Abraham Lincoln’s Best Friend President Lincoln’s remarkable male friendship and the boundaries of 19th-century sex.

Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed

By Charles B. Strozier (2016, Columbia University Press) 307 pages including notes and index

What made Abraham Lincoln able to steer the country through a war with itself and preserve the Union? Scholars have described his acumen, judgment, empathy, and any number of other traits in their quest to understand what distinguished Lincoln as a leader. They have rooted their explanation in his cabinet choices, the books he read, his jokes, his melancholic mood, and even his relationship with his dog in an endless survey of his life.

William Herndon, Lincoln’s early law partner in Springfield, Illinois, began this systematic accounting just after Lincoln’s death. Herndon interviewed and corresponded with people Lincoln had known at all points in his life. One of Lincoln’s closest friends, the one whom Herndon thought Lincoln loved more than anyone else, was their mutual friend, Joshua Speed, a partner in a Springfield general store where the young men of the city met to work and discuss politics. From 1837-1842, Lincoln and Speed were always together, except when their work called them to separate buildings or other towns. 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.

Many Lincoln scholars have sensed a deep level of intimacy between the two men and consider their relationship to be one of the most enriching of Lincoln’s life. But out of discomfort, fear, or ignorance, they have not known what to ‘do’ with the relationship, other than acknowledge it as a heartwarming curiosity of Lincoln’s early life and move on.

Strozier sees their relationship as a cure for Lincoln’s morbidity, otherwise known as melancholy, or, to use Strozier’s contemporary terminology, “clinical depression,” which included suicide threats. After Lincoln’s five years with Speed, his depression supposedly never returned to its fever pitch.

In Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, the first full-length study of the relationship, Charles Strozier places a deeper and more comprehensive stress on it than ever before. His argument is that Speed saved Lincoln from a debilitating depression and reset him on his course to marry a woman, start a family, and ascend in his career as a politician and statesman.

There have always been a handful of scholars and writers who have intuited from Lincoln’s letters to Speed, and other firsthand accounts, that their relationship was not only important during its tenure but crucial to understanding who Lincoln was as a man and how he saw the world long after his time with Speed. To communicate their findings, they have essentially called Lincoln “gay” or “homosexual,” knowing that these concepts, although not invented until well after Lincoln’s time, are the most direct way for us today to say that Lincoln felt romantically attached to men. The most comprehensive case put forward is by C.A. Tripp. Other pioneering work has been done by Jonathan Ned Katz and Charles Shively. Their intuition is no doubt shaped by their own identities as gay men. Same-sex attracted people have long sensed something of their own experience in Lincoln’s relationship to Speed.

Strozier, a respected Lincoln scholar, and author of Lincoln’s Quest for Union: A Psychological Portrait, originally published in 1982, is not gay but has been a practicing psychoanalyst for decades. He cites his expertise in treating patients for how he understands Speed’s role in helping Lincoln regain his emotional equilibrium. Strozier sees their relationship as a cure for Lincoln’s morbidity, otherwise known as melancholy, or, to use Strozier’s contemporary terminology, “clinical depression,” which included suicide threats. After Lincoln’s five years with Speed, his depression supposedly never returned to its fever pitch. While the two men slowly drifted apart upon marrying, Strozier, Lincoln, and many of Lincoln’s contemporaries attest that the feeling of life generated between Lincoln and Speed was not forgotten or superseded at any other time or by any other person in Lincoln’s later life.

Strozier weaves details of both men’s lives together in a kind of dual biography. This double-sided portrait serves to support his underlying plot: If both men went through their respective courtships of women together, then they could more successfully come to grips with women, and a life married to them.

Women are central to the picture of their relationship, if, crucially, off-stage. Strozier claims Lincoln’s depression to be an effect of the death of his mother, when Lincoln was 9 years old, especially after her death was compounded by the death of Lincoln’s supposed first serious romantic crush, Ann Rutledge, when she was 22 and he was 26. There is no doubt that Lincoln’s morbid thoughts arose at these moments. Strozier additionally implies that these deaths exacerbated his ambivalence about women, a “nervous debility” in regards to prospective marriage with a woman, a condition Lincoln described in those words to Speed as something they both shared, and, revealingly, as what distinguished them from the “mass of the world.”

The other way of putting this “debility” would be that these two men filled the gaps in their respective worlds for each other, and to the immense satisfaction of both. Strozier provides major evidence for this interpretation in his argument that Lincoln fell into a “suicidal depression” and broke off his initial engagement with Mary Todd because of his fear of losing Speed, or of Mary replacing him. Speed also “unraveled” in an analogous way when he first met and proposed to Fanny Henning—until Lincoln coached him through the engagement with hand-holding letters of solicitous and staidly cheerful rationalizations that his relationship with Fanny made perfect sense.

With all the attention on Lincoln over the years, any responsible telling of his relationship with Speed would have to be driven as much by the question of who Speed was, this man whom Lincoln held dearest. A distinguishing feature of Strozier’s study is the balanced account he gives of both men. Strozier includes a tremendous amount of detail about the concerns, circumstances, locales, and livelihoods of Lincoln, Speed, and their families, including their early lives before they met in 1837. He weaves these details together in a kind of dual biography.

This double-sided portrait serves to support Strozier’s underlying plot: If both men went through their respective courtships of women together, then they could more successfully come to grips with women, and a life married to them.

Strozier hardly explores the deaths of Lincoln’s mother and Ann Rutledge, the latter saddled with serious weight in Strozier’s account, in terms of how they may have shaped the meaning of ‘women’ for Lincoln—the true other side of the mirror. Nonetheless, Strozier’s deep dive into the relationship between Lincoln and Speed is powerfully persuasive in showing that not only was it life-affirming for Lincoln but that it was more important and more intimate than his relationship with Mary Todd, or any woman, at the time. This is a hugely consequential shift in the perception, place, and power of the love between men in Lincoln’s life.

 

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The shift is persuasive largely because it resists a pat understanding of emotional psychology. Strozier’s argument moves the reader beyond the realm of identity and labels in trying to reclaim and make visible the love between men in the past. Naming and classifying relationships overshadows the complex emotional adjustments and negotiations between any two people.

It is particularly strange, then, that even before Strozier sets out to chart the five-year course of their relationship and the rich evidence of its psychological and emotional dynamics, he wants us to know that no matter what he says about their intimacy, including any physical intimacy, Lincoln was not “homosexual.” Strozier is aware that this term is ahistorical. His purpose in using it is to make clear that Lincoln and Speed did not have sex with each other.

According to Strozier, the 19th century was a time when “sex between men was regarded as loathsome and if known was severely punished and the basis for social ostracism.” This is untrue. The knowing of sexual behavior between men did not automatically mean punishment. There are relatively few cases of legal action brought against men for having sex, and the question of social ostracism is far too complicated and multi-dimensional to reduce it to “sex between men.” To claim otherwise is to ape the denunciations of a few loud individuals at the time or, ironically, to hold to more contemporary “It Gets Better” narratives of progress. Such a dime-store history of homosexuality allows Strozier to quickly suggest that no one apparently perceived Lincoln and Speed’s quite public and visible affection and attachment as a problem because no one supposedly suspected them of having sex.

Before moving on with Strozier’s telling, it is important to understand how the logic underpinning his set-up here will come to shape much more of his analysis. To divide, on one side, a sex act between two people from, on the other side, the feelings, no matter how complicated, between two people—and thus maintain the pressure of same-sex love to matter as ‘sex’ or as ‘friendship’—is to employ the logic of an accusation of sodomy. For centuries, the power in the invention of sodomitical vices was not in their punishment but in how the charge of sodomy signified that a man was somehow ‘using,’ even abusing, a friend for his own gain, and thus posing a threat to the social contract. Suspicion of this behavior may have been rooted in a clear, observable abuse of power or in the jealousy or anger of the accuser. To call attention to the purportedly slyer manifestations of a man’s manipulation of an unsuspecting friend, the accuser would figure the sodomite’s behavior as a kind of brute act antithetical to the mutual exchange of respect and care between men. The figurative brutality of this act became one with an understanding of sex divorced from, and so destructive of, the finely woven fabric of social relations. Over time, opportunities for living in privacy increased and men’s roles became more individualized in an industrializing world. Displays of affection and need for care between men grew less visible and heterosexual partnering became the perceived locus of both sex and emotional intimacy. These trends facilitated the equation of ‘homosexuality’ with a particularly discreet, and discrete, understanding of ‘sex.’ Even if that sexual behavior is today no longer seen as inherently destructive, the equation presumes that if men are not having sex with each other then their feelings are really, ultimately, directed toward sexual intercourse with women.

This deep historicizing logic of sodomy explains Strozier’s setting aside ‘sex’ at the beginning of his study, as well as his stating empathically at the end that Lincoln’s relationship with Speed allowed him to recover his “inner impulse toward companionship with a woman.” We are, by that point, supposed to see how Lincoln would be able “to make his own life with his own partner … after his experience of love and intimacy through Speed’s successful courtship and consummation of his marriage.” The idea that one man who is obsessed with another man can be helpfully directed, through the latter’s experience with women, to appreciate and even love women himself, echoes the medieval propaganda of courtly love tied to the invention of sodomy. The rhetoric is suspiciously conclusive.

When Lincoln begins to bumble, repeat himself too simply, trip over his theme, and hanker for words, we know that the feelings of the situation are preventing him from thinking coherently. This deadlock comes to a head over the course of Lincoln’s four self-help letters written to Speed in early 1842 that, as Strozier demonstrates, equally apply to Lincoln himself. … Strozier calls these four letters “the most revealing psychological documents Lincoln ever penned.”

What is inescapably right in Strozier’s framing is that the densest evidence about Lincoln and Speed’s relationship revolves around the feelings they have about sexually penetrating a woman. Strozier wisely identifies the importance of this moment in Lincoln’s extremely unusual lack of verbal eloquence in navigating the question. Lincoln was, in all realms of letters, a rhetorical genius. When he begins to bumble, repeat himself too simply, trip over his theme, and hanker for words, we know that the feelings of the situation are preventing him from thinking coherently. This deadlock comes to a head over the course of Lincoln’s four self-help letters written to Speed in early 1842 that, as Strozier demonstrates, equally apply to Lincoln himself. Lincoln believes Speed will want to return to the first of the four letters when Speed “will feel verry (sic) badly some time between” their parting and his impending marriage to Fanny “and the final consummation of your purpose.” It is only “reasonable,” Lincoln stresses, that Speed will feel that way. Lincoln is trying to rationalize Speed’s desire for Fanny and Speed’s ambivalence about moving forward with her by effectively saying: Everything will be okay. You want this. I am here with you.

Strozier calls these four letters “the most revealing psychological documents Lincoln ever penned.” But their rich emotionality is cut off by Strozier’s need for conceptual clarity. His analysis of the letters comprises simply repeating the lines from the letters and glossing their meaning in ways that mostly reiterate what Lincoln has just said. Taking Lincoln at his word, so to speak, reveals Strozier’s stake in furthering the belief that Speed and Lincoln are both attracted to women to the degree that it is only natural that they would have sex with women and want to marry them. Lincoln, and then Strozier in his reiteration, both stress that despite Speed’s own feeling that he had “reasoned” himself into his love for Fanny, he was, Lincoln assures him, truly taken by “her personal appearance and deportment.” Indeed he must have been. That would only be reasonable.

But why was it even necessary for Lincoln to have to convince Speed of his attraction in the first place? Lincoln was 32 and Speed 37 at the time that these letters were written, and both men were worried about having sex with a woman. While it is unclear what kind of sexual activity they did or did not engage in with women before this time, it is clear that they did have to reason their way into whatever excitement or interest they were not feeling now. Instead of seeing their situations as particularly anomalous for young men at the time, Strozier says that Lincoln and Speed’s ambivalence toward women was the result of a separation of gender spheres and a “new kind of suppression of sexuality” partly aimed at limiting the number of children. Apparently when men looked across the way at the “heavily garbed and forbidding world of women” their fear and confusion around women metastasized. This argument is a fun house mirror. That it also involves the suppression of ‘heterosexuality’ feels like an unwitting historical joke.

Listing “close male friendships” across centuries, including from fictional work, does not make them equatable or even necessarily relatable. It merely flattens out and quiets the unique intensity of the attachment between, in this case, Lincoln and Speed and the unique intensity of their anxiety about women.

Strozier is almost entirely relying here on the work of E. Anthony Rotundo in his 1993 book American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era that makes general claims about sexuality and gender in the 19th century. Surely there were separate gender ‘spheres,’ surely this separation both offered a more conducive atmosphere for some level of intimacy between men and affected how heterosexual desire appeared or was talked and thought about, and surely these factors could facilitate or hinder men’s adjustment to their lives as married reproductive heterosexuals. But this diagramming tells us little about the intimacy or desire between any two particular men. While physical affection between men has, over the course of time, been more or less visible, this does not mean that it was equally so for every man or even that most men felt and displayed it to a similar degree. This framework sits askew the study of the psychological particularity and nuance of any actual relationship. Listing “close male friendships” across centuries, including from fictional work, does not make them equatable or even necessarily relatable. It merely flattens out and quiets the unique intensity of the attachment between, in this case, Lincoln and Speed and the unique intensity of their anxiety about women. In the context of Lincoln’s four letters to Speed (not the historical ‘context’ imported from another study), Lincoln is simply not fully persuasive in his argument that Speed fell for Fanny’s beauty, or even that he is fully in love with her. In this picture, the non-sexual ‘friend’ is not Lincoln or Speed but Woman, held up as a tantalizing idea, a picture to which Lincoln says, Look up! Look up, and believe!

In support of this narrative of adjustment, Strozier cites prominent theorists of ego psychology, a particular strand of psychoanalytic thought that is interested in the “commitments that focus the self on a life course,” which is how Strozier describes Lincoln’s path. This work may be a laudable goal in dealing with a patient in a clinical situation, but it has nothing to do with history other than a manipulation of the outcome, as if we were adjusting Lincoln for our standards and in relation to ourselves. Indeed, the history of ego psychology as an American phenomenon is intertwined with a moralizing brand of psychoanalysis that Freud explicitly denounced. One of its primary targets was ‘homosexuality,’ which it pathologized as a separate kind of ‘sexuality’ that could be worked through.[2] Strozier is avowedly accepting of homosexuality and gay people, and I believe him. He implies that if Lincoln was a homosexual (that is, if he had sex with men) then we would have to integrate that knowledge into our understanding of him. But all of these disclaimers miss the point that the handicap here is not a potential prejudice toward gay people but an inability to think outside of certain categories of thought and an unwillingness to let the feelings between people challenge any attempt to direct or explain them fully.

 

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That Lincoln’s fear of breakdown, and his deadlock of speech happens when a woman comes between him and Speed does not mean that the object of Lincoln’s obsession was, or would suddenly change to, a woman. Strozier even says that Lincoln’s direction of attention toward women is part of his negotiation of ‘woman’ as not there to simply steal Speed away from him. But he does fear being left behind. “I have been quite a man ever since you left,” he adds in a P.S. to Speed that keeps Lincoln’s image, his fleshly presence, in Speed’s mind as Speed readies to have sex with Fanny. No doubt Lincoln felt quite a man when the two men spent all their time together, before the threat of someone else, particularly a woman, intervening. He even tells Speed not to share his letters with Fanny. They are the evidence of their own consummation as the moment of sex approaches. That moment is an abyss of meaning. Lincoln’s words build a bridge over it between himself and Speed, distinguishing them both with their special “nervous debility.” Having come together around a shared temperament, they no longer risked falling into a feeling of morbidity, melancholy, or depression.

Strozier mentions that at this time Lincoln gives a temperance address, the text of which he sends to Speed to read aloud with Fanny. It is full of passion and rhetorical high notes, ending with a paean to the time when reason will subdue all passions. That will be a “Glorious consummation!” Lincoln preached.

Then Lincoln receives a letter from Speed, written just after the deed is done. Lincoln responds by narrating the action of his reading, of his opening the letter “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.”

Lincoln wanted to be there with Speed at the moment when a woman was unavoidable. Lincoln tried to take some control of the situation with his words while also giving Speed control, as if, in the end, they only needed each other. What knowledge did they form together? What did they share? That was their secret. But we can continue to feel its weight and import.

One of Freud’s founding discoveries was that ‘sexuality’ is not reducible to reproduction or the particular use of organs. If for animals, sexuality is limited to such behavior, for humans pleasure, fun, fear, and anxiety about something sexual are all operative beyond the particular mechanics of sexual intercourse. These feelings are the substance of the story of human sex. They register the desire for, and the impossibility of, a complete connection between any two people. This is an insight lost on many a psychoanalytic tradition, such as attested by the history of ego psychology. But it is also an insight that has been misunderstood to mean that Freud thought that everything was about sex. This misunderstanding is another example of the logic of sodomy distracting attention away from the question of how intimacy negotiates sexual acts without being equatable with them. ‘Woman’ is the mark of ‘sex’ for Lincoln and Speed and is crucial to understanding the tension they felt in relation to each other. But that does not mean that the resolution of that tension, let alone their pleasure and passion, could be achieved through sex with a woman. Desire between men is sexualized by its very attempt at sidestepping the Woman. Lincoln wanted to be there with Speed at the moment when a woman was unavoidable. Lincoln tried to take some control of the situation with his words while also giving Speed control, as if, in the end, they only needed each other. What knowledge did they form together? What did they share? That was their secret. But we can continue to feel its weight and import. There is no social relation that is un-affected by the excess, the feelings, around bodily communion. That is Freud’s discovery about sexuality. We imagine our completion and success with another person, but that is only a fantasy. We can only wrestle each other toward that end through force or reason.

[3]Upon hearing the news of Speed’s success, and believing his own words were vital to the process, Lincoln then moves more confidently into his marriage with Mary Todd that he had previously given up. Consummation offers no new knowledge, only a quick solution. Strozier, too, wants to settle the relationship between Lincoln and Speed. And yet, if they cannot be homosexual within his understanding, neither can the excessive feeling between them be untethered from their physical attachment, especially in their decision to sleep together for four years. So Strozier decides that their relationship establishes a new, “third level of friendship,” more than ordinary, more than idyllic, but not “sexual.”

What is most important about Lincoln and Speed’s relationship for us today is how it brought to the surface a web of affect that would weave itself across different configurations of men and women, together and separate, close and far, for years to come in each of their lives.

This embarrassing reach ever higher for unsmirched clarity simply reveals that ‘sex’ marks something wildly unstable around Lincoln and Speed. That is a common story. The way Strozier puts it is that their relationship “extended Lincoln’s youthful confusions about sex and marriage.” Certainly there was “tension, confusion, and possible hopelessness” generated between them. Even after Speed’s consummation with Fanny and the end of the men’s relationship proper, Lincoln quotes Speed as saying that “‘something indescribably horrible and alarming still haunts’” him. Marriage and sex with women does not necessarily settle the confusions.

What is most important about Lincoln and Speed’s relationship for us today is how it brought to the surface a web of affect that would weave itself across different configurations of men and women, together and separate, close and far, for years to come in each of their lives. Speed’s long-settling life with Fanny, especially as it produced no children, could easily have dimmed the feeling of being haunted that he reported to Lincoln, or at least have dimmed his awareness and discernment of it. It is the historian’s job to find its traces. Lincoln’s life to come was full of morbidly anxious moments. Whether he and Speed had sex, or wanted to, or even whether they could be called ‘gay’ by some other measure is entirely beside the point. The flow of affect around their confrontations with people and opportunities in life is forever unsettled, and, for that, most consequential. Letting those feelings unsettle us would be endlessly productive for our own continued thought about Lincoln and how his ‘sexuality’ affected the world.

[1]  For a finer-grained understanding of this history, and the logic of sodomy, see Mark Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (1997) and Alan Bray, The Friend (2003).

[2]  For more on this history, see Henry Abelove’s article “Freud, Male Homosexuality, and the Americans” in his book Deep Gossip (2003).

[3]  For a more theoretical take on Freud’s discovery, see Alenka Zupančič, “Sexual Difference and Ontology.”