Drunkards and Lice: The Lincoln Story “Duel”

Lincoln in Illinois Legislature
Sketch by unknown artist of Lincoln in the Illinois Legislature

This is an interesting Lincoln episode about a “story duel” that took place between Abraham Lincoln and a fellow Illinois legislator on February 26, 1841 during their remarks to the Illinois Legislature “Concerning a Bill for Completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal.”

Lincoln offered a bill allowing the State of Illinois to pay, in bonds, for all work done after the amendment’s passage, and, if approved, to issue $3,000,000 in bonds for the completion of the canal.

William H. Bissell of Monroe County moved to strike out the three and insert $1,500,000 – half of the amount requested. Lincoln accepted the amendment.

During the ensuing vote, Lincoln supported the bill, which passed. One of those opposed was Wickliff Kitchell of Montgomery County. Kitchell then requested permission to address the Assembly.

Kitchell expressed surprise that the gentleman from Sangamon ( Lincoln) proposed such an expense for the state. Kitchell maintained the state was already prostrated by debt, and rhetorically asked if that gentleman thought it would be for the interest of the State to go still deeper?

Then, a la Lincoln, Kitchell said it reminded him of an anecdote, which he would relate.

A drunkard in Arkansas took so much of the “cretur” [19th Century African-American euphemism for alcohol], that he lost his reason and remained for some time in a state of insensibility. His wife tried every experiment to cure him, but it was of no avail, until a neighbor came to the house and recommended some brandy toddy. The insensible man rose at the word “toddy,” and said “that is the stuff.


It was so with the gentleman from Sangamon (Lincoln), more debt is supposed to be for the better.

Lincoln accepted the challenge thrown at his feet. He stood and begged leave to tell a story.

The gentleman’s [Kitchell’s] course the past winter, Lincoln said, reminded him of an eccentric old bachelor who lived in the Hoosier State [Indiana].

Like the gentleman from Montgomery [Kitchell], he was very famous for seeing big bugaboos in every thing. He lived with an older brother, and one day he went out hunting. His brother heard him firing back of the field, and went out to see what was the matter. He found him loading and firing as fast as possible at the top of a tree.


Not being able to discover any thing in the tree, he asked his brother what he was firing at. He replied a squirrel – and kept on firing. His brother believing there was some humbug about the matter, examined his person, and found on one of his eye lashes a big louse crawling about.


It is so with the gentleman from Montgomery. He imagined he could see squirrels every day, when they were nothing but lice.

The House convulsed with laughter, and all agreed that Lincoln won the story “duel.”

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Works Cited

[1]   Sangamo Journal, March 5, 1841, and The Illinois State Register, March 12, 1841, The Journal summarized this discussion and stated that Lincoln’s argument showed  “that to prosecute the work now was in fact the most economical plan that could be adopted; to stop it, would involve the State in much more debt and ruin.”
v.1:pp 244-45.

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