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We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends

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In this brilliant and illuminating portrait of our sixteenth president, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner David Herbert Donald examines the significance of friendship in Abraham Lincoln's life and the role it played in shaping his career and 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 ...

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We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends

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Overview

In this brilliant and illuminating portrait of our sixteenth president, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner David Herbert Donald examines the significance of friendship in Abraham Lincoln's life and the role it played in shaping his career and 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.
Professor Donald's remarkable book offers a fresh way of looking at Abraham Lincoln, both as a man who needed friendship and as a leader who understood the importance of friendship in the management of men. Donald penetrates Lincoln's mysterious reserve to offer a new picture of the president's inner life and to explain his unsurpassed political skills.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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.
From the Publisher
Chicago Tribune It's unlikely that anyone today knows more about Lincoln than David Herbert Donald...."We Are Lincoln Men" bristles with erudition....This book contains much to entertain a broad popular audience.

Civil War Times A wise, provocative, and scrupulously judicious book that...probes insightfully into Lincoln's complex personality and ponders its impact on the Civil War era.

The New York Times Book Review Engaging...David Herbert Donald writes about Lincoln with unmatched authority....In short, he has given us a good book to read. He has also given us a good book to argue with.

The Washington Post Book World Enlightening...insightful...The portrait of Lincoln that emerges from the observations of those who knew him best....Donald writes with clarity and grace.

The Washington Post
According to We Are Lincoln Men, the insightful new work by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David Herbert Donald, the Civil War president found little sanctuary in the company of friends. Raised in rural isolation and suffering the loss of his mother at a young age, Lincoln had difficulty forming intimate friendships. The author rightly notes that Lincoln's reserve kept all but a very few from drawing close to him. Basing his analysis on both traditional historical sources and the psychological literature on friendship, Donald concludes that the president was deprived of the advice and support that might have helped him avoid some of his administration's early missteps. — Michael F. Bishop
The New York Times
Donald writes about Lincoln with unmatched authority … David Herbert Donald has given us a good book to read. He has also given us a good book to argue with. — William Lee Miller
Publishers Weekly
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Donald delivers a highly readable portrait of Lincoln's closest friendships in a volume that nicely complements his preeminent biography of our 16th president. Donald's focus is on six key players: Joshua Speed, William H. Herndon, Orville H. Browning, William H. Seward and the president's private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. With regard to the young Springfield entrepreneur Speed, Donald astutely dismantles the so-called "evidence" for a homoerotic relationship, pointing out that during the four years Speed and Lincoln shared a room and a bed (then a common practice among budget-conscious young men) both were quite energetically involved in quests for wives. Interestingly, no less than three of the six friends delineated by Donald also became Lincoln's biographers. William H. Herndon-about whom Donald has previously written a book-started out as Lincoln's law partner in the fall of 1844 and wound up doing vital, sometimes scandalous, sometimes spurious research culminating in a seminal biography published in 1889. The work of Nicolay and Hay was primarily intended to refute much of Herndon's scandalous accounts regarding Lincoln's lineage, frontier romances and unhappy marriage. Perhaps the most complex and informative of Donald's portraits is that of Orville Browning, a longtime Springfield associate and fellow attorney who served briefly as senator from Illinois during Lincoln's first term and whom Lincoln passed over no less than three times when given the opportunity to nominate him to the Supreme Court. Friendship had its limits. Agent, John Taylor Williams. (Nov. 10) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
This short and tasty book casts new light on the country's enigmatic 16th president and introduces readers to the range and wealth of Lincoln scholarship, one of the great accomplishments of American historical studies. The central concept of the book — that Lincoln can be better understood by studying his friendships — is sound. Unfortunately, Donald tries to gussy things up with references to pedestrian "scientific" models of friendship and attempts to see whether Lincoln's friendships match the models — an enterprise of dubious value. Donald is at his best when he uses his formidable learning and sharp judgment to sift a century and a half of scholarship and memoir to give us new appreciation of Lincoln's character and achievement.
Library Journal
Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Donald (emeritus, Harvard) casts a fascinating portrait of Lincoln and his friends and reconsiders much Lincoln lore in this wholly original study. Borrowing from Aristotle's typology of friendship, the author discovers that Lincoln had many "enjoyable" and "useful" friendships but few "complete" ones wherein he might share hopes, wishes, ideas, fears, and intimacies. By Donald's reckoning, Lincoln was an intensely private man, almost unknowable to his friends and still elusive to biographers. Donald looks closely at six friendships from Lincoln's early days as a lawyer to his last days as President and concludes that in almost all cases Lincoln adopted a mentoring relationship. Donald also explores issues of homosexuality, love and marriage, wartime policy, and more and concludes that Lincoln's lack of close friendships before his presidency hampered his ability to manage the secession crisis, rely on his cabinet, or pick his vice president in 1864. The self-assured Lincoln acted on his own ideas, instincts, and interests in deciding policy, which sometimes led to tactical errors in politics and war but in the end saved the Union and pointed the nation to a new birth of freedom. A book of rare clarity, intelligence, and relevance for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/03.]-Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"How could a man who had no friends be also a man who had nothing but friends?" asks Lincoln scholar Donald as he ponders the Great Emancipator's essential loneliness. After Lincoln was assassinated, writes Donald (American History & American Civilization/Harvard; Lincoln, 1995, etc.), plenty of people stepped forward to claim that they had been among his closest friends, and indeed Lincoln had a gift for making just about anyone who did not really know him feel right at home. Yet just about everyone who truly did know him sensed that Lincoln drew from a deep well of reserve and apartness; as his former law partner William Herndon, who shared an office with Lincoln for 16 years, remarked, "He was the most reticent and mostly secretive man that ever existed; he never opened his whole soul to any man; he never touched the history or quality of his own nature in the presence of his friends." Several events formed and reinforced Lincoln's solitude. Growing up on the frontier, with few agemates or playmates, Lincoln lacked intimate friends in his childhood; Donald writes that "boys who do not have chums often have difficulty in establishing close, warm friendships, and there is some evidence that such boys are more likely to suffer from depression in later years"—as Lincoln surely did. Add to this the loss of his mother at an early age and what the evidence suggests was an essentially loveless marriage to Mary Todd (whom Donald treats with some sympathy, but who nevertheless emerges as a basically disagreeable person), and Lincoln's melancholic loneliness seemed all but foreordained. Yet he did have friends of a fashion, and he relied on six in particular—Joshua F. Speed, Herndon,Orville H. Browning, William H. Seward, John Hay, and John G. Nicolay—for advice, solace, and even love. (Of a kind: Donald disputes current theories that Lincoln was gay.) His interactions with those six, revealed through a blend of anecdote and hard-won documentary evidence, form the heart of Donald's well-paced narrative. A rare psychobiography that does not strain the bounds of credulity. First printing of 150,000. Agent: John Taylor Williams
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743254700
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 11/1/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 731,744
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 0.73 (h) x 9.32 (d)

Meet the Author

David Herbert Donald

David Herbert Donald is the author of Lincoln, which won the prestigious Lincoln Prize and was on the New York Times bestseller list for fourteen weeks, and of Lincoln at Home. He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, for Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, and for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. He is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and of American Civilization Emeritus at Harvard University and resides in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Biography

David Herbert Donald is the author of numerous books, including Lincoln's Herndon, Lincoln Reconsidered, and The Civil War and Reconstruction. He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for biography: in 1961 for Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War and in 1988 for Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe.

The Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University, he has also taught at Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Oxford, and Columbia. A native of Mississippi and the past president of the Southern Historical Association, he received his graduate training at the University of Illinois. He lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Author biography courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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    1. Hometown:
      Lincoln, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 1, 1920
    2. Place of Birth:
      Goodman, Mississippi
    1. Education:
      Holmes Junior College, Millsaps College, 1941; M.A., Ph.D., University of Illinois, 1942, 1946

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Two: "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."

I

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.

II

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."

III

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. There is an extensive correspondence between Lincoln and Speed during the 1840s (consisting almost entirely of Lincoln's letters to Speed; Speed's replies have to be conjectured from Lincoln's responses), but, unlike the letters between other enamored males that have been preserved, they are totally lacking in expressions of warm affection. To be sure, Lincoln closed one of his letters, "Yours forever" — but this was the same phrase he used in writing to his law partner and to an Illinois congressman.

The evidence is fragmentary and complex, but my judgment is strongly influenced by the opinion of Charles B. Strozier, the psychoanalyst and historian, who concludes that if the friendship had been sexual Lincoln would have become a different man. He would, Dr. Strozier writes me, have been "a bisexual at best, torn between worlds, full of shame, confused, and hardly likely to end up in politics." What finally convinced me that the relationship between Speed and Lincoln was not a sexual one is an anecdote from late 1864, when Lincoln found it necessary to replace his attorney general and chose Joshua's brother, James Speed. James Speed, he told Titian J. Coffey, the U.S. assistant attorney general, was "a man I know well, though not so well as I know his brother Joshua. That, however, is not strange, for I slept with Joshua for four years, and I suppose I ought to know him." I simply cannot believe that, if the early relationship between Joshua Speed and Lincoln had been sexual, the President of the United States would so freely and publicly speak of it. In my judgment, these two young men were simply close, warm friends, who came close to achieving Montaigne's definition of complete comradeship, a relationship in which "all things being by effect common between them: wills, thoughts, judgments, goods,...honour, and life." I do not know whether Speed had earlier, or subsequent, friendships of this nature, but it is clear that this was the first — and perhaps the only — time Lincoln had ever arrived at such a degree of intimacy with any other person.

IV

At the same time that Lincoln and Speed were living together, both men were eagerly trying to get married. They were in love with the idea of being in love. They were interested in any eligible woman and were so excited by the courtship game that they often felt, as Joshua wrote his sister, "like a tea kettle that is lifting its top and losing its contents by the constant boiling and evaporation." Both flirted with Sarah Rickard, the sixteen-year-old sister-in-law of William Butler, with whom they boarded. Lincoln's attentions to Sarah were probably not serious; after all, he was just extricating himself from what he considered an unsuitable connection with Mary Owens and was hardly likely to make the same mistake so quickly. But years later, Sarah remembered that he talked of marriage, offering "the accounts of the patriarch Abraham's marriage to Sarah" to support his cause. She brushed off his advances, saying she was too young to marry and that she thought of Lincoln "allmost like an older Brother." Speed was more deeply involved with the young woman and, after he left for Kentucky, asked Lincoln to report on Sarah's well-being.

But neither was very serious about Sarah because both were looking for brides in the best social circles in Springfield. It may seem preposterous to talk of social classes in a little town that had only about 1,500 residents, but there were exclusive groups, like that of the wealthy and influential Ninian W. Edwards, who owned a large mansion in the southern part of Springfield and who, with his wife, Elizabeth, gave elaborate and fashionable parties. Speed, because of his wealth, his distinguished lineage, and his personal charm, was welcomed in these elite circles. He was, as Herndon said, "a lady's man in a good and true sense."

Acceptance of Lincoln was more problematical because he seemed so rough and socially maladroit. He wanted to meet women, but after his first month in Springfield, he complained that only one had even spoken to him. But presently he too began to get invitations. Everybody in Springfield was aware that he was a coming man. One of the "Long Nine" representatives — so called because they were all very tall — who had lobbied successfully to transfer the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield, he was already a figure of political importance. And it was no secret that he had moved from New Salem to Springfield to become the law partner of John Todd Stuart, one of the most prominent attorneys in the city, who was closely connected to the Edwards circle.

The two bachelors met young women primarily at the Saturday soirées at the Edwards mansion. Elizabeth Edwards was a matchmaker. She had already helped two of her sisters find eligible husbands, and she welcomed a third, Mary Todd, when she came for a long visit. Ninian Edwards also had relatives visiting from time to time, such as the beautiful and pious Matilda Edwards. Mary and Matilda formed "the grand centre of attraction" in Springfield society, as James C. Conkling wrote. "Swarms of strangers who had little else to engage their attention hovered around them, to catch a passing smile."

Young women in the Edwards circle thought Speed handsome, romantic, and highly eligible. He flirted with many but centered his attention on Matilda. By December 1840, Mary Todd shrewdly observed that Speed's "ever changing heart...is about offering its young affections at [Matilda's] shrine." He seems to have been genuinely in love, but, even though Ninian Edwards favored the match, she refused him. Possibly she suspected that he was a roué. Many years later, he himself spread the highly improbable rumor that he was at this very time keeping a pretty young girl in Springfield. Whatever the reason, he tried to rationalize his failure. "I endeavor to persuade myself that there is more pleasure in pursuit of any object, than there is in its possession," he wrote his sister. "This general rule I wish now most particularly to apply to women. I have been most anxiously in pursuit of one — and...if my philosophy be true I am to be most enviably felicitous, for I may have as much of the anticipation and pursuit as I please, but the possession I can hardly ever hope to realize."

Meanwhile, Lincoln concentrated his attention on Mary Todd. They were, as Mrs. Edwards recalled, an odd couple. When they were together, "Mary led the conversation — Lincoln would listen and gaze on her as if drawn by some superior power, irresistably [sic] so." He "could not hold a lengthy conversation with a lady — was not sufficiently educated and intelligent in the female line to do so," she remembered, but he "was charmed with Mary's wit and fascinated with her quick sagacity — her will — her nature — and culture."

As Lincoln and Speed played the mating game, they naturally exchanged confidences. Henry David Thoreau once remarked that friends "cherish each other's hopes. They are kind to each other's dreams." Both of these young men thought they wanted to marry, but they had forebodings, probably related to doubts about their sexual adequacy. Charles Strozier, the psychohistorian, believes it is possible that both were virgins. Lincoln's anxiety may also have referred to a fear of losing autonomy; he had never been intimate with any woman or, indeed, except for Speed, with any other person. Also, he and Speed shared what Lincoln called "the peculiar misfortune" of dreaming "dreams of Elysium far exceeding all that any thing earthly can realize," and they recognized that marriage might mean disappointment.

While Speed's pursuit of Matilda Edwards failed, Lincoln's courtship of Mary Todd advanced almost too rapidly. He first wrote to her in the fall of 1840, when he was in southern Illinois campaigning for the Whig presidential ticket headed by General William Henry Harrison, and when he returned to Springfield, the ties between them grew stronger. He became one of her regular attendants at parties, on horseback rides, on jaunts to neighboring towns. By the winter of 1840, they were engaged.

Once Lincoln made the commitment, however, he began to have doubts. With no regular income except a beginning law practice, he was not sure he could afford a wife and family. Maybe he was not ready for marriage. Maybe Mary was not the right one for him. He shared his doubts with Speed, who considered them "foolish." Unpersuaded, Lincoln wrote Mary Todd a letter breaking off the engagement. When Speed saw it, he told Lincoln to burn it. Saying, "Once put your words in writing and they Stand as a living and eternal Monument against you," he advised Lincoln: "If you think you have will and Manhood Enough to go and see her and Speak to her what you say in that letter, you may do that."

Lincoln did go to see Mary and told her that he did not love her. She broke into tears. To comfort her, he drew her down onto his knees and kissed her. When he got back to his room, he told his friend what had happened, and Speed said it was "a bad lick, but it cannot now be helped." They assumed the engagement still held, and in the next week or so in the new year, Lincoln continued to go about his business in the state legislature.

But at about the same time he learned that Speed was going to return permanently to Kentucky. Perhaps Matilda Edwards's rejection precipitated Speed's decision to leave Springfield, but it could hardly have been unexpected. The death of his father in the spring of 1840 left his family desolate, and Speed wrote to his mother: "If it would be any consolation to you in your affliction to have me with you, you have only to let me know and I will be with you and shed with you 'tear for tear.'" She did want him at home, and Speed made arrangements to sell his share of the general store on what Lincoln later called "that fatal first of Jany. '41." While attempting to cope with this news, Lincoln received a letter from Mary, who had been brooding over his reason for asking to be released from their engagement. Believing that he was in love with another woman — probably Matilda Edwards — she accepted his decision, letting him know "that she would hold the question an open one — that is that She had not Changed her mind, but felt as always."

The news devastated Lincoln. Though he had earlier longed to end his commitment to Mary Todd, he now began to suspect — just as he had after Mary Owens turned him down — that he loved her more than he had thought. Even more important, he was haunted by "the never-absent idea" that he had made Mary unhappy. "That still kills my soul," he told Speed. "I cannot but reproach myself, for even wishing to be happy while she is otherwise." All this vacillation cost him confidence in his ability to keep his resolves once they were made, which was, he wrote Speed, "the only, or at least the chief, gem of my character."

Losing both his only intimate friend and his fiancée within a matter of days was more than Lincoln could bear, and he collapsed. Taking to his bed for about a week, he was unwilling to see anyone except his doctor and Speed, who had not yet left for Kentucky. Years later, Speed said he thought Lincoln might commit suicide and felt obliged "to remove razors from his room — take away all knives and other such dangerous things." Speed's fears were unwarranted, but they indicate how deeply he was implicated in Lincoln's affairs and anxieties.

Deeply troubled, Speed warned Lincoln that he would die unless he got a grip on himself. Lincoln responded that he was not afraid of dying — indeed, that he would be more than willing to die, but for his regret "that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived" and that he had not done anything to make the world better for having lived in it.

Just what specific advice Speed offered his friend is unknown, but my guess is that he told Lincoln that he should either end his relationship with Mary Todd or marry her. Lincoln acknowledged the correctness of the advice but could not act on it. Unable to make a choice, he was, as he wrote his law partner, John T. Stuart, "the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth." More than a year later, he still could not decide. "Before I resolve to do the one thing or the other," he confessed to Speed, "I must regain my confidence in my own ability to keep my resolves when they are made."

Copyright © 2003 by David Herbert Donald

From Chapter Two: "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."

I

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.

II

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."

III

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. There is an extensive correspondence between Lincoln and Speed during the 1840s (consisting almost entirely of Lincoln's letters to Speed; Speed's replies have to be conjectured from Lincoln's responses), but, unlike the letters between other enamored males that have been preserved, they are totally lacking in expressions of warm affection. To be sure, Lincoln closed one of his letters, "Yours forever" — but this was the same phrase he used in writing to his law partner and to an Illinois congressman.

The evidence is fragmentary and complex, but my judgment is strongly influenced by the opinion of Charles B. Strozier, the psychoanalyst and historian, who concludes that if the friendship had been sexual Lincoln would have become a different man. He would, Dr. Strozier writes me, have been "a bisexual at best, torn between worlds, full of shame, confused, and hardly likely to end up in politics." What finally convinced me that the relationship between Speed and Lincoln was not a sexual one is an anecdote from late 1864, when Lincoln found it necessary to replace his attorney general and chose Joshua's brother, James Speed. James Speed, he told Titian J. Coffey, the U.S. assistant attorney general, was "a man I know well, though not so well as I know his brother Joshua. That, however, is not strange, for I slept with Joshua for four years, and I suppose I ought to know him." I simply cannot believe that, if the early relationship between Joshua Speed and Lincoln had been sexual, the President of the United States would so freely and publicly speak of it. In my judgment, these two young men were simply close, warm friends, who came close to achieving Montaigne's definition of complete comradeship, a relationship in which "all things being by effect common between them: wills, thoughts, judgments, goods,...honour, and life." I do not know whether Speed had earlier, or subsequent, friendships of this nature, but it is clear that this was the first — and perhaps the only — time Lincoln had ever arrived at such a degree of intimacy with any other person.

IV

At the same time that Lincoln and Speed were living together, both men were eagerly trying to get married. They were in love with the idea of being in love. They were interested in any eligible woman and were so excited by the courtship game that they often felt, as Joshua wrote his sister, "like a tea kettle that is lifting its top and losing its contents by the constant boiling and evaporation." Both flirted with Sarah Rickard, the sixteen-year-old sister-in-law of William Butler, with whom they boarded. Lincoln's attentions to Sarah were probably not serious; after all, he was just extricating himself from what he considered an unsuitable connection with Mary Owens and was hardly likely to make the same mistake so quickly. But years later, Sarah remembered that he talked of marriage, offering "the accounts of the patriarch Abraham's marriage to Sarah" to support his cause. She brushed off his advances, saying she was too young to marry and that she thought of Lincoln "allmost like an older Brother." Speed was more deeply involved with the young woman and, after he left for Kentucky, asked Lincoln to report on Sarah's well-being.

But neither was very serious about Sarah because both were looking for brides in the best social circles in Springfield. It may seem preposterous to talk of social classes in a little town that had only about 1,500 residents, but there were exclusive groups, like that of the wealthy and influential Ninian W. Edwards, who owned a large mansion in the southern part of Springfield and who, with his wife, Elizabeth, gave elaborate and fashionable parties. Speed, because of his wealth, his distinguished lineage, and his personal charm, was welcomed in these elite circles. He was, as Herndon said, "a lady's man in a good and true sense."

Acceptance of Lincoln was more problematical because he seemed so rough and socially maladroit. He wanted to meet women, but after his first month in Springfield, he complained that only one had even spoken to him. But presently he too began to get invitations. Everybody in Springfield was aware that he was a coming man. One of the "Long Nine" representatives — so called because they were all very tall — who had lobbied successfully to transfer the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield, he was already a figure of political importance. And it was no secret that he had moved from New Salem to Springfield to become the law partner of John Todd Stuart, one of the most prominent attorneys in the city, who was closely connected to the Edwards circle.

The two bachelors met young women primarily at the Saturday soirées at the Edwards mansion. Elizabeth Edwards was a matchmaker. She had already helped two of her sisters find eligible husbands, and she welcomed a third, Mary Todd, when she came for a long visit. Ninian Edwards also had relatives visiting from time to time, such as the beautiful and pious Matilda Edwards. Mary and Matilda formed "the grand centre of attraction" in Springfield society, as James C. Conkling wrote. "Swarms of strangers who had little else to engage their attention hovered around them, to catch a passing smile."

Young women in the Edwards circle thought Speed handsome, romantic, and highly eligible. He flirted with many but centered his attention on Matilda. By December 1840, Mary Todd shrewdly observed that Speed's "ever changing heart...is about offering its young affections at [Matilda's] shrine." He seems to have been genuinely in love, but, even though Ninian Edwards favored the match, she refused him. Possibly she suspected that he was a roué. Many years later, he himself spread the highly improbable rumor that he was at this very time keeping a pretty young girl in Springfield. Whatever the reason, he tried to rationalize his failure. "I endeavor to persuade myself that there is more pleasure in pursuit of any object, than there is in its possession," he wrote his sister. "This general rule I wish now most particularly to apply to women. I have been most anxiously in pursuit of one — and...if my philosophy be true I am to be most enviably felicitous, for I may have as much of the anticipation and pursuit as I please, but the possession I can hardly ever hope to realize."

Meanwhile, Lincoln concentrated his attention on Mary Todd. They were, as Mrs. Edwards recalled, an odd couple. When they were together, "Mary led the conversation — Lincoln would listen and gaze on her as if drawn by some superior power, irresistably [sic] so." He "could not hold a lengthy conversation with a lady — was not sufficiently educated and intelligent in the female line to do so," she remembered, but he "was charmed with Mary's wit and fascinated with her quick sagacity — her will — her nature — and culture."

As Lincoln and Speed played the mating game, they naturally exchanged confidences. Henry David Thoreau once remarked that friends "cherish each other's hopes. They are kind to each other's dreams." Both of these young men thought they wanted to marry, but they had forebodings, probably related to doubts about their sexual adequacy. Charles Strozier, the psychohistorian, believes it is possible that both were virgins. Lincoln's anxiety may also have referred to a fear of losing autonomy; he had never been intimate with any woman or, indeed, except for Speed, with any other person. Also, he and Speed shared what Lincoln called "the peculiar misfortune" of dreaming "dreams of Elysium far exceeding all that any thing earthly can realize," and they recognized that marriage might mean disappointment.

While Speed's pursuit of Matilda Edwards failed, Lincoln's courtship of Mary Todd advanced almost too rapidly. He first wrote to her in the fall of 1840, when he was in southern Illinois campaigning for the Whig presidential ticket headed by General William Henry Harrison, and when he returned to Springfield, the ties between them grew stronger. He became one of her regular attendants at parties, on horseback rides, on jaunts to neighboring towns. By the winter of 1840, they were engaged.

Once Lincoln made the commitment, however, he began to have doubts. With no regular income except a beginning law practice, he was not sure he could afford a wife and family. Maybe he was not ready for marriage. Maybe Mary was not the right one for him. He shared his doubts with Speed, who considered them "foolish." Unpersuaded, Lincoln wrote Mary Todd a letter breaking off the engagement. When Speed saw it, he told Lincoln to burn it. Saying, "Once put your words in writing and they Stand as a living and eternal Monument against you," he advised Lincoln: "If you think you have will and Manhood Enough to go and see her and Speak to her what you say in that letter, you may do that."

Lincoln did go to see Mary and told her that he did not love her. She broke into tears. To comfort her, he drew her down onto his knees and kissed her. When he got back to his room, he told his friend what had happened, and Speed said it was "a bad lick, but it cannot now be helped." They assumed the engagement still held, and in the next week or so in the new year, Lincoln continued to go about his business in the state legislature.

But at about the same time he learned that Speed was going to return permanently to Kentucky. Perhaps Matilda Edwards's rejection precipitated Speed's decision to leave Springfield, but it could hardly have been unexpected. The death of his father in the spring of 1840 left his family desolate, and Speed wrote to his mother: "If it would be any consolation to you in your affliction to have me with you, you have only to let me know and I will be with you and shed with you 'tear for tear.'" She did want him at home, and Speed made arrangements to sell his share of the general store on what Lincoln later called "that fatal first of Jany. '41." While attempting to cope with this news, Lincoln received a letter from Mary, who had been brooding over his reason for asking to be released from their engagement. Believing that he was in love with another woman — probably Matilda Edwards — she accepted his decision, letting him know "that she would hold the question an open one — that is that She had not Changed her mind, but felt as always."

The news devastated Lincoln. Though he had earlier longed to end his commitment to Mary Todd, he now began to suspect — just as he had after Mary Owens turned him down — that he loved her more than he had thought. Even more important, he was haunted by "the never-absent idea" that he had made Mary unhappy. "That still kills my soul," he told Speed. "I cannot but reproach myself, for even wishing to be happy while she is otherwise." All this vacillation cost him confidence in his ability to keep his resolves once they were made, which was, he wrote Speed, "the only, or at least the chief, gem of my character."

Losing both his only intimate friend and his fiancée within a matter of days was more than Lincoln could bear, and he collapsed. Taking to his bed for about a week, he was unwilling to see anyone except his doctor and Speed, who had not yet left for Kentucky. Years later, Speed said he thought Lincoln might commit suicide and felt obliged "to remove razors from his room — take away all knives and other such dangerous things." Speed's fears were unwarranted, but they indicate how deeply he was implicated in Lincoln's affairs and anxieties.

Deeply troubled, Speed warned Lincoln that he would die unless he got a grip on himself. Lincoln responded that he was not afraid of dying — indeed, that he would be more than willing to die, but for his regret "that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived" and that he had not done anything to make the world better for having lived in it.

Just what specific advice Speed offered his friend is unknown, but my guess is that he told Lincoln that he should either end his relationship with Mary Todd or marry her. Lincoln acknowledged the correctness of the advice but could not act on it. Unable to make a choice, he was, as he wrote his law partner, John T. Stuart, "the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth." More than a year later, he still could not decide. "Before I resolve to do the one thing or the other," he confessed to Speed, "I must regain my confidence in my own ability to keep my resolves when they are made."

Copyright © 2003 by David Herbert Donald

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS

PREFACE

I "A STRANGE, FRIENDLESS, UNEDUCATED, PENNILESS BOY":

Lincoln's Early Friendships

II "HE DISCLOSED HIS WHOLE HEART TO ME":

Lincoln and Joshua F. Speed

III "I COULD READ HIS SECRETS":

Lincoln and William H. Herndon

IV "A CLOSE, WARM, AND SINCERE FRIENDSHIP":

Lincoln and Orville H. Browning

V "BEYOND THE PALE OF HUMAN ENVY":

Lincoln and William H. Seward

VI "ABRAHAM REX":

Lincoln and His Private Secretaries

AFTERWORD

NOTES

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

INDEX

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 4 of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2004

    recommended read

    I liked this biography on Lincoln but I felt that although it was enjoyable and a an easy read, because of the lack of documentation in order to really uncover anything uknown to the readers it wasn't really necessary to write about. Its not as if Lincoln kept a journal we could interpret differently from or that the stories of his different friends were really any different than what we heard before. But on the positive end I give it a thumbs up because its fresh and new. The author gives different perspectives and scenarios and unlike other biographys it leaves a lot of politics out and sticks straight to the subject of friendships.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2005

    A Misguided Point of View

    David¿s confusion about Lincoln¿s sexuality is shown by his going back and forth on the question of whether Abe was in love with Anne Rutledge. At present he seems to deny the legend, which he endorsed a few years ago when Douglas Wilson revived it, having previously followed his mentor J. G. Randall in denying it. Talk about Senator Kerry-like flip-flopping. David, to all appearance a Kinsey ¿O,¿ is obviously even more at sea about homosexuality. He quoted the obnoxious remark made by Charles B. Strozier (a type who would have fascinated Cesare Lombroso) that a homosexual (or bisexual, in the case of Lincoln) couldn¿t have led the war or even gone into politics. Have they forgotten Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar? Did they never hear about their bisexuality? But Donald did for a time acknowledge a homoerotic bond between Abe and Joshua though he made the outrageous claim to me that no single American president ever had sex with another male. When I put C.A. Tripp in contact with David Donald, whom I described to Tripp as the leading Lincoln scholar, I warned him that however much he might learn from David, he could not even hope that David would accept the thesis that Abe had homosexual experiences, and I predicted that David would write a preemptive strike. It duly appeared: We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends. John Lauritsen, an aesthete of unrivaled sensitivity, tells me that in We Are Lincoln Men David writes on two levels: one for the public (¿the great unwashed¿), who couldn¿t bear to learn that some presidents were gay and on another for the initiates, when he describes the banter between Abe and his hardened male secretaries, which borders on camp. At any rate, David certainly notes the electric homoeroticism.

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