The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Lincoln’s Early Views on Slavery

Today is President Abraham Lincoln’s 204th birthday. In honor of the occasion, we examine his early, often guarded, views on slavery. In a letter to his close friend Joshua Fry Speed, Lincoln reveals his personal beliefs prior to his presidency and the Civil War.

Speed and Lincoln met in 1837 when they became roommates, living above the store that Speed co-owned in Springfield, Illinois. Both men were from Kentucky, and they worked together to grow the Whig Party in the Springfield area.

Lincoln wrote this letter to Speed on 24 August 1855. At the time, the North and South were reaching a crisis over the issue of slavery in the United States. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois had introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which proposed allowing the new territories to determine the legality of slavery within their borders by popular sovereignty. This undermined the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and created the potential for an unbalanced relationship between the number of free and slave states.

In reference to his feelings about slavery, Lincoln mentions a river trip he and Speed took in 1841. They encountered a group of slaves on the boat, and it made a lasting impression on Lincoln. He writes:

You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border.

Speed and Lincoln did not agree about the Kansas-Nebraska Bill or slavery in general, but Lincoln felt no qualms about addressing their differing viewpoints. He continues:

It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution of the Union. I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligation to the contrary. If for this you and I must differ, differ we must.

Despite their divergent views, Lincoln signed the letter, “Your friend forever A. Lincoln.” And they did remain friends – even through the divisive Civil War.

Want to learn more about birthday boy Lincoln? Two exhibitions currently on display at the MHS explore his life and work: “Lincoln in Manuscript and Artifact” and “Forever Free: Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.” In addition, this online gallery features Lincoln-related artifacts from the Society’s collections.


permalink | Published: Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 1:00 AM


Feb 13, 2013, 10:55 am


Thanks for sharing such great information. And if anyone reading this still hasn't seen Lincoln (the movie), make sure you do. It's becoming one of my all-time favorites.

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