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474. Joshua F. Speed (Statement for William H. Herndon).

[by 1882]

Incidents in the early life of A. Lincoln;
by Joshua Speed — Louisville, Kentucky.

In 1834, I was a citizen of Springfield, Sangamon Co, Ill. Mr Lincoln lived in the country, fourteen miles from the town. He was a laborer, and a deputy surveyor, and at the same time a member of the legislature, elected the year previously. In 1835, he was a candidate for reelection. I had not seen him for the first six months of my residence there, but had heard him spoken of as a man of wonderful ability on the stump. He was a long, gawky, ugly, shapeless, man. He had never spoken as far as I know of, at the county seat, during his first candidacy. The second time he was a candidate, he had already made in the legislature, considerable reputation, and on his renomination to the legislature, advertised to meet his opponents, and speak in Springfield, on a given day. I believe, that that was the first public speech, he ever made at the court-house.


He was never ashamed so far as I know, to admit his ignorance upon any subject, or of the meaning of any word no matter how ridiculous it might make him appear. As he was riding into town the evening before the speech he passed the handsomest house in the village which had just been built by Geo. Forquer. Upon it he had placed a lightning rod. The first one in the town or county. Some ten or twelve young men were riding with Lincoln. He asked them what that rod was for. They told him it was to keep off the lightning. "How does it do it"? he asked. None of them could tell. He rode into town, bought a book on the properties of lightning, and before morning knew all about it. When he was ignorant upon any subject, he addressed himself to the task of being ignorant no longer. On this occasion a large number of citizens came from a distance to hear him speak. He had very able opponents. I stood near him and heard the speech. I was fresh from Kentucky then, and had heard most of her great orators. It struck me then, as it seems to me now, that I never heard a more effective speaker. All the party weapons of offense, and defense, seemed to be entirely under his control. The large crowd, seemed to be swayed by him as he pleased. He was a whig, and quite a number of candidates were associated with him on the whig ticket; seven I think in number; there were seven democrats opposed to them. The debate was a joint one, and Lincoln was appointed to close it, which he did as I have heretofore described in a most masterly style.

The people commenced leaving the court-house, when Geo, Forquer, a man of much celebrity in the state, rose, and asked the people to hear him. He was not a candidate, but was a man of talents, and of great state notoriety, as a speaker. He commenced his speech by turning to Lincoln and saying, "This young man will have to be taken down, and I am truly sorry that the task devolves upon me". He then proceeded in a vein of irony, sarcasm, and wit, to ridicule Lincoln in every way that he could. Lincoln stood, not more than ten feet from him, with folded arms, and an eye ashing fire, and listened attentively to him, without ever interrupting him. Lincoln then took the stand for reply. He was pale and his spirits seemed deeply moved. His opponent was one worthy of his steel. He answered him fully, and completely. The conclusion of his speech I remember even now, so deep an impression did it make on me then. He said, "The gentleman commenced his speech by saying that this young man would have to be taken down, alluding to me; I am not so young in years as I am in the tricks and trades of a politician; but live long, or die young, I would rather die now, than, like the gentleman change my politics, and simultaneous with the change, receive an office worth three thousand dollars per year, and then have to erect a lightning-rod over my house, to protect a guilty conscience from an offended God"

He used the lightning-rod against Forquer as he did everything in after life.

In 1837, after his return from the legislature, Mr Lincoln obtained a license to practice law. He lived fourteen miles in the country, and had ridden into town on a borrowed horse, with no earthly goods but a pair of saddle-bags, two or three law books, and some clothing which he had in the saddle-bags. He took an office and engaged from the only cabinet-maker then in the village, a single bedstead.


He came into my store (I was a merchant then), set his saddle-bags on the counter, and asked me "what the furniture for a single bedstead would cost." I took slate and pencil, and made calculation, and found the sum for furniture complete, would amount to seventeen dollars in all. Said he, "It is probably cheap enough; but I want to say that cheap as it is I have not the money to pay. But if you will credit me until Christmas, and my experiment here as a lawyer is a success, I will pay you then. If I fail in that I will probably never be able to pay you at all." The tone of his voice was so melancholy that I felt for him. I looked up at him, and I thought then as I think now, that I never saw so gloomy, and melancholy a face. I said to him; "The contraction of so small a debt, seems to affect you so deeply, I think I can suggest a plan by which you will be able to attain your end, without incurring any debt. I have a very large room, and a very large double-bed in it; which you are perfectly welcome to share with me if you choose". "Where is your room"? asked he. "Upstairs" said I, pointing to the stairs leading from the store to my room. Without saying a word, he took his saddle-bags on his arm, went up stairs, set them down on the floor, came down again, and with a face beaming with pleasure and smiles exclaimed "Well Speed I'm moved". Mr Lincoln was then twenty-seven years old, almost without friends, and with no property except the saddle-bags with clothes mentioned within.

Now for me to have lived to see such a man rise from point to point, and from place to place, filling all the places to which he was called, with honor and distinction, until he reached the presidency, filling the presidential chair in the most trying times that any ruler ever had, seems to me more like fiction than fact. None but a genius like his could have accomplished so much, and none but a government like ours could produce such a man. It gave the young eagle scope for his wing. He tried it and soared to the top!

In 1839 Mr Lincoln, being then a lawyer in full practice, attended all the courts adjacent to Springfield. He was then attending court at Christiansburg, about thirty miles distant. I was there when the court broke up. Quite a number of lawyers were coming from court, to Springfield. We were riding along a country road, two and two together, some distance apart, Lincoln and Jno. J. Hardin being behind. (Hardin was afterward made Colonel and was killed at Buena Vista). We were passing through a thicket of wild plum, and crab-apple trees, where we stopped to water our horses. After waiting some time Hardin came up and we asked him where Lincoln was. "Oh," said he, "when I saw him last" (there had been a severe wind storm), "he had caught two little birds in his hand, which the wind had blown from their nest, and he was hunting for the nest". Hardin left him before he found it. He finally found the nest, and placed the birds, to use his own words, "in the home provided for them by their mother". When he came up with the party they laughed at him. Said he, earnestly, "I could not have slept tonight if I had not given those two little birds to their mother".

This was the the flower that bloomed so beautifully in his nature, on his native


prairies. He never lost the nobility of his nature, nor the kindness of his heart, by being removed to a higher sphere of action. On the contrary both were increased. The enlarged sphere of his action, developed the natural promptings of his heart.

I enclose these incidents in the early life of Mr Lincoln — I do hope that you may prize them —

With kind regards to Stuart & Judge Gillespie when you see them I am

Your friend
Joshua F. Speed

Illinois State Historical Library: Speed Papers



1. This statement is in an unknown hand and seems to have been sent to William H. Herndon by Speed before his death in 1882. It first appeared in Oldroyd, 143 — 47.

2. The portion of the manuscript ending here, pages numbered [1] — 6, is in an unknown hand. The remaining portion, on a separate page, is in Speed's hand.