"Than who?" says he; "what the mischief are you about?" I began to see I was running the wrong trail, and so says I, "Oh! nothing: I guess I was mistaken a little, that's all. But what is it you 're mad about?"
"Why," says he, "I've been tugging ever since harvest, getting out wheat and hauling it to the river to raise State Bank paper enough to pay my tax this year and a little school debt I owe; and now, just as I 've got it, here I open this infernal Extra Register, expecting to find it full of 'Glorious Democratic Victories' and 'High Comb'd Cocks,' when, lo and behold! I find a set of fellows, calling themselves officers of the State, have forbidden the tax collectors, and school commissioners to receive State paper at all; and so here it is dead on my hands. I don't now believe all the plunder I've got will fetch ready cash enough to pay my taxes and that school debt."
I was a good deal thunderstruck myself; for that was the first I had heard of the proclamation, and my old man was pretty much in the same fix with Jeff. We both stood a moment staring at one another without knowing what to say. At last says I, "Mr. S______ let me look at that paper." He handed it to me, when I read the proclamation over.
"There now," says he, "did you ever see such a piece of impudence and imposition as that?" I saw Jeff was in a good tune for saying some ill-natured things, and so I tho't I would just argue a little on the contrary side, and make him rant a spell if I could. "Why," says I, looking as dignified and thoughtful as I could, "it seems pretty tough, to be sure, to have to raise silver where there's none to be raised; but then, you see, 'there will be danger of loss' if it ain't done."
"Loss! damnation!" says he. "I defy Daniel Webster, I defy King Solomon, I defy the world–I defy–I defy–yes, I defy even you, Aunt 'Becca, to show how the people can lose anything by paying their taxes in State paper."
"Well," says I, "you see what the officers of State say about it, and they are a desarnin' set of men. But," says I, "I guess you 're mistaken about what the proclamation says. It don't say the people will lose anything by the paper money being taken for taxes. It only says 'there will be danger of loss'; and though it is tolerable plain that the people can't lose by paying their taxes in something they can get easier than silver, instead of having to pay silver; and though it's just as plain that the State can't lose by taking State Bank paper, however low it may be, while she owes the bank more than the whole revenue, and can pay that paper over on her debt, dollar for dollar;–still there is danger of loss to the 'officers of State'; and you know, Jeff, we can't get along without officers of State."
"Damn officers of State!" says he; "that's what Whigs are always hurrahing for."
"Now, don't swear so, Jeff," says I, "you know I belong to the meetin', and swearin' hurts my feelings."
"Beg pardon, Aunt 'Becca," says he; "but I do say it's enough to make Dr. Goddard swear, to have tax to pay in silver, for nothing only that Ford may get his two thousand a year, and Shields his twenty-four hundred a year, and Carpenter his sixteen hundred a year, and all without 'danger of loss' by taking it in State paper. Yes, yes: it's plain enough now what these officers of State mean by 'danger of loss.' Wash, I s'pose, actually lost fifteen hundred dollars out of the three thousand that two of these 'officers of State' let him steal from the treasury, by being compelled to take it in State paper. Wonder if we don't have a proclamation before long, commanding us to make up this loss to Wash in silver."
And so he went on till his breath run out, and he had to stop. I couldn't think of anything to say just then, and so I begun to look over the paper again. "Ay! here's another proclamation, or something like it."
"Another?" says Jeff; "and whose egg is it, pray?"
I looked to the bottom of it, and read aloud, "Your obedient servant, James Shields, Auditor."
"Aha!" says Jeff, "one of them same three fellows again. Well read it, and let's hear what of it."
I read on till I came to where it says, "The object of this measure is to suspend the collection of the revenue for the current year."
"Now stop, now stop!" says he; "that's a lie a'ready, and I don't want to hear of it."
"Oh, maybe not," says I.
"I say it-is-a-lie. Suspend the collection, indeed! Will the collectors, that have taken their oaths to make the collection, dare to end it? Is there anything in law requiring them to perjure themselves at the bidding of James Shields?
"Will the greedy gullet of the penitentiary be satisfied with swallowing him instead of all of them, if they should venture to obey him? And would he not discover some 'danger of loss,' and be off about the time it came to taking their places?
"And suppose the people attempt to suspend, by refusing to pay; what then? The collectors would just jerk up their horses and cows, and the like, and sell them to the highest bidder for silver in hand, without valuation or redemption. Why, Shields didn't believe that story himself; it was never meant for the truth. If it was true, why was it not writ till five days after the proclamation? Why did n't Carlin and Carpenter sign it as well as Shields? Answer me that, Aunt 'Becca. I say it's a lie, and not a well told one at that. It grins out like a copper dollar. Shields is a fool as well as a liar. With him truth is out of the question; and as for getting a good, bright, passable lie out of him, you might as well try to strike fire from a cake of tallow. I stick to it, it's all an infernal Whig lie!"
"A Whig lie! Highty tighty!"
"Yes, a Whig lie; and it's just like everything the cursed British Whigs do. First they'll do some divilment, and then they'll tell a lie to hide it. And they don't care how plain a lie it is; they think they can cram any sort of a one down the throats of the ignorant Locofocos, as they call the Democrats."
"Why, Jeff, you 're crazy: you don't mean to say Shields is a Whig!"
"Yes, I do."
"Why, look here! the proclamation is in your own Democratic paper, as you call it."
"I know it; and what of that? They only printed it to let us Democrats see the deviltry the Whigs are at."
"Well, but Shields is the auditor of this Loco–I mean this Democratic State."
"So he is, and Tyler appointed him to office."
"Tyler appointed him?"
"Yes (if you must chaw it over), Tyler appointed him; or, if it was n't him, it was old Granny Harrison, and that's all one. I tell you, Aunt 'Becca, there's no mistake about his being a Whig. Why, his very looks shows it; everything about him shows it: if I was deaf and blind, I could tell him by the smell. I seed him when I was down in Springfield last winter. They had a sort of a gatherin' there one night among the grandees, they called a fair. All the gals about town was there, and all the handsome widows and married women, finickin' about trying to look like gals, tied as tight in the middle, and puffed out at both ends, like bundles of fodder that had n't been stacked yet, but wanted stackin' pretty bad. And then they had tables all around the house kivered over with [------] caps and pincushions and ten thousand such little knick-knacks, tryin' to sell 'em to the fellows that were bowin', and scrapin' and kungeerin' about 'em. They would n't let no Democrats in, for fear they'd disgust the ladies, or scare the little gals, or dirty the floor. I looked in at the window, and there was this same fellow Shields floatin' about on the air, without heft or earthly substances, just like a lock of cat fur where cats had been fighting.
"He was paying his money to this one, and that one, and t' other one, and sufferin' great loss because it was n't silver instead of State paper; and the sweet distress he seemed to be in,–his very features, in the ecstatic agony of his soul, spoke audibly and distinctly, 'Dear girls, it is distressing, but I cannot marry you all. Too well I know how much you suffer; but do, do remember, it is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting.'
"As this last was expressed by a most exquisite contortion of his face, he seized hold of one of their hands, and squeezed, and held on to it about a quarter of an hour. 'Oh, my good fellow!' says I to myself, 'if that was one of our Democratic gals in the Lost Townships, the way you 'd get a brass pin let into you would be about up to the head.' He a Democrat! Fiddlesticks! I tell you, Aunt 'Becca, he's a Whig, and no mistake; nobody but a Whig could make such a conceity dunce of himself."
"Well," says I, "maybe he is; but, if he is, I 'm mistaken the worst sort. Maybe so, maybe so; but, if I am, I'll suffer by it; I'll be a Democrat if it turns out that Shields is a Whig, considerin' you shall be a Whig if he turns out a Democrat."
"A bargain, by jingoes!" says he; "but how will we find out?"
"Why," says I, "we'll just write and ax the printer."
"Agreed again!" says he; "and by thunder! if it does turn out that Shields is a Democrat, I never will __________"
"What do you want, Peggy?"
"Do get through your everlasting clatter some time, and bring me a gourd of water; the child's been crying for a drink this livelong hour."
"Let it die, then; it may as well die for water as to be taxed to death to fatten officers of State."
Jeff run off to get the water, though, just like he hadn't been saying anything spiteful, for he's a raal good-hearted fellow, after all, once you get at the foundation of him.
I walked into the house, and, "Why, Peggy," says I, "I declare we like to forgot you altogether."
"Oh, yes," says she, "when a body can't help themselves, everybody soon forgets 'em; but, thank God! by day after to-morrow I shall be well enough to milk the cows, and pen the calves, and wring the contrary ones' tails for 'em, and no thanks to nobody."
"Good evening, Peggy," says I, and so I sloped, for I seed she was mad at me for making Jeff neglect her so long.
And now, Mr. Printer, will you be sure to let us know in your next paper whether this Shields is a Whig or a Democrat? I don't care about it for myself, for I know well enough how it is already; but I want to convince Jeff. It may do some good to let him, and others like him, know who and what these officers of State are. It may help to send the present hypocritical set to where they belong, and to fill the places they now disgrace with men who will do more work for less pay, and take fewer airs while they are doing it. It ain't sensible to think that the same men who get us in trouble will change their course; and yet it's pretty plain if some change for the better is not made, it's not long that either Peggy or I or any of us will have a cow left to milk, or a calf's tail to wring.
Yours truly, REBECCA ____________.
Filed under Writings of Abraham Lincoln by