Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln by Charles B. Strozier

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Great thinkers like Aristotle, Cicero and Montaigne in their own cogitation concur that the highest form of human relationships is a friendship between two men. Cicero offers that it is a kind of nobility and Montaigne adds that it is a form of spirituality. Charles Strozier’s study of Abraham Lincoln’s friendship with Joshua Speed speaks to this enduring noble and spiritual nature of friendship. More than 15,000 monographs have been published on the US 16th president. This is perhaps the first in-depth research of his friendship with Speed.

The future president was a perennial melancholic. His depression was deep and chronic. He grew up sad and suffered sadness throughout deaths and tragedies. His mother died when he was nine years old. After Ann Rutledge, his one true love, died he fell into a dark precipice and never climbed out. Two of his sons, Eddy and Willie, died as pre-teens and on each occasion Lincoln was inconsolable. Every portrait we have of Lincoln shows wrinkles of sadness; even his faint smiles are lined with melancholy.

Lincoln was 26 when he found his ways to Springfield, Illinois. He was full of wit and ambition but emptied of resources and recognition. Speed was a store owner when they met. They shared a room and a bed for four years above the store. Like most friendships, it is a mystery why two very different individuals in personality, temperament, education, background and class became friends. Like all friendships, theirs evolved into an intimate relationship. In our gay-obsessed culture much has been made recently that Lincoln and Speed slept together. Few even suggest that they had a homosexual relationship. Nonsense! There is absolutely no evidence of that. Lincoln himself offered their sleeping arrangement without hints of concealment. It was simply the social morale of the 1800’s

Their friendship was platonic and intimate. The two friends spent many an evening in the back of the store with others bantering ideas, trading stories, and telling jokes. But Speed was the only one with whom Lincoln shared his inner most thoughts. Often Speed traveled with Lincoln on his legal circuits because he wanted to be with his friend. When alone, they talked about their fears and desires, loves and dreams, worries and anxieties, failures and ambitions. Their private letters reveal a mutual sanctuary where two friends found solace of comfort and joy. Strozier writes that they found “a recognition of self” in the other. Like many friendships, theirs was not between equals. Speed was at awe with the future president, but it was Lincoln who received more from Speed. His offerings became a “healing balm” that nursed Lincoln’s chronic depression and interior turmoil. Viscerally generous, both were affable in their alacrity. Speed’s giving included the warmth of his family. It was his mother Lucy who gave Lincoln a bible and made him promise to read it daily. From this encounter, Lincoln cultivated a God-thought life. In public and private, his syntax permeated with divine and Biblical references.

Like all friendships, theirs had highs and ebbs. After Lincoln became president, they grew apart. The notion that Speed’s family owned slaves certainly was part of it. Nevertheless, their friendship endeavored to the end. As Lincoln signed his letters to Speed, “your friend, forever.” Others may muse about friendship – they actually lived and enjoyed an enduring, intimate relationship. Lincoln wrote to Speed that if they were not friends, “we have no pleasures.”

Columbia University Press, NY 2016