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The New World of Male Friendship

The case of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed

Men talk of bromance and a new kind of buddy system, of searching for soul mates, even love, but not in the context of sex. That is the point in this new world of male friendship. It is relatively new, and very old, at the same time. In the contemporary era, when marriage is delayed, we see a new world of friendship in the life cycle of young men. These are relationships that are chosen and without the obligations of children, property, or money. What do such young men hope for in another? How can we understand their closeness and its larger meaning for society? Inevitably, in our fluid and uncertain times, we long for models of such friendship, and none is more dramatic and appealing than the friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed.

That friendship and its larger psychological and historical meanings will be the subject of this blog. I have been working on aspects of the friendship between Lincoln and Speed for some 40 years and recently (and finally) pulled my thoughts together in my new book, Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed that was published by Columbia University Press. That book follows my earlier study, Lincoln’s Quest for Union (1982), which explores some of the more general themes in the psychology of Lincoln. I will be discussing aspects of the Lincoln-Speed friendship and of the psychology of Lincoln on a regular basis and look forward to your comments as we proceed.

The story of young man Lincoln is absolutely fascinating, full of drama and twists and turns, as this extremely talented figure worked through some major psychological issues, mostly in the context of his close friendship with Joshua Speed. Historians have broken apart the period from 1837 to 1842 to fit their interpretations of young Lincoln. But such fragmentation skews the story. In fact, those years from Lincoln’s arrival in Springfield to his marriage only make sense if seen as of a piece, as one coherent psychological moment in the making of Abraham Lincoln. It was a time of crisis for him, bracketed by two major and suicidal depressions. Lincoln could easily have slid into a lifetime of despair in which his talents would never have been realized. Instead, and primarily through his friendship with Joshua Speed, Lincoln vicariously resolved his deep confusions about love and intimacy and found his way back to Mary Todd, who had graciously waited for him. In the process, Lincoln established a cohesive self that would never again risk clinical depression and would break free to imagine a new future for himself and eventually, in the fires of war, foster a new birth of freedom for the country. Others have told that later story well. My task is the making of Lincoln. It is one of the more interesting personal stories of a young great man finding himself.