Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, was a hugely successful statesman and politician who is often credited with preserving the Union during the American Civil War, abolishing slavery in the US, and modernizing the country’s economy. Now an omnipresent aspect of Washington’s political landscape, both physically and historically, these days, Lincoln’s personal life – away from the limelight – has become a source of fascination for many around the world.
One of Abraham Lincoln’s closest friends was an individual named Joshua Speed, who was a partner in a general store in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln had quite a network of acquaintances that included others such as William Herndon, Orville Hickman Browning, and William Henry Seward.
With Lincoln’s celebrated presidency spanning such a crucial period in early US history, it’s no surprise that questions about the man’s personal life are asked so frequently. Lincoln was not just a skilled statesman and a brilliant public speaker, he was also a complex and nuanced character, and in learning about the former president’s closest friends, we can also learn a thing or two about the man himself.
Joshua Speed: A Lifelong Friend
Joshua Speed – who worked in a dry goods store in Springfield – first met the man who would go on to become one of the country’s most successful presidents in 1837. One day, in the spring, Lincoln – who was described as a “long, gawky, ugly, shapeless man” – walked into the store and asked for a number of supplies.
Although Speed immediately recognized the charm, charisma, and “perfect naturalness” of the man, Lincoln didn’t have enough money to buy the products he sought and asked for credit. Instead, Speed offered him lodging and Lincoln accepted.
This chance encounter has gone down in history as one of the most significant moments in the becoming of Abraham Lincoln and the construction of his robust character.
In a recent article by Charles B. Strozier, the author of ‘Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed’, the writer claims that during their time living together, the two become inseparable, “sharing stories, feelings, fears, hopes and dreams”.
Strozier also goes on to say that Speed “idolized” the friend he made in Lincoln, while the latter felt he could open up to the other man. The two shared a bed for years, but their friendship is believed to have been purely platonic, a type of relationship Strozier calls “a paradigmatic 19th-century male friendship”.
Following their time living together, the two men stayed in touch and regularly sent letters to one another. Strozier notes that ultimately the friendship between the two, “proved redemptive for Lincoln, helping him through two serious, suicidal bouts of depression that threatened his relationship with his future wife and his political ambitions”.
Abraham Lincoln’s Early Life
Lincoln – who would go on to be assassinated in 1865 by actor and Confederate spy John Wilkes Booth – was a man of distinctly humble origins. He was born in early 1809 and grew up in poverty, living with his parents in a one-room log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky.
By 1816, Lincoln had moved to southern Indiana, and his schooling was consistently balanced by the need to work in order to support his family. Then, in 1830, when Lincoln was in his early 20s, his family moved again to southern Illinois.
Many years before Lincoln took the oath to become president, he also worked on a boat that hauled freight down the Mississippi River all the way to New Orleans. Writer, Pamela Glass, claims that these trips down the Mississippi were “eye-opening journeys for Lincoln” who had rarely ventured outside of the confines of the various farms where he’d lived.
Glass notes: “He witnessed first hand the indignities of slavery, viewing slave auctions in New Orleans and the brutal treatment of slaves by white owners and sellers. These experiences shaped his personal and later political views on slavery.”
Following his time on the river, Lincoln taught himself law, and, in 1836, he passed the Bar. And then, a decade later, in 1846, he won election to the US House of Representatives.
A Close-knit Network
Many of Lincoln’s other acquaintances such as William Herndon – who was Lincoln’s early law partner in Springfield, Illinois – were close with the statesman in his formative years. However, none of Lincoln’s friends were as close to him as Speed was.
Reflecting on Lincoln’s friendship with Speed, one article states that: “many friends at the time, including Lincoln’s future wife Mary Todd, recognized that there was something exclusive about the relationship between the two men. If anyone, Speed would have known what made Lincoln Lincoln”.