Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Meeting Cute

Yesterday I read Joshua F. Speed's Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, and Notes of a Visit to California, originally published in Louisville in 1896 but now available as an e-book.  I'd had it in mind to try to find a copy ever since I first heard of it years ago, in Charley Shiveley's Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers (Gay Sunshine Press, 1989).  The only copy I could locate was in the Lilly Library's rare book collection, which couldn't be checked out, so I never quite got around to reading it on-site.  Over the years Speed got more attention, thanks to C. A. Tripp's book which argued that Lincoln might have been gay and then Larry Kramer's book on the same theme.  Neither of which I've gotten around to either, I confess, which I rationalized with the notion that I should read Speed's book (pamphlet, rather) first.  The Reminiscences seems never to have been reprinted until it was scanned and published as an e-book.

Joshua Speed (1814-1882) was born and raised in Kentucky, but spent seven years in Springfield, Illinois running "a large country store, embracing dry goods, groceries, hardware, books, medicines, bed-clothes, mattresses, in fact everything that the country needed" (page 13 of the e-book) before he returned to Kentucky, where he spent most of the rest of his life.  He married, and farmed with his wife and slaves near Louisville for about nine years; served one term in the state legislature; and finally moved into Louisville, where he went into the real-estate business very successfully with his brother-in-law.  Though he was a slaveowner, he worked to keep Kentucky in the Union, and his efforts to that end renewed his friendship with Lincoln, which had largely lapsed when he left Illinois.  According to the sketch of his life that introduces the Reminiscences, Speed "made many trips to Washington" (4) and worked with Lincoln, his Cabinet, and the army there.  After the war he moved back to the countryside with his wife; they had no children.

Speed first noticed Lincoln, he says, in the spring of 1836, when he was deeply impressed by a speech Lincoln gave while running for re-election to the Illinois legislature.  But they didn't get to know each other until a year later.
It was in the spring of 1837, and on the very day that he obtained his [law] license, that our intimate acquaintance began. He had ridden into town on a borrowed horse, with no earthly property save a pair of saddle-bags containing a few clothes. I was a merchant at Springfield, and kept a large country store, embracing dry goods, groceries, hardware, books, medicines, bed-clothes, mattresses, in fact every thing that the country needed.  Lincoln came into the store with his saddle-bags on his arm. He said he wanted to buy the furniture for a single bed.  The mattress, blankets, sheets, coverlid, and pillow, according to the figures made by me, would cost seventeen dollars.  He said that was perhaps cheap enough; but, small, as the sum was, he was unable to pay it. But if I would credit him till Christmas, and his experiment as a lawyer was a success, he would pay then, saying, in the saddest tone, "If I fail in this, I do not know that I can ever pay you."  As I looked up at him I thought then, and think now, that I never saw a sadder face.

I said to him, "You seem 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 up-stairs, which you are very welcome to share with me."

"Where is your room?"  said he.

"Up-stairs," said I, pointing to a pair of winding stairs which led from the store to my room.

He took his saddle-bags on his arm, went up stairs, set them down on the floor, and came down with the most changed countenance.  Beaming with pleasure he exclaimed, "Well, Speed, I am moved!" [13]
It's a sweet story, isn't it?  It's easy to see why Shively singled it out.  Its import, however, isn't all that clear.  Speed doesn't say anything more about their friendship in Springfield.  They shared that double bed for four years, which can hardly be explained away as a convenience dictated by Lincoln's poverty.  That Lincoln continued sleeping with Speed for several years after he could have afforded a bed (and probably a room) of his own indicates that the arrangement was comfortable and probably pleasant for him. It doesn't necessarily mean they were copulating, but it can't be assumed that they weren't, at least at times. That upstairs room was also inhabited by Speed's clerk (and later Lincoln's law partner) William Herndon and Mr. Beverly Powell, which would have put a damper on the hot man-to-man sex sessions Shively (and Tripp and Kramer, and to be fair, I) fantasized.  According to Herndon, Speed told him Lincoln had patronized female prostitutes in that period, though the accuracy of that report is disputed, perhaps correctly; but if true, it also wouldn't rule out congress with males.

Shively also cited a report that as President, Lincoln sometimes shared a bed with his male bodyguard, who sometimes wore the great man's nightshirt.  The truth of this story is also disputed, and we probably will never know for certain.  Wishful thinking plays a major role on both sides of the disagreements.  This writer, for example, argues that "if Lincoln and Derickson did sleep together, it may have been a singular or uncommon occurrence dictated by some unusual circumstance rather than a regular part of Lincoln's routine during the month or more that Mary was away".  True, it "may be" -- but it's one thing to have to share a bed when you're young and broke, and another when you're the President of the United States.  It's hard for me to imagine the circumstances that would have forced the latter situation, but who knows?  Maybe Lincoln liked friendly company in his bed since the days he shared one with Speed, and (perhaps paradoxically, from today's point of view) a male bedfellow would be less scandalous than a female one.

To my mind, though, there's a good reason not to read Joshua Speed's account of sharing a bed with Lincoln as a reference to an erotic relationship.  He didn't write it in a diary, or in a private memoir not intended for publication: he wrote it as a lecture for public delivery.  I don't find it plausible that Speed meant his story to be understood by his audiences as a declaration that he and the martyred President were Sodomites, which is how two males' loving erotic relationship would officially have been regarded in the nineteenth century.  I'd like to think that the two young men had sex, if only because I've had a schoolboy crush on Lincoln since I was in first grade, but I also wonder if Speed would have told that story in public if he knew that the relationship had been sexual.  He would have known that his audiences wouldn't take for granted two young males who shared a bed would be having it off together, but I doubt he'd have cared to risk the "misinterpretation" or "misunderstanding," as such correct surmises are often called.  I'm not going to say definitely that neither Speed nor Lincoln was homosexual or bisexual, only that I don't think Speed's account of the beginning of their "intimate acquaintance" is evidence one way or the other.

One more thing about Joshua Speed: the second lecture bound with the Reminiscences is an account of Speed's visit to California with his wife in 1874.  It's interesting in its own right to read about cross-country travel in those days, and Speed's descriptions of the scenery are vivid.  He apparently loved flowers -- his country houses had notable decorative gardens -- and was attentive to details of the landscape.  It's also more entertaining than his eulogy for Lincoln, with a sense of humor that was surely influenced by Mark Twain.  I was especially impressed by what he had to say about the Chinese, of whom there were about 100,000 in the US in those days:
[The bigotry toward the Chinese in California] reminded me of the story of our Puritan forefathers.  When they met in council they had some religious misgivings about their cruel treatment to the Indians.  The council passed two resolutions:

"I. Resolved, That the earth and the fullness thereof belongs to the saints.

"2. Resolved, That we are the saints."

These were compromise resolutions, and passed unanimously.  If there be any saints in California, however, we did not see them...

Insignificant as is this number, our two great political parties, jealous of their rights – shame, shame on them! – at their last national conventions both passed resolutions indicative of their fears lest this handful of people would overrun our country, undermine our institutions, and endanger the liberties of forty millions of free white men and women.  Ours is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and every man and boy in California is ready to show his bravery by stoning a Chinaman [39]
As I mentioned, Speed owned slaves before the Civil War, but he expresses no nostalgia for those days in his reminiscences of Lincoln, and explicitly justifies the actions Lincoln took against slavery.  I think it says something good about Speed that he was so contemptuous of anti-Chinese racism as well, at a time when inciting panic against the Chinese was a safe and popular political position among American whites. There's a tendency to 'defend' bigots and racists of the past by saying that they were people of their time, and couldn't have known any better.  Speed seems to have been better than his time in numerous respects; there aren't many people of his time whose writing makes me wish I could have known them, but he's one.