Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends

We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends

by David Herbert Donald

See All Formats & Editions

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 Abraham Lincoln had hundreds of acquaintances and dozens of admirers, he had almost no intimate


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 Abraham 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.

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.
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
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.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Herbert Donald is the author of We Are Lincoln Men, Lincoln, which won the prestigious Lincoln Prize and was on the New York Times bestseller list for fourteen weeks, and 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.

Brief Biography

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

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews