We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends

We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends

by David Herbert Donald

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We Are Lincoln Men" examines the significance of friendship in Abraham Lincoln's life and the role it played in his presidency. Though Lincoln had hundreds of acquaintances and dozens of admirers, he had almost no intimate friends. Behind his mask of affability and endless stream of humorous anecdotes, he maintained an inviolate reserve that only a few were ever able…  See more details below


We Are Lincoln Men" examines the significance of friendship in Abraham Lincoln's life and the role it played in his presidency. Though Lincoln had hundreds of acquaintances and dozens of admirers, he had almost no intimate friends. Behind his mask of affability and endless stream of humorous anecdotes, he maintained an inviolate reserve that only a few were ever able to penetrate. In this highly original book, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner David Herbert Donald examines, for the first time, these close friendships and explores their role in shaping Lincoln's career.

Editorial Reviews

We define ourselves by our choice of friends. Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, demonstrates the validity of that old saw in a unique biography that presents Abraham Lincoln through the perceptions of his closest friends. In a sense, though, We Are Lincoln Men is a group portrait, a close-up of Honest Abe's most trusted inner circle. Donald focuses on six associates: Joshua Speed, William H. Herndon, Orville H. Browning, William H. Seward, John Nicolay, and John Hay. The depth of these friendships is perhaps indicated by the strength of their responses to the president's assassination: Three of the six friends profiled wrote extensive Lincoln biographies.

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Simon & Schuster
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6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

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We Are Lincoln Men

Abraham Lincoln and His Friends
By David Herbert Donald

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2003 David Herbert Donald
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-5470-8

Chapter One

"He Disclosed His Whole Heart to Me": Lincoln and Joshua F. Speed

The first time Lincoln met Joshua Speed was on April 15, 1837. Admitted to the bar just six weeks earlier, he rented a horse, thrust all his belongings into the saddlebags, and rode into Springfield from New Salem, ready to begin a new phase of his life. Speed later told of their meeting so many times that he could repeat it by rote: Lincoln came into the general store of Bell & Co., on the courthouse square, to price the furnishings for a single bed - mattress, sheets, blankets, and pillow. Speed, who was part owner of the store, took out his slate and calculated the cost at $17.00.

Lincoln said, "It is probably cheap enough; but... I have not the money to pay. But if you will credit me until Christmas, and my experiment here as a lawyer is a success, I will pay you then." He added, in a tone of deep sadness, "If I fail in that I will probably never be able to pay you at all."

Moved by his visitor's melancholy, Speed suggested a solution: "I have a very large room, and a very large double-bed in it; which you are perfectly welcome to share with me if you choose."

"Where is your room?" Lincoln asked.

"Up stairs," replied Speed, pointing to the stairway that led from the store.

Without saying a word, Lincoln picked up his saddlebags, went upstairs, set them on the floor, and came down, his face beaming, and announced: "Well Speed I'm moved."


This charming story, which Speed recounted over and over again in the years after Lincoln's assassination, has been repeated by nearly every Lincoln biographer, and it is essentially correct. But a little background information is needed to explain why a Springfield merchant should offer to share his bed with a total stranger who happened to wander into his store.

First, as Speed told his friend Cassius M. Clay, his initial conversation with Lincoln was a good deal more extensive. As Speed gave the price of the mattress, the blankets, and the other furnishings, Lincoln walked around the store with him, inspecting each item, and making a memorandum of the cost. In the course of their conversation, Lincoln explained that he had recently been admitted to the bar and had come to Springfield to become John Todd Stuart's partner. He hoped to fit up a small law office and adjacent sleeping room. Indeed, he had already contracted with a local carpenter to build him a single bedstead.

What is more important for understanding the story, it was probably true that Lincoln had not met Speed up to this point, but the storekeeper knew perfectly well who Lincoln was and, indeed, had a good deal of information about him. Speed had heard Lincoln speak in a celebrated 1836 debate in Springfield. He was so effective that George Forquer, a wealthy Springfield resident who had recently left the Whig party to join the Democrats and had been appointed register of the Land Office as a reward, felt it necessary to take Lincoln down, ridiculing him in every way he could. Lincoln, in reply, referred to the lightning rod Forquer had just erected over his splendid Springfield house and told the audience: "I would rather die now, than, like the gentleman change my politics, and simultaneous with the change, receive an office worth three thousand dollars per year, and then have to erect a lightning-rod over my house, to protect a guilty conscience from an offended God." Speed must also have known that Lincoln had served two terms in the Illinois state legislature and was one of the most prominent Whig politicians in the state.

Even so, the two young men were not personally acquainted when they first met.


Initially, Speed and Lincoln seemed to be unlikely friends. Lincoln was twenty-eight. Speed, who was born in 1814, was five years younger. Slim and trim, he had, in the days before he began wearing disfiguring whiskers, a handsome face with regular features. The son of a wealthy Kentucky planter, he had been brought up at Farmington, one of the great historic houses of Kentucky, just outside Louisville. A member of a large and caring family, he revered his father, adored his mother, and was fondly affectionate to his numerous brothers and sisters. Carefully educated at the best private schools in the West, he had attended St. Joseph's College in Bardstown for a while before he decided to make his own way in the world. After clerking in a large Louisville store for two or three years, he set out in 1835 for Springfield, where he bought a part interest in the general store of Bell & Co. Though far from Kentucky, he kept up an affectionate correspondence with his father and mother, writing them regularly and informing them, in his somewhat heavy-handed style, that "nothing gives me more pleasure than a consciousness that I have done nothing to forfeit the love or esteem of my parents."

Lincoln, in contrast, was thin and gaunt, and he was still very rough in dress and appearance. He brought to his friendship with Speed no record of distinguished ancestry, no history of education and polish. He had nothing to offer except innate good manners, an eager desire to please, and a sensitivity to the needs of others. Both men were drivingly ambitious - Speed for wealth and comfort, Lincoln for fame.

For the next four years, Speed and Lincoln slept in the same bed, above the general store on the town square in Springfield. From time to time, they shared the big room above the store with Billy Herndon, who clerked for Speed, and with Charles Hurst, who also worked in the store. But much of the time, they were alone. The arrangement put Lincoln in closer contact with another person than any he had ever experienced.

As Lincoln settled in, he charmed Speed and his clerks with his endless fund of anecdotes, and, as the word spread, other unattached men in Springfield - mostly young lawyers and clerks - began to gather in Speed's store after hours, clustering around the big stove to listen to Lincoln's tales and jokes. They met so regularly that Speed called the group "a social club without organization." Soon the members began presenting their own stories and poems for criticism, and they engaged in informal debates.

When the stove grew cold and the other men went home, Speed and Lincoln were left together, to talk endlessly about everything. They discussed books and literature. Lincoln loved Shakespeare and Burns, some of whose poems he could recite from memory, while Speed favored the poetry of Lord Byron. They both had a taste for melancholy - one might say morbid - verse and liked to quote William Knox's "Oh, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?" At the same time they both had a lively sense of humor. Lincoln in these early years was given to burlesque, and his endless anecdotes always had a point; Speed's humor tended to be understated. They shared an intense interest in everything going on in Springfield and central Illinois. In 1841, when Speed was out of town, Lincoln sent him a long letter detailing the alleged murder of one Archibald Fisher, who lived in Warren County. The case fascinated Lincoln - the fuller account that he prepared five years later revealed that Fisher was not murdered after all - and he was so sure that Speed shared all his interests that he minutely described the investigation for his friend.

Much of the time, Lincoln and Speed talked politics; they were ardent anti-Jacksonians and supporters of Henry Clay. Complaining of the "trained bands" of Democrats, so well organized that they carried election after election, they signed and helped distribute an 1840 campaign circular announcing that the Whig Committee, to which they both belonged, planned "to organize the whole State, so that every Whig can be brought to the polls in the coming presidential contest." They discussed at length the value of internal improvements - the building of canals and railroads with government funds - which Whigs generally supported and Democrats opposed. Referring to the governor of New York who was responsible for the completion of the Erie Canal, Lincoln, usually so reticent about his political goals, confided to his friend that "his highest ambition was to become the De Witt Clinton of Ills."

But mostly they talked about themselves. Analyzing his roommate, Lincoln concluded that he was "naturally of a nervous temperament," which, he judged from Speed's confidences, he probably inherited from his mother. For his part, Speed noted both the kindness of Lincoln's heart and his "nervous sensibility." Once he remarked that Lincoln's mind was "a wonder," because impressions were easily made upon it and were never erased. "No," replied Lincoln, "you are mistaken - I am slow to learn and slow to forget.... My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch any thing on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out." Summarizing their friendship after Lincoln's death, Speed was sure of their total intimacy: "He disclosed his whole heart to me."


Inevitably questions arise about the nature of this friendship and the influence that it had on Lincoln. Lincoln's letters to Speed in 1842 and 1843 (Speed's letters for these years have unfortunately been lost) make it clear that the two young men shared their most personal feelings, especially about courtship and marriage. It may well be true that, as Lincoln's official biographers, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, asserted, Speed was "the only - as he was certainly the last - intimate friend that Lincoln ever had." But Speed himself was careful to make no great claims that he influenced Lincoln's ideas or policies. After Lincoln's death, he explicitly denied reports that he had helped draft some of Lincoln's speeches, and when Herndon questioned him, he made it clear that he saw the President infrequently during the Civil War years and did not think of himself as a White House intimate. Herndon's verdict on this point is sound. Jealous when other biographers claimed that Lincoln "poured out his soul to Speed," he correctly pointed out that Speed had little, if any, influence on Lincoln's political views. Scornfully, he added that "except in his love scrapes" - in which Speed had been a willing co-conspirator - "Lincoln never poured out his soul to any mortal creature."

Recently, another question has been raised: Was the close relationship between Lincoln and Speed a homosexual one? Or, since the word homosexual did not come into use until the 1870s, could it be called a "homoerotic" one? To be blunt, did they have sex together? It was not until the gay liberation movement that these subjects began to be discussed, and with increasing frankness. On a publicity tour that I undertook in 1995-1996 to promote my biography of Lincoln, I was astonished to discover the question most frequently asked was whether Lincoln was gay. The subject deserves careful and cautious discussion.

First, it ought to be noted that no contemporary ever raised the question of sexual relations between Lincoln and Speed. Herndon, who sometimes slept in the same upstairs room over Speed's store, never mentioned the possibility, though he discussed at length his ideas about Lincoln's sexual interests in women. Charles Hurst, another of Speed's clerks, who also slept in the room, never referred to any sexual or even physical intimacy between the two men. Though nearly every other possible charge against Lincoln was raised during his long public career - from his alleged illegitimacy to his possible romance with Ann Rutledge, to the breakup of his engagement to Mary Todd, to some turbulent aspects of their marriage - no one ever suggested that he and Speed were sexual partners.

In these still primitive, almost frontier, days in Illinois, it was anything but uncommon for two or more men to share a bed. Space was at a premium, and privacy was not much valued or expected. Unmarried men who worked on farms, or in livery stables, or in country stores regularly slept in the same beds. Primitive hotels often offered transients only the option of sharing a bed with other guests. Even when respectable lawyers rode the circuit, traveling from county seat to county seat, they tumbled unceremoniously into bed together. There was no sexual implication in these sleeping arrangements.

Of course, both Lincoln and Speed knew that men did sometimes have sex with each other. They had only to read the Bible to be aware of that. In his Indiana years, Lincoln wrote a scurrilous poem, "The Chronicles of Reuben," in which he ridiculed a neighbor he did not like and claimed that, unable to find a wife, he wed another man. But such relationships were not merely infrequent; they were against the law. There were surprisingly few legal cases involving what was called "sodomy," "the crime against nature," or - where an animal was a party - "buggery." Jonathan Ned Katz has made a careful search of all the appeals cases heard during the nineteenth century by the high courts of twenty-five states and by the federal courts, and has identified only 105 that may have concerned what we call homosexual activity. Only two of these were in Illinois.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, close relations between a man and a woman prior to, or outside of, marriage were frowned on, but intimacies between two people of the same sex - especially if they were young - were readily tolerated. There are a surprising number of well-documented cases of love among young men. Young Ralph Waldo Emerson nearly swooned with passion over Martin Gay, whom he thought the most handsome student at Harvard College, but he was too inhibited to make his love known. Daniel Webster was deeply in love with James Hervey Bingham, a classmate at Dartmouth, with whom he continued on intimate terms long after graduation. He addressed Bingham as "Dearly Beloved," and ended his letters with affectionate phrases like: "Accept all the tenderness I have. D. Webster." The letters between such male lovers are full of references to sleeping together, kisses, caresses, and open longing for each other. There can be no doubt that these were erotic relationships, but with rare exceptions, they do not appear to have been sexual relationships.

The Lincoln-Speed connection did not fall even into that category. Nearly all of the documented erotic relationships between males were between young men - in effect, boys who had reached the peak of their physical powers but were far from ready to assume the role of husband and breadwinner. In contrast, when Lincoln and Speed came together in 1837, neither was a youth: Lincoln was twenty-eight years old and Speed was twenty-three. Nor, when appraising their relationship, can one find anything to suggest a passionate or erotic connection between the two.


Excerpted from We Are Lincoln Men by David Herbert Donald Copyright © 2003 by David Herbert Donald. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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