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James Speed (1865–1866) - Attorney General

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James Speed was born in 1812 in Jefferson County, Kentucky. He attended St. Joseph’s College and Transylvania University, studied the law, and was admitted to the state bar in 1833.

Speed practiced law in Louisville, Kentucky, until he was elected to the state legislature in 1847. He served only one term because of his opposition to slavery. Speed taught law at the University of Louisville (1856-1858), opposed Kentucky’s secession from the Union, and entered the state senate (1861-1863) as a proponent of unionism.

In 1863, Speed left Kentucky for Washington, D.C., where he became an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln. By 1864, Lincoln had tapped Speed to become his attorney general, following the resignation of Edward Bates. Speed served in that capacity until the President’s assassination in 1865; he then remained with new President Andrew Johnson until 1866, when he resigned due to his disagreement with Johnson over the President’s Reconstruction policies.

After leaving the cabinet, James Speed practiced law and worked as a law professor until his death in 1887.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Elizabeth R. Varon

Professor Varon is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. Her writings include:

Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008)

Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (Oxford University Press, 2003)

We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 1998)