Huge swathes of my life are lived with the repeat button on. The same conversations, the same situations, come round again and again. I’ll find myself talking to someone and the same phrases come to my lips, phrases that bored me before I first uttered them, which was quite possibly decades ago.
Families live a life of recurrence; so too, organisations and countries.
In Australia, for example, we keep having the same conversation about refugees and immigrants we’ve been having since before the adoption in 1901 of a “White Australia” policy. The standout infamies just relieve the monotony, including the Prime Minister’s refusal in 2001 to allow the Norwegian container ship, the SS Tampa, to come ashore with a cargo of Afghani refugees rescued from the sea.
We keep having the same conversation about Aborigines, the indigenous peoples who were slaughtered upon white settlement and, amid continuing indignities and disgraces, were governed under the Flora and Fauna Act of Australia until 1967.
We keep having the same conversation about women, with the CEO of an influential agricultural lobby, just the other day, calling our female, childless Prime Minister, “an unproductive old cow”.
With so much of our lives lived on repeat, genuine advances can occur as shocking and exhilarating. A robot landing on Mars? How did that manage to get through the project management gates? It’s also why, when it comes time, I’m going to be mighty surprised no doubt when I go out of here in a box. “But I thought nothing was happening”, I imagine myself protesting.
In the face of our recurring experience, it’s incredible that anything big comes to pass, that anything really changes. And yet it does. Reading about the male relationships in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln is extraordinary for that very reason: it’s so unlike today.
In 1837, Lincoln arrived in the town of Springfield, Illinois, a community of about 1500 people.
He was 28 years old and just getting over the death from typhoid of his first great love, Ann Rutledge. He had met Ann in New Salem where he had worked variously as a flatboatman, clerk, merchant, postmaster and surveyor, all the while studying furiously at night to become a lawyer through a self-devised program of study.
When he arrived in Springfield he thought he was ready to launch his “experiment” in the law, as he put it. What happened next was typical of the luck or skill with which he established friendships.
With no place to stay and no money to buy provisions, he wandered into the general store in the town square. He asked the young proprietor, Joshua Speed, how much it would cost to buy “the furniture for a single bed. The mattress, blankets, sheets, coverlid, and pillow.”
Speed estimated it would cost $17. Lincoln agreed it was “perhaps cheap enough” but he had no money to pay. He asked Speed for credit until Christmas which was when he reckoned he’d know if his legal venture was going to work. He added,
If I fail in this, I do not know that I can ever pay you.
While the two men had never met, Speed had heard Lincoln speak a year before and “came away deeply impressed.” Decades later, Kearns says, “he could still recite Lincoln’s concluding words.”
Speed then does what would be unthinkable to us today. He offers Lincoln his own bed.
You seem to be 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 upstairs, which you are very welcome to share with me.
Thus it is that Lincoln spends the next four years sharing a room and bed with Joshua Speed, a man five years his junior from a very prosperous family, who would become his closest friend.
Kearns notes that some have suggested the relationship may have been a homosexual one, but Kearns thinks not.
She provides evidence that male friendships of the time were “accompanied by open expressions of affection and passion” and sharing a bed with others was common practice. The judges and attorneys travelling around Illinois, for example, of which Lincoln was one, regularly shared beds. And some years later, after Lincoln has started his political career, he meets Seward for the first time, a man who was already very famous, and who would become his rival for the Republican nomination and later his Secretary of State. On the very next night following their meeting, they share a bed.
Kearns describes the scene:
As the conversation drew to a close and the two men went to sleep side by side, they must have presented a comical image – the one nearly half a foot longer and a decade younger; Seward’s disorderly mass of straw-coloured hair on the pillow beside Lincoln’s wiry shock of black hair.
Even Chase, one of Lincoln’s other rivals, a man who suffered greatly from a rigid and disciplinarian approach to life and “did not make friends easily”, enjoyed the extravagant affection of Edwin M Stanton and a correspondence any woman would envy.
Allow me my dear friend again this evening to enter your study – you know I like it better than the parlour even without fire – but the fire is blazing there – let me take you by the hand throw my arm around you, say I love you, and bid you farewell.
The more things change, the more things stay the same. The more things change, the more things change.
Stay tuned for more stories from Kearns’s book.
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