Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

17

AL to Joshua F. Speed:
CW, 2:320–323

Lincoln first met Joshua Fry Speed, the son of wealthy Kentucky slaveowners, in 1837 in Springfield, Illinois, where the fellow Kentuckian operated a store. The two became fast friends and even shared a bed for almost four years in a room over Speed's store. They often exchanged intimate details of their lives, discussed women and wedding plans, and worked hard to build the town's Whig Party. By the time Lincoln had penned this private letter to his trusted friend, civil war had broken out in Kansas over slavery, and the North had become inflamed over enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. This remarkable letter to Speed was one of the only times that Lincoln freely expressed his personal views on the institution of slavery, and he did so without fear that his words would end up on the front page of a newspaper. Clearly, the sight of shackled slaves pained Lincoln considerably, but he assured his slaveholding friend that he and others like him in the North were willing to suppress their resentment of so terrible a system for the sake of the Union. While Speed was prepared to execute proslavery terrorists in Kansas, like the Stringfellow brothers, to satisfy the North, Lincoln viewed such sentiments as irrelevant to the national crisis since his good friend and others like him inflexibly insisted on their right to take their “property” into the territories. Moreover, as Lincoln would reiterate in his many debates with “Judge” Douglas, the failure to accept the Founding Fathers' view of equality—which still encompassed racial discrimination—would lead to the destruction of true liberty. “When it comes to this,” Lincoln wrote, “I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.”

-77-

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