Senior Associate Editor, Publications
In this letter dated 24 August 1855, Abraham Lincoln, who had been defeated in an election for the United States Senate and was practicing law in Springfield, Illinois, writes to his close friend and confidante Joshua Fry Speed (1814-1882), setting forth his closely guarded personal feelings about slavery and the future of the Union should slavery be extended into the new territories.
In 1855, the armed struggle over slavery begins
Two weeks before Lincoln wrote this letter, John Brown snapped the reins of his one-horse wagon and left Ohio for points west. He had secretly collected money and weapons--especially artillery broadswords--from abolitionists across the North, loaded his wagon, and headed for Kansas to conduct his "peculiar business." Slave state supporters, many from Missouri, poured into the Kansas territory to crush the free soil movement and, if need be, kill men like Brown. These "border ruffians," as they would become known, would not tolerate limits on anyone's right to own slaves--and the South stood united behind them. More and more, Northerners wearied of the South's incessant demands and slavemasters' bullying tactics. In response, clergymen like New York's Henry Ward Beecher would send Kansas free staters Sharps rifles in boxes labeled "Bibles," and businessmen like Massachusetts's Eli Thayer organized free soil emigrants to alter the balance of power in the new territory. Brown, on the other hand, went west with several of his sons to put an end to slavery by any means necessary. In 1855, the country was at war.
The Kansas-Nebraska Bill
Lincoln crafted this important letter in the midst of enormous political upheaval. Congress and the nation fought bitterly over Stephen A. Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska bill, which Douglas had introduced into the Senate on 4 January 1854. Douglas, Lincoln's prime Illinois rival, hoped to ride the Kansas debate into the White House and argued that neither North nor South should settle the issue of slavery in the territories. Rather, the settlers themselves through popular sovereignty should decide whether or not there would be slaves in the West. The bill, as its opponents asserted, nullified the 1820 Missouri Compromise that banned slavery from the lands acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. The South believed that slavery would die unless it could expand into the territories, and the North came to believe that the nation would die if slavery expanded. The quarrel became political dynamite.
Shifting political alliances
The crisis over Kansas-Nebraska shattered the old Whig-Democratic alignment and, like a supernova, shot red-hot fragments pinwheeling into the political void. Particles of the blast, Whigs like Lincoln, Free Soilers, disaffected Democrats, and a host of antislavery politicians of varying stripes gradually cohered over the subject of slavery and transformed the political cosmos. Such a diverse group would inevitably harbor conflicting antislavery convictions, but most opposed any expansion of slavery as a lethal threat to the Union, to republicanism, and to the white race. Lincoln, slow to abandon the cherished legacy of Henry Clay, eventually left the moribund Whigs and joined the coalition that would soon label itself the "Republican party."
Some Republicans like Charles Sumner, the abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, supported equal rights for African Americans. Most disdained slavery but, like Lincoln, remained closely attuned to the racial priorities of their constituents. They sought to restrict the spread of slavery and the liberties of African Americans or, as Lincoln proposed, remove all blacks from North America. In Illinois, the state constitution barred the immigration of blacks and prohibited African Americans from testifying in all legal cases involving whites. During the Civil War, the state legislature even repudiated the Emancipation Proclamation. As this private letter testifies, Lincoln personally abhorred slavery and did not want racial or ethnic prejudice to govern the political principles of the nation. But publicly, Lincoln never veered far from the racial prejudices of white America. "I will say then," Lincoln proclaimed in 1858, "that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people." So long as both races inhabited the land, Lincoln concluded, "there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
Agreeing to disagree
In this letter, Lincoln reveals his personal convictions about these politically charged issues to Speed, the son of wealthy Kentucky slaveowners. He reminds his friend of a river journey they undertook in 1841 and seeing "ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons." That sight, according to Lincoln, "was a continued torment to me." Slavery, he contends, "continually exercises the power of making me miserable." Well aware that his friend's views on the subject differed from his own, Lincoln challenges Speed, writing "Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly ... The slave-breeders and slave-traders ... are as completely your masters, as you are the master of your own negroes." Despite their obvious differences of opinion on the matter of slavery, Lincoln signs himself "Your friend forever A. Lincoln."
Prior to the Civil War, Lincoln rarely committed his personal thoughts about slavery to paper. A masterful politician, he took care not to let his inner feelings be subject to public scrutiny. He could be so open in this case because of the special bonds he shared with his fellow Kentucky transplant, trusting implicitly that this letter would never find its way into a newspaper. Joshua F. Speed met Lincoln in 1837 when Lincoln stopped at the store that Speed co-owned in Springfield, Illinois, to inquire about the cost of bedding. The two became fast friends and shared a double bed over the store for four years. Speed and Lincoln spent many years laboring together to build Springfield's Whig party, confided in one another over various women and marriage plans, and formed the kind of intimate same-sex relationship that was only possible in the era before Freud and modern definitions of gender. For Lincoln and Speed, friendship and fraternal love trumped politics, as the two men could disagree on so fundamental an issue as slavery and still remain trusted friends--even through the Civil War.
Suggestions for further reading
Donald, David H. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Johnson, Samuel A. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The New England Emigrant Aid Company in the Kansas Crusade. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1954.
Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
McCall, Laura and Donald Yacovone, eds. A Shared Experience: Men, Women, and the History of Gender. New York: New York University Press, 1997, 195-221.
Morrison, Michael A. Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.