The Close, Intimate Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed

Much has been debated about the friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, and whether “Honest Abe” was truly honest about his sexuality. In this next post of my series, New Year; New Types of Friends, I’ll explain more about the friendship between two young men who sought solace in their anxious, confused fears about women, and how they helped each other out of the doldrums of despair.

In the Introduction to Examples of Real-life Friendships I describe six archetypes for friendship that every man needs to connect with on a regular basis: The Mentor, The Wingman/Bachelor, The Handyman, The Fitness Buff, The Work Pal, along with my theory called a GodBuddy. Similar to my post about the friendship between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, the close friendship between Lincoln and Speed is another example from politics that shows how a man’s inner circle helps make him a better man. After reading this post, you might even consider their emotionally deep bond one of the most important friendships in American history.

About Joshua Speed 

Joshua Fry Speed (1814 – 1882), was the son of Judge James and Lucy (Fry) Speed of Farmington, Kentucky. Raised on the family’s plantation estate near Louisville, Joshua was the fifth of eleven children. He received a superb private education and a year at St. Joseph’s Academy northeast of Lousiville, before moving to Springfield, Illinois in 1835.

According to the book, Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed by Charles B Strozier, the Speed family had its share of problems. Joshua remained close to his mother until her death but seems to have had a strained relationship with his father. At age 15, Joshua complained of “all your abuse of me.” Depression seems to have run in the Speed family with evidence of it in his father, two of his brothers, and Joshua himself. Years later, Lincoln himself observed of Joshua that “you are naturally of a nervous temperament.”

After arriving in Springfield, which had a population of fewer than 1,500 people at the time, Joshua Speed begins working in a general store and assisted in editing a local newspaper. It is there that he meets young Abe.

About Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) was an American statesman who became the 16th President of the United States from 1861 until his assassination. He was born into poverty in a log cabin in Kentucky and raised on the frontier primarily in Indiana. Self-educated, Lincoln became a lawyer, Illinois state legislator, and U.S. Congressman. As president, led the nation through the American Civil War, and succeeded in preserving the Union, abolishing slavery, bolstering the federal government, and modernizing the U.S. economy.

According to Lincoln’s profile on Wikipedia, Lincoln lost his mother at age 9, and sister years later, both of which devastated young Abe. He went to school sporadically due to farm chores, giving his father all earnings from work outside the home until he was 21. In March 1830, his father and step-mother moved west to Illinois, and Abraham became increasingly distant from his family. In 1831, he struck out on his own and moved to New Salem, Illinois, where he lived for six years.

The Friendship of Lincoln and Speed

The story is familiar to many. On April 15, 1837, a “long, gawky” Abraham Lincoln arrives in Springfield, the new state capitol, to seek his fortune as a young lawyer. Lincoln walks into a local dry-goods store looking for lodging. Its proprietor, Joshua Speed, knew of Lincoln by reputation since both hailed from Kentucky—but they from very different circumstances.

Lincoln asks about the cost to buy the materials for a bedroll. He did not have enough money for the purchase and asks for a loan for the cost until Christmas. Saying, “I never saw so gloomy and melancholy a face,” Speed offers Lincoln a room over his store for free. He suggests Lincoln stay with him and share his large double bed since communal sleeping was a reasonably common practice during that time period. 

According to a post from the Kentucky Historical Society, Lincoln’s friendship with Speed flourished during 1837-41. But their close friendship was also complicated.

In March 1840 though, Speed’s father dies so Joshua announces plans to sell his store and move back to Kentucky. At the time, Lincoln was engaged to Mary Todd. As the dates approach for both Speed’s departure and his own marriage, Lincoln breaks off the engagement. He is mired in depression and guilt. Seven months later, Lincoln, still depressed, visits Speed in Kentucky where Lincoln regained his health and perspective. 

Was Lincoln Gay?

Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality has been debated for years but the evidence is circumstantial. Some speculation comes from his youthful friendship with Joshua Speed and their bed-sharing. Some cite his troubled marriage to Mary Todd.

in Your Friend Forever, Charles Strozier concludes that women are central to the picture of Lincoln and Speed’s relationship, even if crucially, off-stage in the story of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed.  

Lincoln’s first romantic interest was Ann Rutledge, whom he met when he moved to New Salem in 1831. By 1835, they were in a relationship but not formally engaged when Rutledge died of typhoid fever. Later in 1836, Lincoln courted Mary Owens from Kentucky, whom he had met earlier. But they both had second thoughts and Lincoln broke off the relationship. Then, in 1839, Speed introduces his socially awkward friend, Lincoln to Mary Todd, the vivacious daughter of a wealthy lawyer. 

Joshua Speed began a courtship of Ms. Fanny Henning (1820–1902) from a wealthy family near Louisville. They married on February 15, 1842, and remained married until his death. They had no children, though they enjoyed close relationships with several of their nephews and nieces.

Further complicating the debate about Lincoln’s sexuality is that sexual orientation and sexual identity are modern concepts. In fact, the word “homosexual” did not find its way into print in English until 1892, well after Lincoln died.

Lincoln’s Personal Letters to Speed

Strozier also writes in another post that Speed’s fears of sexual intimacy with women mirrored those of Lincoln’s.  This became apparent over the course of four self-help letters Lincoln wrote to Speed that Strozier calls those “the most revealing psychological documents Lincoln ever penned.” 

After returning from a trip to Springfield to see Lincoln in 1841, Speed becomes “unraveled” about proposing to Ms. Henning – that is until Lincoln coaches him through the courtship. Abe assures Joshua that his relationship with her made perfect sense. Lincoln suggests Speed will want to return to the first of the four letters when Speed “will feel verry (sic) badly some time between” their parting but encourages Speed about “the final consummation of your purpose” for his marriage to Henning.

By the end of the year, Speed goes back to Kentucky to prepare for his marriage to Fanny Henning in February 1842. Joshua writes back of his successful consummation – and “how the roof didn’t fall in” after his wedding night, which seemed to allay Lincoln’s same fears. Within a few months, Lincoln resumed his engagement with Mary Todd, who he married in November 1842. 

What Makes This Friendship Unique? 

Fast-forward to 1858 after Lincoln gains national stature from his campaign against Stephen Douglas of Illinois for a U.S. Senate seat. As his political career grew, Lincoln offers Joshua Speed a government appointment several times. But Speed continued to disagree with Lincoln over slavery and remains a Democrat. He advises Lincoln against issuing the Emancipation Proclamation since Speed grew up on a plantation and owned slaves. Yet, he remained one of Lincoln’s most loyal friends. During the Civil War, Speed kept Lincoln abreast of the situation in Kentucky. He also made numerous confidential trips to Washington. 

Speed was Lincoln’s closest confidant. He offered invaluable support after the death of Lincoln’s first love, Ann Rutledge. He helped during Abe’s rocky courtship to Mary Todd and through his depression after Speed moved back to Kentucky. Speed also fueled Lincoln’s political ambitions and provided guidance during the Civil War. 

Charles Strozier recalls Lincoln’s remarkable series of letters in which Abe bared his deepest feelings to his best friend. Lincoln’s knowledge of Speed’s inner life pervades the very fabric of his letters and their friendship, “You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting” Lincoln writes to Speed.

Lincoln and Speed appear to know each other inside and out. In other words, what Speed feels, Lincoln feels. What Speed knows, Lincoln knows. What Speed does, so does Lincoln. Lincoln inserts himself into Speed’s self, which he experiences as a dimension of his own. 

In another letter, Lincoln notes, “You well know that I do not feel my own sorrows much more keenly than I do yours.” And later: “…it is the peculiar misfortune of both you and me, to dream dreams of Elysium [paradise in classical mythology] far exceed all that anything earthly can realize.”  Might this paradise imply a view of Heaven?

Two weeks before Lincoln’s assassination, Joshua Speed saw his friend one last time.

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GodBuddy Focus

The close friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed is actually a good model for modern-day male friendships. It reminds me of what I wrote about the intimate friendship of Jonathan and David: that men need to become more comfortable with emotional openness in order to enjoy close friendships with other men.

The friendship of Lincoln and Speed demonstrates that two brilliant but flawed men can play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It also shows how vulnerability and emotional intimacy adds depth that can give both men confidence. Like with Jonathan and David, it appears their souls were knit together and they loved each other. (1 Samuel 18:1).

GodBuddies also know each other well. They know each other’s history and trepidations. They practice vulnerability and support each other in ways that help overcome their fears. Their friendship shares a clear view of the reward of Heaven.

Do you have a friend with whom you can be so emotionally intimate that your souls are knit together?

My next post goes uses the example of the “frenemies” among the founding fathers of the United States.


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