Kentuckian Joshua Speed Was Lincoln's Lifelong Best Friend

By Dr. Marshall Myers - 2000

Few of us make our way through life without the help of friends. Abraham Lincoln was no exception. While generally gregarious, Lincoln really had just one lifelong friend: a Kentuckian named Joshua Speed, a confident giver of sage advice and a sounding board for Lincoln's political and philosophical ideas. Although they sometimes disagreed on vital issues, they were able to maintain a friendship that endured until Lincoln's death in 1865.

According to Robert Kincaid, in an article in The Filson Club History Quarterly, Speed was born near Louisville, at Farmington, on November 14, 1814, the son of a prominent slaveholding farmer. Young Joshua Speed attended St. Joseph's Academy in Bardstown, like the sons of many wealthy families in Kentucky.

Not content to follow in the footsteps of his father, Speed set out in 1835 for Springfield, Illinois, to try his hand in the fortunes of the Midwest. Records of the early years in Illinois indicate that young Speed was in the vast company of many other former Kentuckians, who sought new adventures and financial gain. Lincoln would later learn that the lower half of Illinois, with its Kentucky immigrants, was quite Southern in its political sympathies.

Upon arriving in Springfield, a town of fewer than 1,500 souls, Speed soon invested in merchandising and assisted in editing a local newspaper.

The beginnings of the friendship between Lincoln and Speed remain familiar to most Lincoln biographers. Although Speed had heard the young Lincoln speak on the stump when he was running for re-election to the Illinois legislature, the two men had only exchanged bits of conversation before Lincoln walked into Speed's store in Springfield, upon Lincoln's arrival in the new state capital to seek his fortune as a young lawyer, on April 15, 1837.

Lincoln inquired about the price of a mattress, sheets, blankets, coverlet, and a pillow for a single bed. When Speed told him what the total price would be, the future president remarked that "it is perhaps cheap enough, but small as it is, I am unable to pay it. If you will credit me until Christmas, I will pay you then, if I do well; but if I do not, I may never be able to pay you."

At this point, Speed seems to have had a mixture of pity for the railsplitter and the business sense to protect his finances.

"I think," Speed said, "I can suggest a plan by which you can avoid the debit and at the same time attain your end. I have a large room with a double bed upstairs, which you are welcome to share with me."

"Where is your room?" Lincoln quickly replied.

"Upstairs," Speed said.

Lincoln gathered his saddle bags and headed to the second floor. He quickly returned and announced, "Well, Speed, I am moved!"

Recently, one biographer made much out of the fact that, because two men slept in the same bed for four years, it suggested a homosexual relationship between the two young men. But historical records indicate that two people of the same sex sharing a bed was a fairly common experience in 19th century America. Our view of history is often obscured by our seeing the past through the lens of the present, with its different customs and mores.

Throughout his adult life, Lincoln and Speed shared confidences, and Speed became, for Lincoln, his most intimate friend. Indeed, when studying the life of Lincoln, it is difficult to imagine what Lincoln would have become without his Kentucky friend.

One characteristic that contemporaries assigned to the young Lincoln was a painful shyness, especially around young ladies. It is perhaps easy to understand why Lincoln would feel that way. After all, he had only the rudiments of an education (less than a year, some say), his family were dirt-poor farmers, and Lincoln's ungainly appearance and dress would cause the Great Emancipator to feel ill-at-ease.

Speed, on the other hand, was from a well-to-do family, had the privilege of a formal education, and displayed himself as a cultured gentleman.

But Speed saw something redeeming about Lincoln and encouraged him to enter the social scene around Springfield. They attended parties together and joined debating societies and political forums, where Lincoln could hone the meager political skills he had. In fact, Speed's store became a meeting place for young Turks, who discussed everything from radical religion to social issues, with Lincoln often breaking in with a series of stories for which he was most famous.

But Speed and Lincoln did not become fast friends, simply because Speed wanted to guide the young Lincoln's social and intellectual development. They genuinely liked each other and shared many of the same dreams and aspirations. It was, however, the subject of romance that caused the two to seek each other's counsel.

When Lincoln decided that he intended to break his engagement with Mary Todd, his future wife, he reasoned, in his own shy way, that he would tell the young Kentucky woman by letter. Speed soon recognized how inappropriate that would be and convinced Lincoln to burn his letter and tell Mary face-to-face, advice which Lincoln followed, and advice that would permit Lincoln to later, again, ask Mary Todd to marry him.

Later, when Speed moved back to Kentucky, it was Lincoln who returned the counsel, when Speed had misgivings about a romantic relationship with Fanny Hennings, who lived on a farm nearby with her uncle, Jon Williamson. In an extended visit with Speed in August and September of 1841, Lincoln observed his friend's actions around Miss Fanny.

Upon Lincoln's return to Springfield, Lincoln knew he saw the glow of love in his friend's eyes and wrote to him: "After you and I had been at [her] residence, did you not go and take me all the way to Lexington and back, for no other purpose but to get to see her again, on the return that evening?"
Speed later married Fanny on February 15, 1842.

Not surprisingly, Lincoln, who was still a bachelor, was curious about how his close friend was adjusting to married life. He wrote, "I want to ask you a close question. Are you now, in feeling as well as in judgment, glad that you are married? Please answer it, quickly, for I am impatient to know."

The question seemed to have a dual purpose: First, Lincoln was genuinely concerned about his friend's welfare, and secondly, Lincoln wanted to know if he should take that big step, too.

Yet, Lincoln also recognized that Speed's attention would be somewhat diverted, now that he may not have the time to spend with his Illinois friend. In a letter dated February 25, 1842, Lincoln came to the point.

"I have no way of telling you how much happiness I wish you both, though I believe you both can conceive it. I feel somewhat jealous of both of you now; you will be so exclusively concerned for one another that I shall be forgotten entirely."

Lincoln, of course, later that year, on November 4, 1842, did marry Mary Todd and began his climb to the political pinnacle of the presidency. While Speed and Lincoln continued to write, it was less often as the concerns of both men turned to more serious matters. His friendship with Speed, however, figures prominently in two events important to the Civil War.

Kentucky, in the early days of the war, was a source of great concern for the new president. He realized how important the Commonwealth was to both sides of the conflict. Lincoln felt he must have Kentucky, for if she seceded, he felt Missouri and other border states would soon follow.

However, one of the problems in the Bluegrass State was the paucity of guns. Lowell H. Harrison's Lincoln and Kentucky chronicles the secret mission, organized by William Nelson, to supply Unionists in the state with 5,000 [what were called] "Lincoln guns."

Involved, too, was Major Robert Anderson, just back from his surrender at Fort Sumter, who was ordered to employ Unionists in Kentucky, whom Lincoln thought he could trust, one of whom was Joshua Speed, to help get the guns into the right hands.

Lincoln wrote of Speed, "I have the utmost confidence in his judgment on any subject he professes to understand."

After some difficulties, the rifles were distributed to Union sympathizers across the state.

Speed was also involved in another gun distribution in September 1861, after General William Tecumseh Sherman had relieved Anderson in Louisville, in command of state volunteers. Sherman was a frantic man, demanding thousands of troops and guns to defend the Commonwealth.

Sherman happened to meet Speed in Louisville and spilled out a series of woes.

"Name what you want on paper and give it to me," Speed said.

Sherman, desperate to try anything, wrote down his orders and gave a copy to Speed. Speed took a train to Washington, and a few days later, returned to Louisville with a draft of $100,000 and an order, signed by Lincoln, for 10,000 Springfield rifles.

Sherman was flabbergasted. "How is it that more attention is paid to you, a citizen, than to me, a general in the Army?" adding, "You had better take command here!"

Speed returned, "The only mistake you made, General, was not asking for more."

Among other visits to Washington, Speed briefed the president on the panic in the Midwest, after the Union defeat in Richmond, and to discuss the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln saw as his only hope for immortality. Speed, keenly conscious of Confederate sympathies in Kentucky, advised against the order.

Several times during his administration, Lincoln offered Joshua Speed a government appointment. Speed refused each time, choosing to be a help in other ways. Speed's brother, James Speed, however, did serve as Attorney General beginning in November 1864. In discussing the nomination to Congress, Lincoln acknowledged that he didn't know James as well as he knew Joshua, noting, "That is not strange, for I slept with Joshua for four years, and I suppose I ought to know."

After his friend's tragic death, Joshua Speed organized a memorial service in Louisville for the assassinated leader and pledged his support to Andrew Johnson's administration. Sixty members of the Speed family gave money for a monument to honor Lincoln in Springfield. Joshua Speed also wrote lengthy letters to William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, who had set about to write a biography of Lincoln.

Speed lived out the rest of his life as a business and civic leader, as president of the Louisville and Portland Canal Company, and for two years he served as president of the Louisville, Cincinnati, and Lexington Railroad. His business interests also included investments in the Louisville Hotel, the Louisville Vault Company, the Louisville Cement Company, and the Savings Bank of Louisville.

He died on May 29, 1882, and was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, with a fortune estimated at a tidy $600,000: a healthy sum for his day. His widow gave generously to what was to become Union College, in Barbour-ville, to the tune of more than $375,000.

Historian Robert Kincaid notes that it is "difficult to evaluate the importance of Speed in Lincoln's life." He acknowledges Speed's role in the Civil War in Kentucky and cites the part Speed played in Lincoln's social and intellectual development. But, of course, the value of a firm friendship remains almost impossible to measure. Friends are there when you need them, and Speed, above all others, certainly fulfilled that role magnificently.

Kincaid writes of Joshua Speed and Abraham Lincoln: "In life, Speed and Lincoln were much alike in spirit, ideals, and love of country; in death, their memory is preserved in an inseparable union in the hearts of a grateful people."

Mr. & Mrs. Joshua Speed, Speed Homestead at Farmington,

Lincoln Autographed Photo

Dr. Marshall Myers, 207 Keystone Drive, #5, Richmond, KY 40475, shares this article with our readers. Dr. Myers is an educator and active in the Madison County Civil War Roundtable.