Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Joshua Speed, Explaining that He is Not a Know-Nothing – Introduction

We explain and annotate a letter Abraham Lincoln sent to Joshua Speed which shows how Lincoln opposed the Know-Nothings and Slavery.[1][2][3]

Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed met in Springfield, Illinois, during the 1830s.

In this letter, Lincoln expresses his thinking about slavery to Speed, a close friend who grew up on a plantation, owned slaves, and supported the “free soil” “states’ rights” position (the position that said slavery would phase out and states should choose; the Confederate position by contrast said, states should choose, but supported slavery).

In other words, Lincoln is speaking frankly to a man who supports a different political position than him, and was both a slave owner (something Lincoln obviously disagreed with) and his friend.

The year before Lincoln wrote this letter the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed Congress.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act (a Free Soil-like “States’ Rights” compromise that led to Bleeding Kansas) repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (passed with the help of Henry Clay, Lincoln’s idol) and opened the territories to slavery.

The passage of this bill, was a turning point in Lincoln’s career and in the political environment of the country (it was one of the main direct causes of the tensions that led to Civil War along side Lincoln’s election).

As Lincoln observed, “I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again.”

Below we present the letter to Speed and explain the many different lessons we can learn about Lincoln and the times he lived in from it.

NOTES: Below I have annotated Lincoln’s letter to stress the important parts, specifically we want to stress the parts that show that Lincoln was a Northern moderate social liberal who stood with Clay and the old socially liberal Whigs, stood against the socially conservative Confederate south, stood against the Whigs off-and-on-again allies the “America first” “anti-immigrant” “Know-Nothings” (who essentially were the Tea Party of the mid 1800’s), and took a position that criticized the position of his sometimes allies the Free Soil Party (who, to be clear, wanted to stop the expansion of slavery, but not abolish it).

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be?

How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.”

We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes”

When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.”

When it comes to this 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 [sic].”

– Lincoln, the First Republican Party President… obviously the parties have switched in some ways (in that social liberals tend to now vote Democrat), but not in others (in that Know-Nothings still tend to side with Republicans). The one constant of course is the sideways insults to Russia.

Understanding the Factions of Lincoln’s Day

Before moving on to annotations, it is vital to understand:

The Southern States’ Rights Confederate Democrats, the Free Soil Liberals, the Know-Nothing Nativists, and the liberal North (Whigs and then Republicans) are four totally different factions.

Speaking roughly the States’ Rights Democrats and Free Soilers were offshoots of the Democratic Party, and the Know-Nothings and Whig/Republicans were offshoots of the Whig/Republican party. The reason each party was broken in two was that the argument over slavey and expansion was splitting the country apart, and each party represented a position on slavery (and immigration to some extent).

Lincoln was a Northern Republican / Whig liberal, but also an ally to the Free Soil liberals in ways.

The truth is, Lincoln had a spark of free soil ideology in him, as we can note from his Lincoln–Douglas debates where he, like he does in the letter, criticized and empathized with the Free Soil position.

Consider, even going into his campaign for President, Lincoln promised to stop the spreading of slavery, not abolish it. Despite this, the South seceded upon Lincoln’s election anyway, and thus the Lincoln we know from history emerges. TIP: Learn more about Lincoln’s character.

That point about the Free Soil position might be difficult to grapple with today for those who think of Lincoln as a saint, but the reality is that respect for Lincoln is not misplaced. The nuances of Lincoln’s position are well expressed by this letter, just like all his positions, and I think a read will absolve Lincoln in the readers eyes (which is why I have written about the letter and annotated it).

Lincoln is clearly criticizing the Free Soil position, and erring towards being an abolitionist, but certainly he doesn’t go as far as other Americans of the time in completely rejecting the Free Soil position.

Lincoln does however fully reject the Confederate (Southern Democrat) and Know-Nothing positions.

Here it is important to understand that no faction saw eye-to-eye, and that there was a full country to win the election of, so taking a stance against two positions and for one was almost a mandate of the time.

The Confederates didn’t really like the Know-Nothings, and at times the Know-Nothings allied with the Whigs and Republicans (less so in the very divisive 1850’s, but before and after that speaking loosely). Likewise, the Free Soil party didn’t really like the Confederates or Know-Nothings, but generally took a moderate position between all the parties (and were thus in ways the least divisive faction at the time; although most would find their moderate stance on slavery offensive today). However, none of the four factions really agreed on much at the time.

Details of the times aside, Lincoln’s letter shows his character is that of a moderate Whig, a friend to the abolitionists, a critical ally of the Free Soil position, and an opponent of slavery and the Know-Nothing position. He was however not a full blow “radical progressive.”

Lincoln was a spiritual descendent of Hamilton and Clay, he had some degree of tolerance for all the factions (as a “moderate” Republican), but this letter clearly illustrates he didn’t fully support any position outside of his own party.

TIP: In 1860 the parties had very clear platforms, and there was four of them vying for power, not just two (the four each represent a split in the major parties). Lincoln ran the moderately conservative and socially liberal Republican Party ticket (the party of the North and Coasts), John Breckenridge was a Socially Conservative Confederate of the Southern Democratic Party (the southern faction led the secession upon Lincoln’s election), Stephen Douglas was an anti-Know-Nothing States’ Rights Democrat who ran for the Democratic Party (a Democrat for popular sovereignty who won the border state Missouri), and John Bell ran for the Constitutional Union ticket (an ally of the Republicans who won some border states). When we think of the Confederates of the Civil War, we think of a very specific faction of Americans, the Socially Conservative Southern Democratic Party (not the Northern Liberal Democrats who are today represented by Obama and Bernie, and not even the Progressive Dixies like the Gores and LBJ).

Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Joshua Speed – Annotated

NOTE: Notes are in [brackets], spacing and formatted has been added to help the modern reader, however, I have left the spelling errors (so future copy and pasters don’t lose the integrity of the letter).

Springfield, Illinois
August 24, 1855

Dear Speed:

You know what a poor correspondent I am.

Ever since I received your very agreeable letter of the 22nd. of May I have been intending to write you in answer to it.

You suggest that in political action now, you and I would differ. I suppose we would; not quite as much, however, as you may think.

You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it.

[Lincoln is writing to Speed, a slave owner. Both are anti-slavery “on-paper” AKA “in abstract.” Speed is however going to take a “States’ Rights” (in this case Free Soil) stance, where Lincoln will take a more moderate, but Progressive left Whig/Republican stance].

So far there is no cause of difference. But you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave — especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved.

[Speed would sooner see the Union dissolved than see slavery ended by Federal power. Speed is arguably taking a position that would have been taken by the Free Soil Party, but was also taken by some moderate conservative Southern Democrats and their Northern Democrat allies.]

I am not aware that any one is bidding you to yield that right; very certainly I am not. I leave that matter entirely to yourself. I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves.

I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis.

You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable.

You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union.

I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligation to the contrary.

[Lincoln paints a difficult picture, then stops biting his lip and makes his stance on slavery and the Union clear.]

If for this you and I must differ, differ we must.

You say if you were President, you would send an army and hang the leaders of the Missouri outrages upon the Kansas elections; still, if Kansas fairly votes herself a slave state, she must be admitted, or the Union must be dissolved.

But how if she votes herself a slave State unfairly — that is, by the very means for which you say you would hang men?

Must she still be admitted, or the Union be dissolved?

[So here we can certainly confirm, in the 1850’s a main topic was “expansion and slavery“, if states should be slave, free, or free to choose, and the affect of this on the Union. The talks of secession were clearly in the air.]

That will be the phase of the question when it first becomes a practical one.

In your assumption that there may be a fair decision of the slavery question in Kansas, I plainly see you and I would differ about the Nebraska-law.

I look upon that enactment not as a law, but as violence from the beginning.

It was conceived in violence, passed in violence, is maintained in violence, and is being executed in violence.

  • I say it was conceived in violence, because the destruction of the Missouri Compromise, under the circumstances, was nothing less than violence.
  • It was passed in violence, because it could not have passed at all but for the votes of many members in violence of the known will of their constituents.
  • It is maintained in violence because the elections since, clearly demand it’s repeal, and this demand is openly disregarded.

You say men ought to be hung for the way they are executing that law; and I say the way it is being executed is quite as good as any of its antecedents.

It is being executed in the precise way which was intended from the first; else why does no Nebraska man express astonishment or condemnation?

[Lincoln starts the letter of innocently enough, but by this point he is in full debate/speech mode. His main point is that the law was violent in its nature, as it undid the Missouri Compromise which was holding the Union together.]

Poor Reeder [Andrew Horatio Reeder; Governor of Kansas] is the only public man who has been silly enough to believe that any thing like fairness was ever intended; and he has been bravely undeceived.

That Kansas will form a Slave Constitution, and, with it, will ask to be admitted into the Union, I take to be an already settled question; and so settled by the very means you so pointedly condemn.

By every principle of law, ever held by any court, North or South, every negro taken to Kansas is free; yet, in utter disregard of this — in the spirit of violence merely — that beautiful Legislature gravely passes a law to hang men who shall venture to inform a negro of his legal rights.

This is the substance, and real object of the law.

If, like Haman [Bible reference], they should hang upon the gallows of their own building, I shall not be among the mourners for their fate.

In my humble sphere, I shall advocate the restoration of the Missouri Compromise, so long as Kansas remains a territory; and when, by all these foul means, it seeks to come into the Union as a Slave-state, I shall oppose it.

[Lincoln clearly supports anti-slavery measures and opposes pro-slavery and shady “States’ Rights” measures.]

I am very loth, in any case, to withhold my assent to the enjoyment of property acquired, or located, in good faith; but I do not admit that good faith, in taking a negro to Kansas, to be held in slavery, is a possibility with any man.

Any man who has sense enough to be the controller of his own property, has too much sense to misunderstand the outrageous character of this whole Nebraska business.

But I digress. In my opposition to the admission of Kansas I shall have some company; but we may be beaten. If we are, I shall not, on that account, attempt to dissolve the Union.

On the contrary, if we succeed, there will be enough of us to take care of the Union.

I think it probable, however, we shall be beaten. Standing as a unit among yourselves, you can, directly, and indirectly, bribe enough of our men to carry the day — as you could on an open proposition to establish monarchy.

Get hold of some man in the North, whose position and ability is such, that he can make the support of your measure — whatever it may be — a democratic party necessity, and the thing is done.

[In the above section Lincoln makes a number of points. He is expressing support for the Union, noting the political differences of the North / South split, says that he would not seek to dissolve the Union even if the anti-slavery factions can’t win Kansas, and is expressing opposition to corruption and bribery, saying that one couldn’t bribe enough men to support slavery just like they couldn’t bribe enough to turn America back into a Monarchy.]

Appropos [sic] of this, let me tell you an anecdote.

Douglas [Democratic “Free Soil” Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois] introduced the Nebraska bill [the Kansas Nebraska Act] in January.

In February afterwards, there was a call session of the Illinois Legislature.

Of the one hundred members composing the two branches of that body, about seventy were democrats.

These latter held a caucus, in which the Nebraska bill was talked of, if not formally discussed.

It was thereby discovered that just three, and no more, were in favor of the measure.

In a day of two Dougla’s [sic] orders came on to have resolutions passed approving the bill; and they were passed by large majorities!!!

The truth of this is vouched for by a bolting democratic member.

The masses too, democratic as well as whig, were even, nearer unanamous [sic] against it; but as soon as the party necessity of supporting it, became apparent, the way the democracy began to see the wisdom and justice of it, was perfectly astonishing.

[In other words, Democrats and Whigs generally were all against the Nebraska act, but when the votes came in, the end result was it passing. Here this keys us in to the liberal Democrats being in a party with Socially Conservative Democrats and keeping a message that was perhaps more PC than their voting record. This also speaks to the idea of corruption and bribery, were the liberal Democrats being bought off and bribed? Why did so many Democrats oppose and then support Kansas-Nebraska Act?]

You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a Christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slaveholders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way.

Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly.

No such man could be elected from any district in a slave-state.

[In other words “all good Christians” like Speed who own slaves but, claim they abhor slavery, say stuff like “States’ Rights” and “we don’t hate them” “we just want to segregate”, but they never vote as kind as they dress up their words.]

You think Stringfellow & Co. [AKA Benjamin F. Stringfellow, a proslavery lawyer and his friends] ought to be hung; and yet, at the next presidential election you will vote for the exact type and representative of Stringfellow.

The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the master of your own negroes.

[To be super clear here, Lincoln just essentially claimed that the slave owner oligarchs were essentially controlling large portions of the vote in the new states… That sounds about right, it was just the sort of thing Bryan and the People’s Party would rebel against later. If we trust VO Key, we know the one-party south was funded by the Southern Oligarchs. It makes sense that the most wealthy Southern Oligarchs would have been slave holders, as this was a time before the Gilded Age industrialization really kicked in. So we don’t have Northern Bourbons and Carpetbaggers controlling the South yet.]

You inquire where I now stand. That is a disputed point — I think I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was in Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.

[In other words, Lincoln was a Whig, but he was a left-wing abolitionist Whig against Know-Nothing, slavery dressed up “States’ Rights”, and general corruption. He voted for the “Wilmot Proviso”, a proposal to prohibit slavery in the territory acquired by the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican War, “a good forty times”.]

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.”

When it comes to this 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 [sic].

[The above is that most famous and most important part of the letter. The one that shows Lincoln was not a Know-Nothing, and thus would be out-of-place in the post-Teddy, post-FDR, post-LBJ Republican party of today. Funny / not Funny how Lincoln uses Russia as an example of Despotism, to be fair, that was more true in those times… why do think Lenin rebelled?]

Mary will probably pass a day to two in Louisville in October.

My kindest regards to Mrs. Speed. On the leading subject of this letter, I have more of her sympathy that I have of yours. And yet let me say I am.

Yours friend forever
A. Lincoln


  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. Know Nothing
  3. Letter to Joshua Speed

"Lincoln’s Letter to Joshua Speed on Slavery and Know-Nothings Annotated and Explained" is tagged with: Abraham Lincoln, American Politics, Left–right Politics, Party Switching, United States of America