‘We Are Lincoln Men’

November 26, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: The book is “We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends.” The author is the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Herbert Donald, professor emeritus of American history at Harvard. The author of two previous books on Lincoln, Donald offers in this book an unusual portrait of our 16th president through his relationships with six close friends. Welcome, Professor Donald.

DAVID HERBERT DONALD: Thank you so much. It’s good to be back.

MARGARET WARNER: After writing two books on Abraham Lincoln, why were you interested in returning yet again for a third book about his friendships?

DAVID HERBERT DONALD: I thought that the time had come to do something more personal. The big biography of Lincoln necessarily had to do so much with his political career, his ambitions, his accomplishments in public, with less time to spend on his private life, his inner life, and I thought this might be a way of getting at that.

MARGARET WARNER: And what did you find, in reading the accounts of his friends and in what you learned about the nature of friendships, about him, as a person, that didn’t come out in your other histories?

DAVID HERBERT DONALD: Well, as I got to work on this, it seemed to me there was a paradox. When you begin asking people, “what was the secret of Lincoln’s success?” the old- timers out in Illinois said he had so many friends, he had nothing but friends. And then you got to talking to people who perhaps knew him best, and people like his law partner said he had no friends at all, he didn’t know anybody, that nobody was intimate with him, and Herndon, his 16-year law partner, said, “he was the most shut-mouthed man who ever lived.” I love that phrase. He didn’t tell anybody anything. He didn’t confide.

So how could a man be a man who has no friends, but has nothing but friends? And so this was the kind of paradox that started me playing with this whole idea of what’s the meaning of friendship? How important is it for a public figure to have friends? What difference does it make?

MARGARET WARNER: All right, answer that question: What difference did it make for Lincoln, the few close friends he did have?

DAVID HERBERT DONALD: I think it made an immense amount of difference. We can think of a president who was surrounded by close, warm, trusted advisors, who might have a much easier life. His policies might not be different, but he was able, for example, to debate with them and say, “is this the way to go on the secession crisis, or should we do that?”

Lincoln had no such person that he could talk with. Often, as a result, he debated with himself, and he would draw up a kind of list of the pros and cons of an argument, and carefully figure them out, and he might test them in public. So he would test one line of reasoning with some friends and another with some others. Most would get out, and people would say, “this is the most confused, vacillating administration you ever saw!”

MARGARET WARNER: Go back and explain why you felt he had trouble forming friendships. You think it starts in his boyhood?

DAVID HERBERT DONALD: I think it started very early. First, Lincoln, remember, was growing up in pioneer southern Indiana, and there just weren’t any people around. There was no family living within two miles of his. We’ve done a survey of all the land records and the tax records to find out how many children there were around, and there really were practically no children Lincoln’s age. There was nobody that he could play with on a day-by-day basis. And psychoanalysts tell us that, especially for boys, and perhaps not so much for a girl, but if a boy at age sort of ten to 12, 14, doesn’t have a chum– somebody he can really identify with, talk to about everything, share secrets with, talk about his ambitions– this helps give him some degree of autonomy, self-definition, which you can’t have if there’s nobody around.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you’ve said he did form one friendship that you called a perfect or complete friendship, in his early twenties, Joshua Fry Speed.

DAVID HERBERT DONALD: Right. This is unusually late, as a matter of fact, of forming such a perfect friendship, using Aristotle’s terminology for that. He met Speed when he, Lincoln, was in his thirties. Speed was younger. Lincoln wanders into the store in Springfield. He wants to set up law practice. He gets the price of a mattress and a blanket and a couple of sheets, and then Speed totals him up at $17, and Lincoln says, “I haven’t got $17.” He says, “if you can trust me until Christmas, maybe my lawyering experience might allow me to pay you back, but if I can’t do it then, I’ll never pay you.” And Speed saw, this young man didn’t want to go into debt, of course. He said, “I’ve got a big room upstairs with a double bed. If you want to share it, it’s all right with me.”

Lincoln, without saying a word, picks up his saddlebag, which had his clothes on one side, a couple of law books on the other, goes up the steps. There’s a pause there for a moment. You hear kind of a thud on the floor as the saddlebags are dropped. And after a minute Lincoln comes down with that beatific smile– he had one of the most wonderful smiles we’ve ever had, it’s from ear to ear. “Speed,” he said, “I moved.” And for the next four years they shared the same room and the same bed.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, that raises an issue that you said you learned on your book tour last time was a big issue to people, about the nature of their relationship.

DAVID HERBERT DONALD: Apparently so. An extraordinary number of people kept asking on the last book tour, “Was Lincoln gay?” And so I felt it necessary to go into this in some detail. I think, with the gay liberation movement has had need for heroes and heroines, and it would be rather nice to have Abraham Lincoln as your poster boy, wouldn’t it? There have been some who tried to do that.

There’s one in particular, a man who’s campaigned along this, and I’m amused and rather proud, I must say, that he has denounced me because I don’t accept his views. They say, you know, David Donald can’t be believed because he is “a dried-up old Harvard heterosexual prune.” (Laughs)

That’s the most wonderful compliment anybody could pay to me. But I have tried to go over it very carefully, not merely what the evidence is, but with psychoanalysts and psychologists, and I think we’re just about all agreed that Lincoln and Speed did not have a homosexual relationship.

They were obviously fond of each other, they shared a great many things, and they loved each other in the way that Damian and Pytheas and David and Jonathan did. This was, I think, what Aristotle talked about, the perfect friendship.

MARGARET WARNER: Where they really shared things.

DAVID HERBERT DONALD: Oh, they shared everything.

MARGARET WARNER: So then, when… you’re saying when he got to Washington, I mean, you have four figures in the book who were friends, but that even, say, the secretary of state, William Seward, you wouldn’t have considered a really intimate friend.

DAVID HERBERT DONALD: That’s right. I think it’s very, very hard when you’re in middle age– I mean, Lincoln’s fiftyish now or when he becomes the president– to make a new, close, intimate friend. I think that’s hard for anybody. It’s even harder if you’re in a position of power and the other person is in a sense your appointee, your subordinate. This is the power relationship.

It’s remarkable that Lincoln and Seward got along as well as they did. They enjoyed each other. They had fun with each other. They told improbable, terrible puns to each other. I like… the best one of all, though, is Lincoln, as Seward comes visiting the White House, and he finds Lincoln down the staircase, of all things, where he’s blacking his own shoes. “Mr. President,” said the secretary of state, “in Washington, we do not black our own shoes.” And Lincoln looks up and says, “Well, Mr. Secretary, whose shoes do you black?”

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, you said at the very end of your book that you felt most great presidents– and you picked out several examples– have had a real confidant, someone they could really trust. So is Lincoln the exception, then– that is, a great president who didn’t– and why, why do you think then he was still able to be a great president?

DAVID HERBERT DONALD: I think he was a great exception. If you think of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge; Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins; John F. Kennedy, and his brother; or Milton… Eisenhower and his brother, Milton Eisenhower. How was Lincoln able to survive alone? Because he was desperately alone. And this is because fundamentally he had transcended his earlier friends. He’d outgrown them, as great men do, and they realized this, and some felt even discarded by him as he moved on into greatness. But it came at a great cost to him, and I think it would for any president.

MARGARET WARNER: David Herbert Donald, thanks so much.

DAVID HERBERT DONALD: Thank you. Aren’t you sweet?