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James Speed

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American National Biography Online

Speed, James (11 Mar. 1812-25 June 1887), U.S. attorney general,
was born in Jefferson County, Kentucky, the son of John Speed
and Lucy Gilmer Fry, wealthy planters. He graduated in 1828 from
St. Joseph's College in Bardstown, Kentucky, worked as a clerk
for the county court for two years, then studied law at Transylvania
University in Lexington. In 1833 he began a law practice in Louisville.
Speed's family connections, gentlemanly demeanor, superior education,
and dedication to his clients soon made him a highly successful
lawyer. In 1840 he married Jane Cochran, with whom he had seven children.

Speed's political career was complicated by his and his family's
long opposition to slavery. He was no radical, however; surrounded
by business associates and friends who supported the institution,
he was a gradualist who expected emancipation to come slowly,
possibly in conjunction with colonization of African Americans
abroad. He did not advertise his views either. In 1844 he quietly
opposed Texas annexation for fear that it would enlarge the market
for Kentucky slaves. Elected to the state legislature as a Whig
in 1847, he worked diligently on constituents' requests but considered
the work largely unimportant. In 1849 he ran as a delegate to
the state constitutional convention, but his opponent forced
him to discuss openly his support for gradual emancipation, and
he lost. He served as a Louisville alderman, 1851-1854, and taught
law at the University of Louisville from 1856 to 1858 and again
from 1872 to 1879.

Speed detested the xenophobic American (Know Nothing) party
that replaced the Whigs in Kentucky in the mid-1850s. Although
long a friend of Abraham Lincoln, whom he had met through his
brother Joshua Fry, Speed understood that a Republican could
not carry a slave state like Kentucky. In the presidential contest
of 1860, therefore, he served on a committee that united supporters
of northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas and Constitutional Unionist
John Bell to defeat southern Democrat John Breckinridge in Kentucky.
After the election, however, confident of Speed's loyalty to
the Union, however, Lincoln made him mustering officer for Kentucky
under his call for 75,000 volunteers at the outbreak of the Civil
War. Until July, Speed was also commander of the Louisville Home
Guard, which was responsible for seeing that arms forwarded to
Kentucky did not fall into the wrong hands. Advising Lincoln
on Kentucky politics, Speed acted on behalf of the administration,
moving quickly, for example, to reassure Kentuckians that Lincoln
did not support General John C. Fremont's assertion of military
control over slave emancipation. Elected to the state senate
as a Unionist (1861-1863), he saw at last the opportunity to
strike a death blow at slavery. He was an eager but lonely supporter
of Lincoln's proposal to offer federal support to loyal states
that freed their slaves. In 1864 he, almost alone in the slaveholding
section of Kentucky, vigorously promoted the proposed Thirteenth
Amendment to abolish slavery.

In December 1864 Lincoln appointed Speed attorney general to
replace Edward Bates, a border-state moderate increasingly at
odds with radical Republicans, who had resigned. Winning the
approval of radicals like Salmon P. Chase and Charles Sumner,
Speed oversaw prosecutions under the Confiscation Acts, which
seized the property, including slaves, of those in rebellion.
However, he phased the program out with the end of the war. Speed
recommended the trial by military authorities of those arrested
for Lincoln's assassination, noting the extraordinary nature
of the crime and the exigencies of wartime. His decision that
Jefferson Davis had to be tried in federal district court in
Virginia because military authorities did not have jurisdiction
in peacetime was one reason Davis was never tried for treason.

At first, Speed, impressed by the numbers of ex-Confederates
requesting pardons, was optimistic about Reconstruction. By November
1865, however, the passage of southern Black Codes limiting the
rights of former slaves convinced him that former Confederates
and Republicans had radically different conceptions of how to
promote peace. In Speed's view, President Andrew Johnson's failure
to signal that discrimination was unacceptable made the Justice
Department's efforts to protect freedmen almost impossible. Speed
favored the Fourteenth Amendment proposed by Congress to assure
equal protection of the laws. Disturbed by Johnson's defiance
of Congress, he refused to join the National Union movement being
organized by the president to unite Democrats and conservative
Republicans in opposition to congressional reconstruction and
resigned his office in July 1866. In September he presided over
the southern loyalists' convention in Philadelphia, which was
intended to demonstrate southern support for a more energetic
reconstruction. Returning to Kentucky, Speed urged Kentucky Republicans
to endorse giving the vote to African Americans.

The threat of racial change greatly strengthened conservative
Democrats in Kentucky. Speed's support for African Americans
made him virtually unelectable although he received symbolic
Republican nominations for the U.S. Senate in 1867 and for Congress
in 1870. Speed served as an attorney for the Freedmen's Bureau
in Kentucky, directed a petition campaign against the state's
poll tax, and advised clients on opposing discriminatory state
legislation, but he was rarely successful. He served as a delegate
to the Republican national conventions of 1872 and 1876, serving
on the resolutions committee. In 1884, however, he supported
Democrat Grover Cleveland against the allegedly dishonest James G. Blaine.

In his last years Speed became unwillingly involved in a public
controversy with Joseph Holt, the judge advocate general during
the Civil War who wanted Speed to testify that Andrew Johnson
had seen petitions for mercy for accused Lincoln conspirator
Mary Surratt. This presumably would have absolved Holt from the
responsibility for her execution. Speed, citing the confidentiality
of cabinet discussions, refused the request although he publicly
praised Holt for his actions at the time. To the end Speed clung
to his own sense of what was right. His last remarks on the controversy
were published shortly after his death in Louisville.


A few of Speed's letters may be found in collections of his
correspondents, including Charles Sumner (Harvard University
Library), Joseph Holt (Library of Congress), and Joseph Daveiss
(Filson Club, Louisville). James Speed, James Speed, a Personality
(1914), written by a grandson, is a biography. It reprints numerous
letters and diary entries. See also History of the Ohio Falls
Cities and Their Counties (1882) and The Kentucky Encyclopedia,
ed. John E. Kleber (1992). An obituary is in the New York Times,
26 June 1887.

Phyllis F. Field

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Phyllis F. Field. "Speed, James";;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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Messages In This Thread

James Speed
Re: James Speed

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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