9780743254687

We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends

Donald, David Herbert

ISBN 10: 0743254686 / 0-7432-5468-6
ISBN 13: 9780743254687
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: 2003
Binding: Hardcover
About this title:
Synopsis:

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

"We Are Lincoln Men" shows how Lincoln's experiences as a boy growing up in frontier Indiana made it hard for him to develop warm, supportive relationships later in life. Not until 1837, when he met Joshua Fry Speed, with whom he shared a room and bed for the next four years, did he learn the real meaning of friendship. These two young men confided everything to each other, and they even helped each other as they diffidently sought brides. After Speed returned to Kentucky, Lincoln developed a close relationship with his younger law partner, William H. Herndon. He became Herndon's mentor and hero, and Herndon's idealization of him satisfied one of Lincoln's basic psychological needs.

When he was elected President, Lincoln had no close personal friends in Washington until Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning arrived. Browning became his confidant and, under Lincoln's skillful guidance, served as his strongest supporter in Congress. This useful friendship dissolved when the two men disagreed over emancipation, and Browning became further alienated when Lincoln three times passed over the opportunity to name him to the United States Supreme Court.

In his greatest triumph of friendship, Lincoln won over his powerful, opinionated Secretary of State, William H. Seward, who thought he was better qualified than the President for his job. With psychological insight and charm, Lincoln gained Seward's friendship and secured his loyal support.

Lincoln's closest, and most genuine, friendships while he was in the White House were with his private secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay. Always at his best when dealing with young men, he served as a role model, and they, in effect, were his surrogate family. He won their devotion, and they became his most ardent supporters and, ultimately, his official biographers.

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.


About the Author:
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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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, ...


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