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ARTICLES Joshua and James Speed

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 Read more about “Louisville and the Civil War: A History & Guide” 

Louisville and the Civil War: A History & Guide.  This book traces the Civil War in Louisville and gives the reader a sense of how the city looked towards the Union and the Confederacy.  This includes discussion of how Louisville turned from a very pro-Union city towards supporting the Confederacy, or at least the Lost Cause.

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The friendship between Joshua Speed and Abraham Lincoln lasted from April 1837 until Lincoln’s death in April of 1865.  Joshua Speed became Lincoln’s most devoted and closest friend.  The friendship spread to his brother James Speed, who later became Lincoln’s Attorney General in 1864.  This is the story of two brothers who became Lincoln’s closest and devoted friends.

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John Speed of Jefferson County, Kentucky married Lucy Fry and had eleven children.  John Speed became a successful plantation owner growing hemp.  With his wealth, he built Farmington, located off Bardstown Road in Louisville.  Farmington became the scene of lavish Southern hospitality.  John Speed’s son, James Speed, was born on March 11, 1812.  Another of John Speed’s sons was Joshua Speed, who was born on November 14, 1814.  Lucy Speed devoted her life to educating her children.  James Speed attended a small country school and later entered Saint Joseph’s College at Bardstown, Kentucky.  After graduation, he prepared for a career in law and attended Transylvania University.  In 1833, he returned to Louisville and began a two-year law partnership with Henry Pirtle.  Joshua Speed also attended good private schools and studied for two years under Bishop Reynolds at Saint Joseph’s College in Bardstown, but Joshua took a different path.  He decided to make his way in life on his own and quit school and traveled west.  In 1835, he established a mercantile store in Springfield, Illinois, a town of less that 1,500 people.

Joshua Speed

On April 15, 1837, a tall, angular young man with lean, wrinkled cheeks and sad gray eyes walked into the general store in Springfield, Illinois and placed a pair of saddle bags on the counter.  He asked the young owner of the store the price of a mattress, blankets, sheets, coverlid, and a pillow for a single bed.  The store owner calculated the items at seventeen dollars.  The young man replied: “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.”  The store owner looked up into the face of his customer and said: “You seem to be so much pained at contracting so small a debt, I think I can suggest a plan by which you can avoid the debt and at the same time attain your end.  I have a large room with a double bed which you are welcome to share with me.”  The customer asked: “Where is your room?”  “Upstairs,” the owner replied, pointing to a pair of winding stairs which led from the store to the room.  The young man picked up his saddle bags, went upstairs, set them down on the floor, returned below and explained “Well, Speed, I’m moved!”  From that moment on, Joshua Speed and Abraham Lincoln became the best of friends.

In 1839, Lincoln drew Joshua Speed into Whig Party politics and by 1840 Lincoln debated politics with Stephen Douglas in Joshua Speed’s store around the stove.  But in the spring of 1840, tragedy struck Lincoln and the Speeds.  By mid March 1840, James Speed planned to marry Jane Cochran, but the wedding was scarred by the death of their father John Speed, who died on March 31, 1840.  Lincoln also broke off his engagement to Mary Todd and Lincoln fell into a deep depression.  Although Joshua Speed would have like to stay with Lincoln to console his friend, he had no choice but to return home to attend to his father’s estate.

As soon as Joshua Speed returned to Kentucky, Lincoln wrote to him.  Lincoln wrote about the murder trial of Archibald Fisher, which produced “the highest state of excitement here for a week past that our community has ever witnessed.”  Speed invited Lincoln to visit him in Louisville, and Lincoln promised to come.  In August of 1841, he arrived.

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James Speed

According to legend, Lincoln occupied the big front room on the left of the wide hall at Farmington.  He was assigned a servant for his personal needs from among the slaves.  While he stayed at Farmington, Lincoln and Joshua walked the property that surrounded the massive plantation.  Joshua rode with Lincoln into the country and he had pleasant chats with Mrs. Lucy Speed.  He played children’s games with Mary, Joshua’s older half sister, and once in a playful mood shut her up in a room to prevent her, as he said, “from committing assault and battery upon me.”  Lincoln adored Eliza Davis, a niece visiting in the Speed home.  He occasionally rode into Louisville where he spent many hours with James, who continued his law practice there.  Lincoln read many of James’s books and spoke with him “about slavery and the questions of the day.”  Unfortunately, on one of his visits to Louisville, Lincoln visited a dentist who tried to extract a tooth and failed.  Luckily, Mrs. Speed served Lincoln dishes of peaches and cream.

While he was at Farmington, Lincoln tried to forget his unpleasant affair with Mary Todd, but his friend Joshua had fallen in love with Fanny Henning, who visited her uncle John Williamson, on a farm nearby Farmington.  Lincoln rode with his friend Joshua on some his visits to see Fanny, but Williamson got in the way for Joshua to do any real courting.  One night, Lincoln helped Joshua by monopolizing Williamson’s attention in discussion of politics, so Joshua could sneak away with Fanny.

One morning during Lincoln’s visit, Mrs. Lucy Speed noticed that Lincoln was moody, and when she knew they were alone, she handed him an Oxford Bible and advised him to read it.  She stated that he should adopt the bible’s precepts and pray for the book’s promises.  She made a deep impression on Lincoln, and he never forgot the gesture.

Farmington — The Speed Family's Homestead

As the summer came to a close, Lincoln and Joshua prepared for their journey back to Springfield, Illinois.  They boarded the steamboat Lebanon for St. Louis.  On board the steamboat, Lincoln noticed a fine example for “contemplating the effect of condition upon human happiness.”  He came across a slave owner and his slaves.  Lincoln wrote that a gentleman purchased twelve blacks in different parts of Kentucky and planned to take them to a farm in the South.  Lincoln noticed the slaves chained six and six together.  A small iron handcuff was around the left wrist of each, and the chain fastened to the main chain by a shorter one at a convenient distance from the others, so that the slaves were strung together “like so many fish upon a trout line.”  Lincoln wrote that in this condition the slaves were separated forever “from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where.”  The scene Lincoln witnessed at the Louisville wharf would never leave him and influenced him a great deal.

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On February 14, 1842 Joshua Speed married Fanny Henning.  On November 2, 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd.  The letter writing between Lincoln and Joshua Speed continued their letter writing.  Lincoln continued to run for political office and strengthened his skills as a lawyer.  Joshua Speed became a plantation owner, with fourteen slaves.  James Speed continued his law practice.  Although Joshua Speed owned slaves, James Speed became an emancipationist and disliked the institution of slavery.

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Joshua’s and Lincoln’s letter writing became less frequent over the next couple of years, but both men had legitimate reasons as to why they could not keep up their correspondence writing, as Joshua and James were elected to office in 1847 and 1848, and Lincoln began to raise his family and climb the political ladder.  James Speed worked towards emancipation in the state.  By 1850, James Speed gave up politics and returned to his law practice.  Joshua Speed gave up politics, and farming, and moved into Louisville to go into a real estate business with his brother-in-law James Henning.

By 1854, slavery began to tear the country apart.  Joshua and Lincoln also differed in their views over the issue of slavery.  Lincoln wrote to Joshua that he disliked slavery and that Joshua admitted the abstract wrong of the institution of slavery, but Joshua wrote that he would see the Union dissolved than yield his legal right to the slave, “especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested.”  Lincoln admitted that he acknowledged Joshua Speed’s rights and his obligations, under the Constitution, in regard to slaves, but he wrote that he hated to see “the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils, but I bite my lip and keep quiet.”  Lincoln told his friend that the subject of slavery made him miserable.

By 1858, James Speed quit his job as a professor at the University of Louisville.

In the 1860 Presidential election, Lincoln won the presidency and Joshua Speed rejoiced in his friend’s victory, but he also knew that the Southern states would no longer listen to Lincoln.  He knew that Lincoln would need to help him preserve the Union and began to secure loyal men.  Lincoln trusted Joshua Speed and met with him in Chicago on November 22, 1860.  Lincoln offered Joshua a position in his cabinet, but he turned the position down.  On April 12, 1861, the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter starting the Civil War.  Kentucky declared neutrality.  In May 1861, William Nelson, a commander in the Navy and Lovell Rousseau met with Lincoln.  Nelson persuaded Lincoln to send arms to Union sympathizers in Kentucky.  Lincoln arranged for five thousand weapons to be secretly shipped from Washington, D. C. to Louisville.  Lincoln directed Nelson to meet with Joshua Speed for the distribution of the weapons.  Nelson met with Joshua Speed at his office.  Joshua agreed to help distribute the weapons and decided that a Union strategy session must take place.  James Speed, Joshua Speed, and William Nelson left for Frankfort.  Kentucky’s most prominent Unionist leaders met at the Capitol Hotel.  The members agreed that Joshua would make arrangements for the distribution of the weapons and that all orders for weapons that were to be distributed to selected men in various sections of the state had to be countersigned by him.  James Speed met with Governor Oliver Morton of Indiana to secure more weapons for Jeffersonville, Indiana.  James and Joshua Speed made arrangements for weapons to be secretly hidden in the basement of the Jefferson County Courthouse.  Unofficially Joshua and James Speed became Lincoln’s informants on the state of affairs in Kentucky.  Lincoln wrote to Union General Robert Anderson, military commander of the district of Kentucky, that Joshua Speed was “less known to the world than other gentlemen, is far better known to me than either of them; and I have the utmost confidence in his loyalty and integrity, and also in his judgment on any subject which he professes to understand.”

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Captain William Nelson ran out of weapons and asked Joshua Speed if he could persuade Lincoln to send another five thousand weapons.  On June 5, 1861, Lincoln sent another five thousand weapons.  Union General William T. Sherman turned to Joshua Speed for help.  Sherman needed arms, uniforms, and accoutrements.  Speed returned with ten thousand weapons for Sherman’s men.  Sherman asked Joshua: “How is this that more attention is paid to the requests of you, a citizen, than me, a general in the army?  You had better take command here.”  Quietly Joshua told Sherman of his friendship with Lincoln and then said: “The only mistake you made, General, was not asking for more.”

On August 4, 1861, James Speed took a position in the Kentucky State Senate.  James Speed, along with the Union Central Committee helped to prosecute those who were disloyal in the Kentucky legislature and also controlled the state arms.  James Speed pushed hard to seize property of disloyal citizens.

As 1861 came to a close, Joshua and James Speed helped Lincoln in securing Kentucky in loyal hands.  Joshua and James also managed to secure valuable arms and ammunition for the Unionists and the newly formed Union regiments.  Although Confederate troops took Bowling Green, Cumberland Gap, and Columbus, Kentucky, Louisville and Frankfort remained in Union hands.  Lincoln worried that Kentucky might fall into Confederate hands, but with the help of Unionists such as Joshua and James Speed, his fears of a Confederate Kentucky faded from his mind.

As 1862 arrived, Joshua and James Speed continued to work to keep Lincoln informed about the conditions in Kentucky.  James Speed became more radical in his views toward Confederate sympathizers and passed laws limiting their freedoms.  Joshua Speed continued to secure arms and ammunition for the Union troops.

In July 1862, Lincoln asked Joshua and James Speed’s opinion on the Emancipation Proclamation, and both Joshua and James Speed thought the proclamation a bad idea.  Joshua told Lincoln that many Unionists in Kentucky with pro-slavery views would reject his proposal and he advised the President against issuing the proclamation.  James Speed thought the proclamation would not do any good and most probably do more harm.  He stated that the black man can not be emancipated by proclamation.  “If the white man does not liberate him under the operation of laws of political economy, he must share in the dangers that are to be encountered in his liberation-Let the Negro be no party to the force which is applied for his liberation, as soon as that force is withdrawn he would sink into slavery again.  If he has not the spirit to strike for freedom, he has not the pride of character to make him keep it when given to him.  It seems to me that commanders should have full authority to make such use of them as the exigencies of the service demands.  A sweeping proclamation would be idle because impracticable.  It would but delude the poor Negro, and shock most violently the prejudice of many in the north and all nearly in the south.”  For the first time, Lincoln did not heed the advice of his friends from Kentucky, and decided to push his proclamation.

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As 1863 came to a close, Kentucky’s political landscape changed when Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.  The Kentucky Peace Democrats and Union Democratic Party both stood against Lincoln.  Joshua and James Speed may not agree with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but they stood by Lincoln.  Both brothers became disillusioned with the Union Democratic Party and looked for a new party that supported Lincoln.  James Speed, along with Reverend Robert J. Breckinridge, formed the new Unconditional Union Party, which stood for the crushing of the rebellion, emancipation, and the support of black Union soldiers.  James Speed became a radical in his state and supported federal emancipation.  Joshua Speed also changed his view on slavery and supported the new Unconditional Union Party.  Both brothers fought against the tide of Kentuckians who turned away from the Union and Lincoln.

Joshua Speed's Interment
at Cave Hill Cemetery

In May 1864, James Speed supported Union General Stephen Gano Burbridge’s effort to recruit black Union soldiers and that Burbridge’s removal from command would be a “calamity.”  James Speed supported Burbridge’s brutal iron hand on Kentucky as military commander.  James Speed’s support of Burbridge would not help him win friends in Kentucky.

By the end of 1864, after Lincoln won the election, Lincoln’s Attorney General Edward Bates decided to step down.  Lincoln turned to Joshua Speed, but he turned the position down, so Lincoln then turned to Joshua’s brother James Speed.  James Speed accepted the position.  James and Joshua Speed also turned against Burbridge and informed Lincoln of the affairs between Kentucky Governor Thomas Bramlette and General Burbridge.  Lincoln relieved Burbridge of command in February of 1865.

While Attorney General, James Speed gave one hundred and sixteen opinions to Lincoln.  He gave his opinion on such topics as the Draft Laws of 1864 and 1865, government confiscation of enemy property, conflicting land claims, bounties to soldiers, violations of the slave trade status, railroad bonds in the west, Native American relations, issues in Panama, Japan, and Hawaii, and court-martials.

In April 1865, Joshua Speed paid his friend Lincoln a visit in the White House.  Joshua found Lincoln “jaded and weary.”  The meeting between Lincoln and Joshua Speed would be their last.  On April 15, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s theater.  James Speed was called to Lincoln’s bedside at the Peterson House.  He took eyewitness testimony.  After Lincoln’s death, James Speed became involved with the conspirators and assassins of Lincoln.  James Speed gave his opinion that the conspirators should be tried in a military court, not a civilian court.  Joshua Speed met with the citizens of Louisville to mourn the President’s death and to draft resolutions to send to President Andrew Johnson, pledging their faith and loyalty.  Joshua became vice president of the meeting to officially mourn Lincoln’s death in Louisville and assisted in the arrangements for a memorial service for Lincoln.

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James Speed's Interment
at Cave Hill Cemetery

After the war and Lincoln’s death, James Speed continued on as Attorney General, issuing pardons and dealing with reconstruction.  James Speed wanted to carry on Lincoln’s legacy by granting black suffrage and equality, but President Andrew Johnson disagreed.  On July 13, 1866, James Speed resigned in protest.  Upon his return to Kentucky, James Speed decided to form the Republican Party in his home state.  James Speed knew that his decision would prove fruitless, but he had to try.  He ran for office several times, but lost.  He finally returned to the University of Louisville as a professor and resumed his law practice.  Joshua Speed preserved Lincoln’s memory by contributing to Lincoln’s memorial in Springfield, Illinois and writing about his friend.  He accumulated a vast amount of wealth and pioneered many public improvements and became president of the Louisville and Portland Canal Company, president of Short Line Railroad, director of the Louisville and Bardstown Turnpike Company, and the Talmage Ice Company.  He was president of the Louisville Hotel, director of the Louisville Vault Company, the organizer and director of the Louisville Cement Company, and director of the Savings Bank of Louisville.

On May 29, 1882, at the age of sixty-seven, Joshua Speed passed away in the Louisville Hotel.  In his obituary, the Louisville Courier-Journal stated that “there was no one more exact in his justice, even to the minutest questions.  He was strong willed, but fair, and his sense of honor was unsurpassed.  Hundreds of Negroes in and about the city will mourn for Mars Josh.  He was their special friend in time of need.”  Joshua Speed was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery.

On June 25, 1887, James Speed passed away in his home near Crescent Hill in Louisville.  The Louisville Bar met to honor James Speed.  Some of Kentucky’s most prominent judges served as honorary pallbearers.  He was also buried in Cave Hill Cemetery.

In conclusion, Henry Watterson, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, wrote the best tribute to Joshua and James Speed. He wrote:

The affinity between James Speed and Joshua Fry Speed was close in the extreme-and beautiful to see.  No two brothers ever held nearer together.  In their likes and dislikes, in their simple, unconventional pleasures, at work or at play, they displayed the same bent; always moderate but fixed and firm; reserved yet not ungenial; the sense of cast, perhaps only half conscious, but very obvious and not at all intrusive.

Joshua Fry Speed's undervaluation of his intellectual gifts, as Lincoln well knew, amounted to an obsession.  He was a very able man.  But he lived in the ideal, he had made of James Speed, who had prepared himself for the law and an ambitious career, while he had gone, very successfully be it known, into trade.  James Speed, on the other hand, with perfect confidence in his own judgments, was constrained-one might call it pride-to a fault.  He was a man of scrupulous fidelity; sometimes, as those who knew him thought, carrying his conception of personal honor to unnecessary extreme.
Joshua and James Speed are the subject of Bryan's book, Lincoln and the Speeds: The Untold Story of a Devoted and Enduring Friendship.
This specific article is under full copyright.  Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved.
Modified Monday, November 5, 2007

Next Keynote Article: “Lieutenant James Hardin, 15th and 3rd Kentucky Union Infantries”

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Link Reference

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