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The Boys: Joshua F. Speed (1814-1882)

"In 1837, after his return from the legislature, Mr. Lincoln obtained a license to practice law," recalled the man who was probably Mr. Lincoln's closest friend, Joshua F. Speed. "He lived fourteen miles in the country, and had ridden into town on a borrowed horse, with no earthly goods but a pair of saddle-bags, two or three law books, and some clothing which he had in the saddle-bags," recalled Joshua Speed. "He came into my store (I was a merchant then), set his saddle-bags on the counter, and asked me 'what the furniture for a single bedstead would cost.'"1

Speed had started the general store three years earlier. "I took slate and pencil, and made calculation, and found the sum for furniture complete, would amount to seventeen dollars in all. Said he, 'It is probably cheap enough; but I want to say that cheap as it is I have not 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. If I fail in that I will probably never be able to pay you at all. 'The tone of his voice was so melancholy that I felt for him. I looked up at him, and I thought then as I think now, that I never saw so gloomy, and melancholy a face," Speed later wrote.2

"I said to him; 'The contraction of a small a debt, seems to affect you so deeply, I think I can suggest a plan by which you will be able to attain your end, without incurring any debt. 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'? asked he. 'Upstairs' said I, pointing to the stairs leading from the store to my room. Without saying a word, he took his saddle-bags on his arm, went up stairs, set them down on the floor, came down again, and with a face beaming with pleasure and smiles exclaimed 'Well Speed I'm moved'. Mr. Lincoln was then twenty-seven years old, almost without friends, and with no property except the saddle-bags with clothes mentioned within," Speed reported.3 For the next three and a half years, Speed and Mr. Lincoln shared the upper room over the store.

"Mr. Lincoln was then twenty-eight years old - a lawyer without a client, no money, all his earthly wealth consisting of the clothes he wore and the contents of his saddlebags," Speed wrote several decades later. "For me to have seen him rise from this humble position, step by step, till he reached the Presidency - holding the reins of government in as trying times as any government ever had - accomplishing more during the four years of his administration than any man had ever done - keeping the peace with all foreign nations under most trying circumstances - putting down the most gigantic rebellion ever known - assassinated at fifty-six years of age - borne to his final resting place in Illinois, amid the tears of the nation and of the civilized world, and even his former foes in arms acknowledging they had lost their best friend - seems more like a fable than fact."4

"Til 1842 no two men were ever more intimate," Speed told an early biographer. Our friendship and intimacy closed only with his life."5 It was a traumatic event for Mr. Lincoln when Speed sold the store and moved back to Kentucky January 1, 1841 - the day Lincoln was to have married Mary Todd. In Kentucky where his family were slave-owners, he married Fanny Henning in 1842 and corresponded with Lincoln about his love life while speculating in land around Springfield.

Speed's store was a political crossroads in Springfield. One evening at there, the usual mixture of Democrats and Whigs engaged in a spirited political conversation. It was decided that the discussion should be taken to a broader audience and a debate was arranged between Democrats Stephen Douglas, Calhoun, Josiah Lamborn and Jesse B. Thomas with Whigs Edward D. Baker, Orville H. Browning, Stephen T. Logan, and Mr. Lincoln They met at the Presbyterian Church with each evening featuring one speaker. "Lincoln occupied the last evening, and although the people by that time had necessarily grown a little tired of the monotony and well-worn repetition, yet Lincoln's manner of presenting his thoughts and answering his Democratic excited renewed interest," wrote William H. Herndon.6

Mr. Lincoln was linked to Speed in many ways. Joshua Speed may have proposed to Matilda Edwards in 1839 and was probably a rival of Lincoln's for her affections. Historian Douglas L. Wilson wrote that "the testimony of several well-connected witnesses depicts Speed as another of Matilda's suitors during that fateful winter, and the question naturally arises; were these intimate friends rivals for the hand of the same woman? This would seem to be too colorful a circumstance to have escaped notice and comment, but no testimony to this effect is known. James C. Conkling came close in his letter to Mercy Ann Levering, when he seemed to link the news of Lincoln's debility in January [1841] to the imminent departure of Speed. Elizabeth Todd Edwards certainly implied a connection between Speed's being turned down and his departure: 'Mr. Speed came [to the Edwards home] to see Miss Matilda Edwards - left & two friends may have come about not so much because they had been in active competition as because they had suffered the same fate, a common failure to gain the affections of Matilda Edwards."7 In his letter, Conkling had written:
Poor L! How are the mighty fallen! He was confined about a week, but though he now appears again he is reduced and emaciated in appearance and seems scarcely to possess strength enough tp speak above a whisper. His case at present is truly deplorable but what prospects there may be for ultimate relief I cannot pretend to say. I doubt not but he can declare 'That loving is a painful thrill. And not to love more painful still' but would not like to intimate that he has experienced 'That surely 'tis the worst of pain, To love and not be loved again.'
And Joshua too is about to leave. I do not know what dreadful blow may be inflicted upon the interests of our State by his departure. But having taken a very prominent part in the last political canvass I really fear that great convulsions and tumult will follow for want of his superintending care and protection.8


Because their friendship continued unabated, Wilson concluded that "neither man was seriously considered by Matilda Edwards." Wilson wrote: "The strong survival of their friendship, and especially Lincoln's extraordinary solicitude for Speed the following year, make it clear that no discernible or lasting ill effects resulted from their being in love with the same woman. If anything, their common failure seems to have made them closer."9

William Herndon suggested that Speed and Lincoln had relations with women of less than honorable reputations.10 According to Herndon, "Speed was a lady's man in a good and true sense. Lincoln only went to see a few women of the first class, women of sense." But Speed played an honorable role in Mr. Lincoln's relations with his future wife. "We know from [Speed's] testimony and Lincoln's own letters that Speed acted as Lincoln's confidant and adviser in the affair with Mary Todd," wrote historian Douglas Wilson. "Their letters show that Lincoln and Speed regarded themselves no only as close friends but as something like soul mates, psychologically and temperamentally very much in tune. Like Lincoln, Speed combined a keen mind with a conspicuous streak of poetic tenderness."11

Psychobiographer Edward J. Kempf wrote: "Speed knew that Lincoln had been more deeply interested in Mary Todd than any other living woman, and would have loved, honored and married her had she respectfully honored his self-respect during their engagement. He still believed, even so, that Mary and Lincoln were well suited to each other and wanted to see them married. Upon Lincoln's visit to Louisville Speed learned that he was much improved in health but still unhappy over the way he had managed his affair with Mary. Taking upon himself the delicate task of acting as love's emissary Speed tactfully began to let each know that the other still regretted, under the crust of egotistical pride, having offended the other's self-respect.12

But the relationship between Mr. Lincoln included discussions of more spiritual topics over the course of their long relationship in which Mr. Lincoln moved closer to conventional religious faith. Mr. Lincoln visited Speed in August 1841 and spent three weeks with the Speed clan. Mr. Lincoln, whom Speed later said was "moody & hypchondriac", met James Speed, his future Attorney General, and engaged in long political discussions.13 Speed returned with him to Springfield. "Speed remembered Lincoln's mood upon his arrival as 'very melancholy.' Lucy Speed, Joshua's mother observed Lincoln one day and was 'pained at his deep depression.' She decided to give Lincoln an Oxford edition of the King James Bible," wrote religious history professor Ronald C. White, Jr. "In a letter to Herndon in 1866, Speed recalled how his mother had spoken to his friend about the Bible, 'advising him to read it - to adopt its precepts and pray for its promises.'" As President, Mr. Lincoln sent Mrs. Speed a requested photograph with the note: "For Mrs. Lucy G. Speed, from whose pious hand I accepted the present of an Oxford Bible twenty years ago."14

Speed continued to worry about Mr. Lincoln's mental health after he left for Kentucky. He wrote William Butler on May 18, 1841: "I am glad to hear from Mrs Butler that Lincoln is on the mend. Say to him that I have had but one attack since I left Springfield and that was on the river as I came here - I am not as happy as I could be and yet so much happier than I deserve to be that I think I ought to be satisfied ".15 According to historian Douglas L. Wilson, "Here we see how their 'hypochondriaism' was regarded by Speed and Lincoln as a bond between them, and we see further that Speed represents himself to Butler as being happier than he deserved to be."16

Joshua Speed was leaned on for personal and romantic advice. "How miserably things seem to be arranged in this world! If we have no friends, we have no pleasure; and if we have them, we are sure to lose them, and be doubly pained by the loss," Mr. Lincoln complained in an 1842 letter to Speed after he had returned to Kentucky and married.17 Speed served one term in the Kentucky legislature (1848-1849), owned a farm and grew prosperous in real estate.

Speed and Mr. Lincoln delighted in each other joys and shared each others doubts, worries and depressions. Mr. Lincoln worried about Speed's happiness and rejoiced in Speed's relationship with his fiancee Fanny Henning. In order to sooth Speed's marital concerns, Lincoln wrote him: "I now have no doubt that it is the peculiar misfortune of both you and me to dream dreams of Elysium far exceeding all that anything earthly can realize. Far short of your dreams as you may be, no woman could do more to realize them than that same black-eyed Fanny."18

There correspondence in this period centered on their romantic confusion. "It was when the flame of love was lighted that Speed and Lincoln's friendship reached its tenderest beauty. They shared with each other their intimacies and doubts. It was perhaps Speed who first introduced Lincoln in the Ninian W. Edwards home which resulted in his courtship of Mary Todd," wrote Speed chronicler Robert Kincaid. "When the romance had culminated in an engagement, only to be broken on that 'fatal first of January,' 1841, it was Speed who burned Lincoln's letter breaking the engagement and compelled him to go and face his fiancee in person. It was Speed who was most concerned at the subsequent melancholy which almost drove his friend to suicide. 'I am now the most miserable man living,' Lincoln had written to [John] Stuart, his law-partner, then away in Congress, and "If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.'"19

A year later on February 3, 1842, Mr. Lincoln wrote Speed: "You well know that I do not feel my own sorrows much more keenly than I do yours, when I know of them: and yet I assure you I was not much hurt by what you wrote me of your excessively bad feeling at the time you wrote. Not that I am less capable of sympathising with you now than ever; not that I am less your friend than ever, but because I hope and believe, that your present anxiety and distress about her health and her life, must and will forever banish those horid doubts, which I know you sometimes felt, as to the truth of your affection for her."20

On February 13, Mr. Lincoln again wrote Speed: "You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting -- that I will never cease, while I know how to do any thing." The importance Mr. Lincoln placed on friends was revealed in a letter he wrote to Joshua Speed on February 25: "I regret to learn that you have resolved to not return to Illinois. I shall be verry lonesome without you. How miserably things seem to be arranged in this world. If we have no friends, we have no pleasure; and if we have them, we are sure to lose them, and be doubly pained by the loss. I did hope she and you would make your home here; but I own I have no right to insist. You owe obligations to her, ten thousands times more sacred that any you can owe to others; and, in that light, let them be respected and observed. It is natural that she should desire to remain with her relatives and friends. As to friends, however, she could not need them any where; she would have them in abundance here."21

Mr. Lincoln apparently indicated to Speed that a son would be named for him. In 1843, Mr. Lincoln wrote Speed: "We had a meeting of the Whigs here on last Monday to appoint delegates to a district convention, and Baker beat me & got the delegation instructed to go for him. The meeting, in spite of my attempt to decline it, appointed me one of the delegates; so that in getting Baker the nomination, I shall be "fixed" a good deal like a fellow who is made groomsman to the man what has cut him out, and is marrying his own dear "gal." About the prospect of your having a namesake at our house cant say, exactly yet."22

Distance and marriage obviously affected the friendship with Speed and this disturbed Mr. Lincoln. Three years later, he wrote Speed a letter concerning legal work he was doing: "You no doubt, assign the suspension of our correspondence to the true philosophical cause, though it must confessed, by both of us, that this is rather a cold reason for allowing a friendship, such as ours, to die by degrees. I propose now, that, on the receipt of this, you shall be considered in my debt, and under obligation to pay soon, and that neither shall remain long in arrears hereafter. Are you agreed?"23

They continued their occasional correspondence and Mr. Lincoln used these letters to explain his attitudes toward slavery. In August 1855, Mr. Lincoln devoted a long letter to the subject of slavery - especially the continuing crisis in Kansas. He began with a personal note, however: "I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union."sup>24

Mr. Lincoln confided things to Speed that he could not tell anyone else - particularly not his Illinois friends and allies. "Being elected to Congress, though I am grateful to our friends for having done it, has not pleased me as much as I expected," Mr. Lincoln wrote Speed in October 1846.25

The friendship never died though it went somewhat into hibernation during the 1850s. The Civil War revived it. "I desire to tend you my since congratulations upon your elevation to the highest position in the world - by the sufrage of a free people - As a friend, I am rejoiced at your success - as a political opponent I am not disappointed - The result is what I expected," wrote Speed to President-elect Lincoln shortly after the 1860 election. "The eyes of the whole nation will be upon you while unfortunately the ears of one half of it will be closed to any thing you may say - How to deal with the combustible material lying around you without setting fire to the edifice of which we are all so proud and of which you will be the Chief Custodian is a difficult task". Speed went on to offer to share his views and opinions of the impending conflict in person if "agreeable to you" and deny that he had any desire for a patronage position.26

Mr. Lincoln relied on Speed and his brother James to help with the Administration's policy in Kentucky. "During his whole administration he never requested me to do any thing except in my own State - and never much in that - except to advise him as to what measures and policy would be most conducive to the growth of a healthy Union Sentiment in the State," Speed later wrote. Early in the Civil War, Speed took an active role in helping the President arm Union partisans in Kentucky. Speed wrote President Lincoln in early June 1861:
"I am informed by letter from Capt. Wm Nelson that the arms intended for the Union men in Ky have been entirely exhausted salutary influence upon the party in Ky Giving strength and confidence to our friends and weakening our foes We are fast getting them on the hip The arms are distributed only to such men know to be reliable and who will swear to Support the Constitution of the United States - If the good work can go on without bloodshed or violence we will have Ky all right So far, we have beaten them at their own game Thereby hangs a tale Our Governor borrowed $60,000 from the Banks and dispatched an agent (Blackburn) to New Orleans to buy arms He's dispatched to this city that he has made a purchase of Arms and that they would soon be here Each secessionist looked to be a foot taller talked loud and boastfully of what they intended to do
The arms at length arrived when l & behold they were old flint lock muskets altered to percussion in altering them they had omitted to bore a touch hole They could load them very well but d--n the one would go off
This was not the best of the joke it is now known that the Guns belong to some Yankee and entrusted to George Saunders to sell who had offered them at $1.25 each & could not find a purchaser They now sold to our Governor at $8.50 each the agent I suppose pocketing the difference. The joke was so good a one that the lovers of fun could not keep it.
Let us of the Union party then I pray you be supplied with arms
If we have them there will be no necessity for their use If we don't have them we will in all probability have to run the gauntlet for our lives.
We will elect 10 Union men to Congress in June and in August carry the Legislature by an overwhelming majority 27

On one of Speed's visits to the White House in late 1862 Mr. Lincoln discussed emancipation with him. Although Speed opposed emancipation, President Lincoln "seemed to treat it as certain that I would recognize the wisdom of the act when I should see the harvest of good we would glean from it." After recalling his suicidal state in 1841, Mr. Lincoln "said to me that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived - and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day & generation and so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for."28

Eventually, in late 1864, President Lincoln appointed brother James Speed as his attorney general to succeed Edward Bates, who like Speed was from a border state. Mr. Lincoln held hostage his signature on the confirmation of Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase until recalcitrant Senators confirmed Speed.29

Joshua Speed himself visited the White House less than two months before the President was assassinated. Speed remained an unabashed admirer of Mr. Lincoln. Over a decade after his death, Speed wrote that Mr. Lincoln "never lost the nobility of his nature, not the kindness of his heart, by being removed to a higher sphere of action. On the contrary both were increased. The enlarged sphere of his action, developed the natural promptings of his heart."30 Speed maintained: "Now for me to have lived to see such a man rise from point to point, and from place to place, filling all the places to which he was called, with honor and distinction, until he reached the presidency, filling the presidential chair in the most trying times that any ruler ever had, seems to me more like fiction than fact. None but a genius like his could have accomplished so much, and none but a government like ours could produce such a man. It gave the young eagle scope for his wing. He tried it and soared to the top!"sup>31

But as well as he knew President Lincoln, Speed never claimed to truly understand Mr. Lincoln. "Mr. Lincoln was so unlike all the men I had ever known before or see or known since that there is no one to whom I can Compare him," Speed wrote after Mr. Lincoln's death. "I once remarked to him that his mind was a wonder to me - That impressions were easily made upon his mind and never effaced - 'No said he you are mistaken - I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned - 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'."32

Speed wrote of an early incident that explained his Mr. Lincoln's character: "He was never ashamed so far as I know, to admit his ignorance upon any subject, or of the meaning of any word no matter how ridiculous it might make him appear. As he was riding into town the evening before the speech he passed the handsomest house in the village which had just been built by Geo. Forquer. Upon it had placed lightning rod. The first one in the town or country. Some ten or twelve young men were riding with Lincoln. He asked them what that rod was for. They told him it was keep off the lightning. 'How does it do it'? He asked. None of them could tell. He rode into town, bought a book on the properties of lightning, and before morning knew all about it. When he was ignorant upon any subject, he addressed himself to the task of being ignorant no longer."33

 

Footnotes

  1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndons Informants, p. 589 (Statement of Joshua F. Speed).
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndons Informants, p. 590 (Statement of Joshua F. Speed).
  3. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndons Informants, p. 590 (Statement of Joshua F. Speed).
  4. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 19 (Joshua F. Speed).
  5. Allen C. Guelzo, Hollands Informants: The Construction of Josiah Hollands Life of Abraham Lincoln, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 29 (Letter of Joshua F. Speed to Josiah G. Holland, June 22, 1865).
  6. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndons Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 153-154.
  7. Douglas L. Wilson, Honors Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, p. 245.
  8. Edward J. Kempf, Abraham Lincolns Philosophy of Common Sense: An Analytical Biography of a Great Mind, Volume I, p. 235.
  9. Douglas L. Wilson, Honors Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, p. 246-247.
  10. Douglas L. Wilson, Honors Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, p. 183.
  11. Douglas L. Wilson, Honors Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, 245.
  12. Edward J. Kempf, Abraham Lincolns Philosophy of Common Sense: An Analytical Biography of a Great Mind, Volume I, p. 241.
  13. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndons Informants, p. 158 (Letter of Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, January 12, 1866).
  14. Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincolns Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 109 (Roy P. Basler, editor,The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 546, Letter to Lucy G. Speed, October 3, 1861).
  15. Douglas L. Wilson, Honors Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, p. 124.
  16. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln Before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years, p. 124-125.
  17. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 281 (Letter to Joshua F. Speed, February 25, 1842).
  18. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 280 (Letter to Joshua F. Speed, February 25, 1842).
  19. Robert L. Kincaid, Joshua Fry Speed: Lincolns Most Intimate Friend, p. 14-15.
  20. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 267 (Letter to Joshua F. Speed, February 3, 1842).
  21. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 280 (Letter to Joshua F. Speed, February 25, 1842).
  22. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 319 (Letter to Joshua F. Speed, March 24. 1843).
  23. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 390 (Letter to Joshua F. Speed, October 22, 1846).
  24. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 320 (Letter to Joshua F. Speed, August 24, 1855).
  25. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 391 (Letter to Joshua F. Speed, October 22, 1846).
  26. David C. Mearns, editor, The Lincoln Papers, p. 313 (Letter from Joshua F. Speed to Abraham Lincoln, November 14, 1860).
  27. David C. Mearns, editor, The Lincoln Papers, p. 619-620 (Letter from Joshua Speed to Abraham Lincoln, May 27 1861).
  28. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndons Informants, (Letters of Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, February 7, 1866).
  29. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincolns Time, p. 175.
  30. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndons Informants, p. 590 (Statement of Joshua F. Speed, ca. 1882).
  31. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndons Informants, p. 589 (Statement of Joshua F. Speed, ca. 1882).
  32. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndons Informants, p. 499 (Letter of Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, December 6, 1866).
  33. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndons Informants, p. 589 (Statement of Joshua F. Speed, ca. 1882).