Who was Abraham Lincoln’s closest friend? It is not an easy question to answer, but it is one that comes up occasionally.
From 1837 to 1842, for example, I think the answer is pretty clear: Joshua Speed was as close to Lincoln as anyone. When Lincoln was crippled by depression in January 1841, Speed remained by his side. Later that year, Lincoln spent three relaxing weeks at Farmington, the Speed family plantation, located just outside Louisville, Kentucky.
For those of you interested in Lincoln’s time at Farmington, you will be happy to read this story. Apparently, the Farmington Historic Plantation will unveil a new exhibit next month called, “Lincoln and Farmington: An Enduring Friendship.” The exhibit will examine life on the plantation during Lincoln’s visit. For example, in addition to members of the Speed family, nearly 60 slaves lived at Farmington.
When Lincoln returned from his visit to Farmington, he continued to correspond with Speed. I think those letters are incredibly interesting because Lincoln speaks candidly about personal matters. You can search his Collected Works, but you won't find him speaking quite so freely to anyone else.
However, as time went on, Lincoln and Speed exchanged fewer letters. By the mid-1850s, their friendship had all but died. In my view, Lincoln never again had a friend like Speed.
A few years ago, David Herbert Donald wrote a book about Lincoln’s friends. We Are Lincoln Men examined six key individuals in Lincoln’s life (Speed, William Herndon, Orville Browning, William Seward, John Nicolay, and John Hay). His conclusions were startling. Though Lincoln seemed to have all the qualities of a good friend—he was convivial, had a great sense of humor, and was interesting to be around—he was never able to maintain a “best friend” or a true confidant. Indeed, after the assassination those closest to Lincoln often questioned how well they really knew the man.
Though Judge David Davis was not included in Donald’s study, I’ve often been intrigued by his comments on the subject. Davis traveled the Eighth Judicial law circuit in Central Illinois with Lincoln for years; he heard Lincoln argue hundreds of lawsuits. The pair stayed in the same dirty taverns, took their meals together, and exchanged a thousand jokes. Their relationship was not confined to the courtroom. When Lincoln’s political ambition burned, Judge Davis did what he could to help advance his friend’s fortunes. By 1860, Davis helped Lincoln capture the Republican nomination for president; throughout the ensuing campaign, he served as Lincoln’s campaign manager; as president, Lincoln even appointed Davis to the United States Supreme Court. One might conclude that Lincoln and Davis had a particularly close relationship, yet it just wasn’t the case.
A year and a half after the assassination, Davis told Herndon that Lincoln was a “peculiar man.” Despite their close association, Lincoln “never asked my advice on any question…” Davis doubted whether Lincoln had “Strong Emotional feelings for any person—Mankind or thing. He never thanked me for any thing I did—never as I before said asked my advice about anything—never took my advice…” (David Davis to William H. Herndon, interview, Herndon’s Informants, 346, 348.)
Those are certainly interesting insights from someone who had spent a great deal of time with Lincoln.