Limits of Friendship

“Friend” was an important concept for Mr. Lincoln. Writing his political autobiography in 1860, Lincoln recalled that after his business failed in New Salem, “He was now without means and out of business, but was anxious to remain with his friends who had treated him with so much generosity.”1 However, an 1854 editorial – which Mr. Lincoln probably wrote for the Illinois Journal but which referred to himself in the third person – suggests that Mr. Lincoln understood the limits of friendship.

Abraham Lincoln has a fine meadow, containing beautiful springs of water, and well fenced, which John Calhoun had agreed with Abraham (originally owning the land in common) should be his, and the agreement had been consummated in the most solemn manner, regarded by both as sacred….
John Calhoun then looks with a longing eye on Lincoln’s meadow, and goes to it and throws down the fences, and exposes it to the ravages of his starving and famishing cattle.
“You rascal,” says Lincoln, ‘what have you done? What do you do this for?”
“Oh,” replies Calhoun, “everything is right. I have taken down your fence; but nothing more. It is my true intent and meaning not to drive my cattle into your meadow, nor to exclude them therefrom, but to leave them perfectly free to form their own notions of the feed, and to direct their movements in their own way.”
“Now would not the man who committed this outrage be deemed both a knave and a fool – a knave in removing the restrictive fence, which he had solemnly pledged himself to sustain; and a fool in supposing that there could be one man found in the country to believe that he had not pulled down the fence for the purpose of opening the meadow for his cattle?”2

Nearly a decade later, a leading politician was employed to presume upon the President’s friendship. “Early in 1862 an old friend of President Lincoln’s, James Lamb, came to see me, stating that he had been furnishing beef cattle to the army; that he had received orders to furnish a given number on hoof at a certain place in the South, which he had done; but before his cattle arrived the army had gone, and he had thereby suffered great loss,” recalled Republican politician Shelby M. Cullom in his memoirs. “He asked me to look after his claim when I went to the National capital, and I agreed to do so. I knew nothing about such things in Washington, nor how such business with the Government was transacted. I went to the President as the only official with whom I was acquainted, and stated to him, ‘Uncle Jimmie Lamb, your old friend, has a claim,’ setting forth the same in full. ‘You know he is a good man I urged, ‘and he ought to have his money.’ Lincoln answered me by saying: ‘Cullom, there is this difference in dealing between two individuals and between an individual and the Government: if an individual does not do as he agreed and the other person is injured thereby, he can sue the one responsible for the injury, and recover damages; but in the case of the Government, if it does not do right, the individual can’t help himself.’ He gave me a note, however, to the proper officer and the matter was arranged.”3

Biographer William E. Barton wrote: “Lincoln was self-assertive to the point of arrogance. He made demands upon his friends which had no meaning except as he and they understood his position of superiority. The patient, humble Lincoln is known, or supposed to be known, to the world; but the men who really knew Lincoln knew a man so confident of his own powers, and so sure of his right to demand the loyalty and obedience of other men, that they never quite understood him. But they did his bidding.”4 Contemporaries noted with chagrin the limits of their influence over Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln was the conductor and they were the orchestra.

“Mr. Lincoln was not a man of strong attachments. He was the warm friend of few men but he was the true friend of Mankind. He loved Man as he loved his God Logically,” Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby wrote William Herndon in 1866. “Mr. Lincoln was never given to praise much – of any living man….he even spoke spareingly of men he did not like.”5 Erstwhile law partner John T. Stuart, wrote that Mr. Lincoln “did forget his friends – That there was no part of nature which drew him to do acts of gratitude to his friends.”6 Another law partner, William H. Herndon, was more perceptive and less jaded: “There was a curious streak in Lincoln and it was that of a seeming ingratitude. Lincoln came to this city in 1837, and Joshua F. Speed gratuitously took him into his room, gave him bed and house room etc. William Butler was a man of some wealth for the time, was successful in business, was making money, etc.; he took Lincoln to his house, gave him a bed, sleeping room, and boarded him from 1837 to 1842, when Lincoln got married to Miss Todd…Butler did not charge Lincoln one cent for the board for years, lodging, etc., etc.”7

Herndon betrayed some jealousy of the way Mr. Lincoln was treated and behaved. But he hits on an important point about the power of friendship in Mr. Lincoln’s life in one of his biographical memoranda: “No man ever had an easier time of it in his early days, in his boyish, in his young, struggles than Lincoln; he had always had influential and financial friends to help him; they almost fought each other for the privilege of assisting Lincoln; he was most certainly entitled to this respect. I have watched men and women closely in this matter. Lincoln was a pet, a faithful and an honest pet in this city; he deserved it. Lincoln was a poor man and must work his way up; he was ambitious, fired by it, it eclipsed his better nature, and when he used a man and sucked all the uses out of him, he would throw away the thing as an old orange peeling. This was not always the case, probably not Lincoln’s general rule.”8

Others testify that gratitude was actually a key to Mr. Lincoln’s relations. Before spending most of the Civil War in the Confederacy, George P. Floyd had met Mr. Lincoln in late 1850s in Illinois. In December1864, Floyd traveled to Washington in search of an appointment with the President to plea for protection of property he held there. He finally got to see a visibly exhausted President after trying for nearly a week. “Well, my friend, what can I do for you?” Mr. Lincoln asked. Floyd excused himself for troubling the President and “laid my papers before him. He commenced reading them. He had read but a few lines of General [Benjamin] Prentiss’ letter [of endorsement], when he jumped up, grasped my hand, and said: ‘Why, I have seen you before, sir; I remember you very well. I believe your wife saved my life when I was at Quincy in 1858. Yes, and I have taken that ‘rum sweat’ that she prescribed for me many times, and I have prescribed it for some of my friends. It has always been a dead shot.’ And quickly, as if the keeper of the lighthouse had lighted the beacon-light, the cloud lifted from his face, his eyes snapped, and his thoughts seemed to hark back to the bygone days of 1858.” He then asked Floyd to come back for tea that night.9

After his death, some of Mr. Lincoln’s associates remembered a distance which Mr. Lincoln kept with friends. Friend and fellow attorney Leonard Swett recalled that Mr. Lincoln “retained through life all the friends he ever had, and he made the wrath of his enemies to praise him. This was not by cunning or intrigue in the low acceptations of the term, but by far-seeing reason and discernment. He always told enough only, of his plans and purposes to induce the belief that he had communicated all; yet he reserved enough to have communicated nothing. He told all that was unimportant with a gushing frankness; yet no man ever kept his real purposes more closely, or penetrated the future with his deep designs.”10

Judge David Davis’s frustration in his relationship with the President is reflected in a statement he made in 1866: “Lincoln was a peculiar man,” said Davis. He never “asked my advice about anything – never took my advice….he asked no man advice – took, no mans advice.”11 Davis said: “He had no faith in any mans judgement.”12 Davis said Mr. Lincoln was the most “reticent” and “secretive” man that he knew.13 Davis’ close friend, Leonard Swett, seemed chagrined by Mr. Lincoln’s lack of reliance on his friends judgment. “From the commencement of his life to its close, I have sometimes doubted whether he ever asked anybody’s advice about anything. He would listen to everybody; he would hear everybody, but he never asked for opinions. I never knew him in trying a law-suit to ask the advice of any lawyer he was associated with. As a politician and as President he arrived at all his conclusions from his own reflections, and when his opinion was once formed he never had any doubt but what it was right.”14

After the President’s assassination Judge Davis told Orville H. Browning that Mr. Lincoln had ‘neither strong friendships nor enmities.”15 He told William Herndon: “I Know it was the general opinion in Washington that I knew about Lincolns though[t]s but I K[n]ew nothing. Lincoln never confided to me anything. He never told me a word on reconstruction….”16 Davis went to complain that Lincoln had “no spontaneity… no Strong Emotional feelings for any person. He never thanked me for any thing I did…”17 It was not a new opinion. In March 1864, Davis had written his friend William W. Orme, “Mr. Lincoln annoys me more than I can express, by his persistence in letting things take their course, without effort or organization when a combined organization in the Treasury Dept. is in antagonism ?”18

Davis also saw a softer side of Mr. Lincoln, writing his wife in November 1851, “Lincoln speaks very affectionately of his wife & children. He is a very warm hearted man.”19 In 1854, Davis wrote his 12-year-old son in school in Massachusetts: “I write you in the midst of a trial, and while Mr. Gridley is talking to the Jury – to be followed by Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln enquires for you affectionately, whenever I meet him. He recollects your ride with old Buck to Danville.'”20 Davis biographer Willard L. King wrote: “The following year, the Judge, recuperating over Sunday at Tremont after a week of the Pekin Court, wrote his son: ‘Mr. Lincoln is with me & sends his love to you. He says ‘Old Buck’ is alive. We don’t use buggies so much in travelling since railroads have come in vogue.'”21 In 1850, George and Sarah Davis had accompanied Judge Davis on the circuit – shortly after their baby daughter had suddenly died; Mrs. Davis had ridden in Davis’s buggy while young George Davis accompanied Mr. Lincoln and “Old Buck.”

Former Congressman Isaac Arnold wrote Herndon: “I rather agree with You – about Lincoln’s affection for men – if you mean personal attachments. He had warm friends though. But take men as a whole I think he thought better of them than they deserve. He had more faith in mankind, the masses than any other man I ever knew. He was never directly acquainted with the vice, corruption of our great cities – man as he knew him best on the frontier – was as Lincoln believed – disposed to do right – but in these great corrupt cities – there is always a large class far below Lincoln’s general Estimate of humanity.”22

Herndon wrote: “He was the most secretive- reticent – shut-mouthed man that ever lived.” Mr. Lincoln did consult with his friends – but he didn’t necessarily take their advice, help their clients, or give them the jobs they wanted. And the nature of his job as President required him to manipulate people whether they were Cabinet members, members of Congress, journalists or generals. For example, he manipulated Tribune editor Horace Greeley into taking a major role in the aborted peace negotiations in Niagara Falls in July 1864 – but still protected Greeley from the full impact of revelations of his naiveté.

“Notwithstanding Lincoln’s geniality he was a lonely man; for there was a remoteness and innate dignity about him that kept acquaintances at arm’s length. Most people addressed him as ‘Mr. Lincoln’ or ‘Lincoln,'” wrote historian Benjamin Thomas.23 Leonard Swett noted: “Some of Mr. Lincoln’s friends insisted that he lacked the strong attributes of personal affection which he ought to have exhibited. I think this is a mistake. Lincoln had too much justice to run a great government for a few favorites, and the complaints against him in this regard when properly digested amount to this, and no more: that he would not abuse the privileges of his situation.”24

Generally, Mr. Lincoln was in control. “He held his nerves in control beyond the possibility of any surprises that might come through his mental sympathetic make up,” wrote attorney Henry Rankin, who claimed to have read law in Mr. Lincoln’s office. “Under the most unusual and trying circumstances, he showed no embarrassment in his countenance, bodily movements, or deportment, be the occasion a public or private one. He maintained, without visible effort, an even serenity and composure. He was the master of Abraham Lincoln.”25

German-American leader Gustave Koerner felt that Mr. Lincoln was not “really capable of what might be called warm-hearted friendship.”26 William Herndon wrote: “Mr. Lincoln never had a confidant, and therefore never unbosomed himself to others. He never spoke of his trials to me or, so far as I knew, to any of his friends. It was a great burden to carry, but he bore it sadly enough and without a murmur. I could always realize when he was in distress, without being told. He was not exactly an early riser, that is he never usually appeared at the office till about nine o’clock in the morning. I usually preceded him an hour. Sometimes however, he would come down as early as seven o’clock – in fact, on one occasion I remember he came down before daylight. If, on arriving at the office, I found him in, I knew instantly that a breeze had sprung up over the domestic sea, and that the waters were troubled. He would either be lying on the lounge, looking skyward, or doubled up in a chair with his feet resting on the sill of a back window. He would not look up on my entering and only answered my ‘Good morning,’ with a grunt. I at once busied myself with pen and paper, or ran through the leaves of some book; but the evidence of his melancholy and distress was so plain, and his silence so significant, that I would grow restless myself, and finding some excuse to go to the courthouse or elsewhere, would leave the room.”27

Josiah G. Holland, whose Life of Abraham Lincoln was published in 1866, said he had “conversed with multitudes of men who claimed to know Mr. Lincoln intimately; yet there are not two of the whole number who agree in their estimate of him. The fact was that he rarely showed more than one aspect of himself to one man. He opened himself to men in different directions……”28 The personality of Abraham Lincoln perplexed his friends and early biographers. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik wrote: “Dr. Holland had only found what Lincoln’s friends had always experienced in their relations with him – that he was a man of many moods and many sides. He never revealed himself entirely to any one man, and therefore he will always to a certain extent remain enveloped in doubt. Even those who were with him through long years of hard study and under constantly varying circumstances can hardly say they knew him through and through. I always believed I could read him as thoroughly as any man, and yet he was so different in many respects from any other one I ever met before or since his time that I cannot say I comprehended him. In this chapter I give my recollection of his individual characteristics as they occur to me, and allow the world to form its own opinion….”29

“Lincoln was steadily learning how to keep ‘in order’ throughout the 1840s, and part of the process was distinguishing between remarks for private and public consumption,” wrote historian Brian Dirck. “He wrote another Whig that ‘the Beardstown paper is entirely in the hands of my friends,’ but then quickly added, ‘don’t speak of this.’ By the time he began to campaign for Congress in 1846, phrases such as ‘let this be strictly confidential,’ and ‘I address this to you alone’ permeated his correspondence. ‘If any thing I have written for any body should be turned to your disadvantage, I could hardly ever forgive myself for the carelessness of so writing,’ he informed a political ally in 1849.”30

In his biography of Mr. Lincoln, Herndon wrote: “In general terms his life was cold – at least characterized by what many persons would deem great indifference. He had, however, a strong latent capacity to love: but the object must first come in the guise of a principle, next it must be right and true ? then it was lovely in his sight. He loved humanity when it was oppressed ? an abstract love as against the concrete love centred in an individual. He rarely used terms of endearment, and yet he was proverbially tender and gentle. He gave the key-note to his own character when he said: ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all.’ In proportion to his want of deep, intense love he had not hate and bore no malice. His charity for an imperfect man was as broad as his devotion to principle was enduring.”31

Mr. Lincoln himself told Attorney General Edward Bates in 1864 that some of his more radical opponents refrained from a frontal attack on him because “the blow would be ineffectual, and so, they would fall under his power, as beaten enemies; and, for that only reason the hypocrit[e]s try to occupy equivocal ground – that, when they fail as enemies, they may still pretend to be friends.”32


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 64 (ca June 1860).
  2. Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858, Volume II, p. 238-239 (Illinois Journal, September 11, 1854).
  3. Shelby M. Cullom, Fifty Years of Public Service, p. 97-98.
  4. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. xxxx.
  5. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 153 (Letter from Richard J. Oglesby to William H. Herndon, January 5, 1866).
  6. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 63 (William H. Herndon interview with John Todd Stuart, ca. late June 1865).
  7. Emanuel Hertz, The Hidden Lincoln, p. 134 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Jesse W. Weik, January 15, 1886).
  8. Emanuel Hertz, The Hidden Lincoln, p. 134-135 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Jesse W. Weik, January 15, 1886).
  9. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 179 (George P. Floyd, McClure’s Magazine, January 1908).
  10. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 168 (Letter from Leonard Swett to William H. Herndon, January 17, 1866).
  11. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 348, 350 (Interview with David Davis, September 20, 1866).
  12. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 529 (Interview with David Davis, ca. 1866).
  13. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 348 (William H. Herndon interview with David Davis, September 20, 1866).
  14. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 167 (Leonard Swett’s letter to William H. Herndon, January 17, 1866).
  15. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume II, p. 23-24.
  16. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 345.
  17. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 348.
  18. David M. Silver, Lincoln’s Supreme Court, p. 82 (Letter from David Davis to William W. Orme, March 30, 1864).
  19. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 85 (Letter from David Davis to Sarah Davis, November 3, 1851).
  20. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 90.
  21. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 91.
  22. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 587.
  23. Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays of Benjamin Thomas, p. 144.
  24. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 166.
  25. Henry Rankin, Abraham Lincoln: The First American, p. 56.
  26. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, p. 176.
  27. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 348.
  28. Josiah Holland, Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 241.
  29. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 471.
  30. Brian R. Dirck, Lincoln & Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865, p. 54.
  31. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 483.
  32. Howard K. Beale, editor, The Diary of Edward Bates, p. 333.