The New World of Male Friendship

Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln

“All kinds of theories have been offered to explain Lincoln’s action, most mutually exclusive, from his supposed sexual love for Speed; to his infatuation with the beautiful Matilda Edwards who arrived in Springfield in November; to his sense of inadequacy with the lordly Todds; to Mary actually taking the decisive action. The evidence, most of it contradictory, supports none of these theories altogether, and the reason for the broken engagement has remained an enigma for most of the last century and a half.” — Charles Strozier

This week, our featured book is Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, by Charles B. Strozier. Today, we are happy to present a guest post from Strozier, in which he gives an overview of the close male friendship between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, and explains why that friendship has become such a touchstone for controversy.

The New World of Male Friendship
Charles B. Strozier

Men talk of bromance and a new kind of buddy system, of searching for soul mates, even love, but not in the context of sex. That is the point in this new world of male friendship. It is relatively new, and very old, at the same time. In fact, the most interesting example of close male friendship in American history may be Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed.

Lincoln struggled as a young man with issues of intimacy and depression. He was always moody, but in his late 20s and early 30s, and only then, he was twice suicidal: first after the death of his betrothed, Ann Rutledge, in 1835 in New Salem, and then six years later after he broke off his engagement with Mary Todd.

He was saved, in a very real sense, through his friendship with Joshua Speed. That friendship unfolded in its most important phase between 1837, when Lincoln arrived in Springfield, Illinois, at 28 years of age, and ended up living with Speed, then 22 years of age, above Speed’s dry goods store on the west side of the square and sleeping with him in the same large, double bed for nearly the next four years. All the (good) historical evidence suggests the relationship was loving but not sexualized.

Lincoln had a way of making his friends feel they were special, but in fact only Speed really mattered to Lincoln. This most “shut-mouthed of men,” as his law partner, Herndon, put it, revealed himself and his deepest feelings, confusions, and, at times, despair, only to Speed. Lincoln, who talked of his “old, tired eyes” and was called “Honest old Abe” as early as his middle 30s, came to depend on the closeness and empathy of Speed, who intensely admired the humor, intelligence, and basic goodness of his friend. Part of what bound them so closely was their common hesitation, even confusions, about intimacy. Both sought love with a woman but tended to stumble about in that quest.

In the winter of 1839-1840, Lincoln became infatuated with the sprightly Mary Todd, then 22 years of age and living with her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, in their gracious home on “Quality Hill” in Springfield. Mary was cute and vivacious, well educated (she spoke fluent French and could recite long poems from memory), and very social. She seemed to him the “very creature of excitement” and he soon fell in love. At some point that winter or spring, they “commenced seeing” each other, as Elizabeth Edwards put it, and became engaged. After several separations that year occasioned by Lincoln’s campaigning for William Henry Harrison in the presidential election and his own busy law practice, in a move that has perplexed historians ever since, Lincoln broke the engagement.

All kinds of theories have been offered to explain Lincoln’s action, most mutually exclusive, from his supposed sexual love for Speed; to his infatuation with the beautiful Matilda Edwards who arrived in Springfield in November; to his sense of inadequacy with the lordly Todds; to Mary actually taking the decisive action. The evidence, most of it contradictory, supports none of these theories altogether, and the reason for the broken engagement has remained an enigma for most of the last century and a half. In fact, while books will continue to be written about Abraham Lincoln, this story of the broken engagement remains the last area of real disagreement in the Lincoln field.

What actually mattered to Lincoln lay in the shadows of his self experience, namely the panic Speed’s imminent separation posed to his equilibrium. Speed’s father had died the previous year and the family beckoned him to return to Louisville and take charge of the plantation (one of the largest in Kentucky with many slaves). In the late summer of 1840, Speed somewhat reluctantly decided to go back to Louisville. He began the long process of calling in debts owed him and selling his store to Charles Hurst. The notice of the sale of the store, which meant the separation from Lincoln, appeared in the local paper on January 1, 1842.

This friend who had helped stabilize him in his moratorium of delayed identity formation was now leaving him. Lincoln was unmoored, alone, lost. In that confused state, which he barely understood himself, Lincoln withdrew from Mary and broke off the engagement. After what he would call his “fatal first,” he became deeply and clinically depressed and definitely suicidal. He took to his bed at the home of William Butler. His friends removed his razor and other sharp objects from the room and set up a kind of suicide watch. Lincoln became wild and unhinged, hallucinated, stopped working, and became “crazy as a loon” in the words of William Butler.

Speed actually didn’t leave right away, probably remaining in Springfield to help nurture his friend back to health. Finally, in June, 1841, Speed did leave, but not without extracting a promise that Lincoln would visit him in Louisville that summer. That visit occurred in late August and September, when Lincoln stayed at Farmington, the Speed plantation, just outside Louisville. In that context, with the friends together and safe and secure with each other, Speed suddenly fell in love with and became engaged to Fanny Henning, whom Lincoln called “beautiful black-eyed Fanny.” Speed also instantly became depressed and felt some of what he called the same “nonsense” as Lincoln earlier in the year. In his own panic, Speed decided to return to Springfield with Lincoln.

They spent the fall together, but on January 1, 1842, an important anniversary date for Lincoln, Speed left to return to Louisville and marriage to Fanny. In January and February of 1842, Lincoln wrote the most revealing letters of his life to his friend in the lead up to, and just after, Speed’s marriage. He talked of Speed’s fears for Fanny’s illness and death, of his uncertain love, in ways that vicariously expressed his own feelings (we don’t have Speed’s letters in return).

The culmination of the correspondence—and the emotional turning point in the life of Abraham Lincoln—came in his letter of February 25, 1842. On February 24, 1842, Abraham Lincoln opened a letter from Speed, in which he reported on his marriage to Fanny Henning. Lincoln wrote on February 25:

I received yours of the 12th. written the day you went down to William’s place, some days since; but delayed answering it, till I should receive the promised one, of the 16th., which came last night. I opened the latter, with intense anxiety and trepidation—so much, that although it turned out better than I expected, I have hardly yet, at the distance of ten hours, become calm.

This was the consummation letter. Speed got married on February 15, and clearly he had promised Lincoln that as soon as he possibly could after consummating his marriage he would write to report on its outcome. Speed, it seems, had barely tumbled out of his wedding bed on the morning of February 16 before he wrote Lincoln. In fact, even though “it turned out better than I expected” Lincoln the next day was still not calm “at the distance of ten hours.” That is a long time for a man, then thirty-three years of age, to be experiencing such anxiety from the news of how his twenty-seven year old friend’s wedding night turned out. Lincoln made Speed his vicarious substitute in the courtship of Fanny Henning. Through Speed he could work through his tormented fears of intimacy. The marriage Lincoln makes his own indirect realization.

The relief is palpable for Lincoln: “I tell you, Speed, our forebodings, for which you and I are rather peculiar, are all the worst sort of nonsense.” He then recounts the dreaded passing of days for him in his letter of February 25 as he awaited news of the February 15 wedding with an obsessive-compulsive intensity punctuated by gratuitous underlinings.

I fancied, from the time I received your letter of saturday, that the one of wednesday was never to come; and yet it did come, and what is more, it is perfectly clear, both from it’s tone and handwriting, that you were much happier, or, if you think the term preferable, less miserable, when you wrote it, than when you wrote the last one before. You had so obviously improved, at the verry time I so much feared, you would have grown worse.

But a shadow remains.

You say that “something indescribably horrible and alarming still haunts you.[”] You will not say that three months from now, I will venture. When your nerves once get steady now, the whole trouble will be over forever. Nor should you become impatient at their being even verry slow, in becoming steady. Again; you say you much fear that that Elysium of which you have dreamed so much, is never to be realized. Well, if it shall not, I dare swear, it will not be the fault of her who is now your wife. I now have no doubt that it is the peculiar misfortune of both you and me, to dream dreams of Elysium far exceeding all that any thing earthly can realize.

The perplexing line in the letter (“You say that ‘something indescribably horrible and alarming still haunts you’ ”) suggests Speed felt great relief at his ability to carry out sexual intercourse with Fanny but remained troubled that the sky did not suddenly clear and the heavens part. Lincoln at first seems not to be particularly worried about Speed’s feelings that something “indescribably horrible” still haunted him, writing with confidence, “You will not say that three months from now.” But Lincoln cannot entirely dismiss Speed’s fears that his “dreams of Elysium” would never be realized. Lincoln’s argument addressing these concerns in this section of the letter is somewhat elliptical. On the one hand, he is confident that Speed’s fears will fade in due time based on the most welcome news that the marriage consummation went well. As long as that is over, things have to improve, and Speed’s anxiety will gradually dissipate. It would seem the message from Speed was: “Things went well, but I still feel bad.” His encouragement of Speed, on the other hand, reflects some ambivalence for Speed’s continued doubts that, given his identification with his friend, poses the danger of circling back onto himself. Lincoln gently chastises Speed and tells him his unhappiness lingers from his nervous temperament and “will not be the fault of her who is now your wife.” But perhaps feeling bad for this subtle criticism Lincoln immediately returns to his identification with Speed and affirms their common experience with emotional problems.

In that imagined joy lies a contradiction. Speed’s marriage to Fanny means he will never again be available in the same total way for Lincoln. Speed is now joined with Fanny, forever apart. Lincoln had been as much attuned empathically with Speed as with anyone in his life. He was completely immersed in Speed’s inner life. Nothing matches in intimacy that kind of connection with another. To lose it leaves one feeling lost and alone, abandoned, despairing. Speed’s marriage, for all the joy it brings Lincoln, is simultaneously a moment of dreaded loss, even a kind of symbolic death. In his triumphant experience of love, Speed categorically abandons his friend, though Lincoln tries mightily to relish Speed’s new love.

It seems in Speed’s marriage to Fanny Henning that Lincoln found indirect resolution of his own confusions over intimacy. Lincoln was free then to resume his courtship of Mary Todd, who had graciously waited for him to wrestle his demons to the ground. In a sense, losing Speed allowed Lincoln to regain Mary. After a quiet courtship (so as not to stir the gossip mill), they married that fall. In a letter to a colleague ten days later, Lincoln wrote that there was “nothing new here, except my marriage, which is a matter of profound wonder.”

In the contemporary era, when marriage is delayed, we see a new world of friendship in the life cycle of young men, friendships that flourish between mother and wife, that is, between one’s family of origin and one’s constructed family. These are relationships that are chosen and without the obligations of children, property, or money. What do such young men hope for in another? How can we understand their closeness and its larger meaning for society? Inevitably, in our fluid and uncertain times, we long for models of such friendship, and none is more dramatic and appealing than the friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed.

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