The sexual life of Abraham Lincoln

After reading C.A. Tripp's highly anticipated study of Abe's alleged homosexuality, we still don't know if he was gay. Does it matter?

Topics: Books,

The sexual life of Abraham Lincoln

Let’s skip over the question of whether Abraham Lincoln was gay for a minute, especially since we don’t know and, absent some startling revelation, we never will. (Let’s also bypass the related question of whether we should care.) The question that bothers me, right now, is why a book quite as bad as “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln” had to be published. It’s a book that does nothing except fling mud on the reputation of its author and require reviewers to speak ill of the dead. This posthumous (and evidently unfinished) volume by the well-respected sex researcher C.A. Tripp purports to marshal the evidence that our greatest president possessed “a plentiful homosexual response,” to use the author’s terminology. In fact, it does nothing of the kind.

Tripp’s manuscript is such a mishmash of supposition, rumor, half-cooked research and specious reasoning that he assassinates his own case almost as thoroughly as John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln himself. Contrary to what much of the pre-publication propaganda has claimed, from Gore Vidal’s fascinating but misleading online Vanity Fair feature to Doug Ireland’s vastly overstated L.A. Weekly article, Tripp has no smoking gun, as it were, on the question of Lincoln’s sexual behavior. (In fact, Ireland’s article and early publicity materials refer to claims that seem to have disappeared from Tripp’s book, including allegations that early acquaintance A.Y. Ellis and law partner Henry C. Whitney were Lincoln’s lovers.)

All Tripp has got, at the end of the day, is one well-known historical fact whose significance has long been disputed and two items of second- or third-hand gossip from Civil War Washington (one of them not recorded until 30 years later). The fact is that as a young man Lincoln shared a bed for four years in Springfield, Ill., with a man named Joshua Speed, perhaps the closest friend he ever had. The gossip suggests that a certain Capt. David V. Derickson, attached to the Pennsylvania regiment that guarded Lincoln, may have slept in the presidential bedroom a few times in 1862 when Mary Lincoln was away.



We’ll get back to these ambiguous events, and what they may or may not tell us, in due course. But the publication of “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln” brings a thuddingly anticlimactic end to one chapter of the long-running was-Lincoln-gay saga; apologists like Vidal and Ireland aside, anyone who’s been following the issue over the past 15 years of scholarly debate can only be disappointed. Tripp’s book has been so long anticipated, and so much delayed, that a book responding to his claims was actually published before his was.

“‘We Are Lincoln Men,’” a 2003 study of Honest Abe’s closest male friendships by David Herbert Donald, the reigning king of Lincoln biographers — at least until Michael Burlingame’s forthcoming three-volume biography appears — is in large part intended as a rejection of Tripp’s overarching argument that Lincoln was predominantly homosexual. (In one of his better moments, Tripp explains that he refuses to describe Lincoln as “gay” because there was nothing in him of “the lightness and frivolity, let alone the social protest” implied by that word.) Donald specifically examines and rejects Tripp’s interpretation of the Speed and Derickson cases as love affairs. Since Tripp himself died in May 2003, at age 84, he had no chance to read or respond to Donald’s critique, and one reads his book with the peculiar sensation of encountering “new” information that’s already been debunked, at least in part.

Beyond the stories of Speed and Derickson, there’s not much to “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln” except wild speculation, Kinseyesque pseudo-science and a bizarre attempt to destroy Lincoln’s heterosexual credentials (which are ample, as it happens), as if the idea that he may have had male lovers somehow depends on proving that he didn’t like girls. Part of the problem is that Tripp is too honest to falsify evidence — he agrees, for instance, that Joshua Speed’s notorious erotic diary, purportedly possessed by playwright and gay activist Larry Kramer, is almost certainly fictitious — which drives him to unsupportable guesswork. He spends an entire chapter on Lincoln’s warm friendship with the dashing Col. Elmer Ellsworth, who became the first celebrated casualty of the Civil War, only to admit that Ellsworth was clearly heterosexual and there is no evidence of erotic contact between them.

Published in this form, with included essays by Lincoln scholars who either attack it (in the case of Michael Burlingame) or damn it with faint praise (in that of Jean Baker, the biographer of Mary Todd Lincoln), and apparently edited at the last minute to redact or tone down Tripp’s most dubious claims, this book will convince no one except true believers. Supporters of the view that Honest Abe was a veritable hetero Lothario of the prairie didn’t pay to get this into print, presumably, but they might as well have.

I already feel guilty for all the things I have said and will say against “The Intimate World,” mostly because Tripp, a onetime colleague of Alfred Kinsey who wrote the important 1975 study “The Homosexual Matrix” — comes off as an eccentric, agreeable figure with honorable intentions toward the great Illinois Railsplitter. He doesn’t see himself as a gay propagandist in the Larry Kramer mold, trying to “claim” Lincoln for his team. Rather, he hopes to construct a nuanced and complicated portrait of an intensely private historical figure, one in which consideration of Lincoln’s sexuality helps illuminate the darker corners of his famously opaque personality. Had Tripp lived longer, he might have come at least a little closer to this goal — although it’s hard to see how this manuscript’s glaring flaws could have been fully redeemed — but the larger point is that the ghost of a much better Lincoln book hovers invisibly above this one.

Shoddy scholarship, wishful thinking and bad writing are not the same thing as fraud or dishonesty, however, and that’s where the rub lies with “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.” Poorly as it makes its case, Tripp’s book reminds us how little we know about the private life and personality of the president who freed the slaves and saved the Union, the man who challenged America to live up to the high-flown rhetoric about freedom and equality in its founding documents. Much of this has to do with Lincoln’s nature; as his longtime law partner and early biographer William Herndon wrote, Lincoln was seen even in his time as “a profound mystery — an enigma — a sphinx — a riddle … incommunicative — silent — reticent — secretive — having profound policies — and well laid — deeply studied plans.”

More than that, though, the difficulty with assessing Lincoln’s private life (or that of anyone else who lived before the 20th century) is that the nature of private life has changed dramatically from his time to ours, and the distance between us distorts the view. Neither Tripp nor his critics, to my mind, fully reckon with the fact that when we look at Abe Lincoln and Joshua Speed together in that double bed above Speed’s general store, we literally don’t know what we’re seeing.

Whether their relationship had a sexual component or not, it belongs to a vanished world of intimate male friendships of a kind almost unrecognizable to us, and to an age in which social intercourse between men and women was ritualized and tightly controlled. Homosexuality did not exist as a word or as an identity. Sodomy was illegal, but so was every other kind of nonmarital sex, and in practice private homosexual acts were generally ignored. (Preachers and moralists of the day were more concerned with masturbation, which was seen as responsible for poor public health and numerous moral ills.)

About the best we can do, when looking at passionate male friendships of the 19th century, is guess: Some were undoubtedly sexual, most were presumably platonic, and many fell somewhere in between, meaning that they were homoerotic in nature but not necessarily genital. In “‘We Are Lincoln Men,’” Donald cites the case of Daniel Webster, whose mash notes to a Dartmouth classmate were addressed “Dearly Beloved” and signed “Accept all the tenderness I have,” although there’s no evidence they ever had sex. (For a literary example, one might consider the relationship between Frodo and Sam in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” which is tender, loving and even sensual, without being sexual.)

I’m not confident that Tripp or Donald or anyone else can reliably read the signals in a 19th century same-sex friendship, at least not when the evidence is as ambiguous as it is in the Lincoln-Speed case. Tripp essentially begins by assuming that the only way to explain their four years of bed-sharing is that they were lovers. Then he cherry-picks the friendliest details and psychologizes, rationalizes and generally massages away any contradictions. Arguably, of course, Donald or any other heterosexual (myself included) is likely to begin with the opposite assumption, and then look for evidence that the sleeping arrangement was an innocent matter of economics, space and the chilly nights of frontier Illinois.

If you’re looking for anything new on the Speed case, you won’t find it here. The facts, such as they are, are well-rehearsed to the level of mythology: At age 28, newly admitted to the bar, Lincoln moved from the dying hamlet of New Salem, Ill., to Springfield, then a metropolis of some 1,500 residents. Arriving there in the spring of 1837, he went to Speed’s general store and discovered, to his chagrin, that the cost of a mattress, pillow and linens came to $17.

“He said that was perhaps cheap enough,” as Speed put it years later, “but, small as the sum was, he was unable to pay it. But if I would credit him till Christmas, and his experiment as a lawyer was a success, he would pay then, saying, in the saddest tone, ‘If I fail in this, I do not know that I can ever pay you.’” Speed had another idea, telling the newcomer, “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 up-stairs, which you are very welcome to share with me.”

Tripp pounces on this like a cat on a crippled mouse, declaring that earlier scholars have missed the true implications of this story. “In hindsight it is clear that their very first meeting began what was to become the major event in Lincoln’s private life, an intense and ongoing homosexual relationship with Speed.” Later, he adds: “To anyone alert to homosexual propositions it is perhaps obvious from the outset that this is very much what was involved here, as Speed quickly moved the situation from a sale on credit to a generous invitation to Lincoln to move right into his room and bed.”

Perhaps I’m insufficiently schooled in homosexual propositions, but it doesn’t seem obvious at all. Lincoln grew up in that legendary log cabin (actually several different ones), sleeping rough with his siblings and step-siblings on such cots and mattresses as were available. Men on the frontier bunked together routinely, and privacy was a commodity available only to the rich. In William Herndon’s account of riding the rural Illinois legal circuit with Lincoln, he remembers dormitories with up to 20 men crammed into a room, sleeping on the furniture, the floor, or piles of rope and straw.

Donald’s account of the story in “‘We Are Lincoln Men’” adds some vital context. Although the two had never met, Lincoln was well known to Speed. The newly minted lawyer may have been penniless, but he had already served two terms in the Illinois Legislature and was a rising star in the state’s Whig Party (which Speed supported). Indeed, a year earlier, Speed had heard Lincoln debate a prominent Whig turned Democrat named George Forquer, an occasion that saw one of Lincoln’s earliest rhetorical flourishes. Noting that Forquer had just erected a lightning rod over his fancy Springfield house, Lincoln declared: “I would rather die now than, like the gentleman change my politics … and then have to erect a lightning-rod over my house, to protect a guilty conscience from an offended God.”

One can’t rule out Tripp’s hypothesis, and some observers were suspicious of the Lincoln-Speed friendship decades ago. In his 1926 biography of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg famously wrote that the two men had “streaks of lavender, spots soft as May violets,” which many have read as a homosexual reference. But it seems at least as likely that Speed wanted to befriend and aid a young politician whom he admired and supported, and who was clearly going places. Herndon, who clerked in Speed’s store at the time, slept in the same room with Lincoln and Speed on many nights during the ensuing four-year period and never commented on any observed physical intimacy.

Lincoln himself joked about the matter in later years. He appointed James Speed, Joshua’s brother, as U.S. attorney general in 1864, and told a friend that James “was a man I know well, though not so well as I know his brother Joshua. That, however, is not strange, for I slept with Joshua for four years, and I suppose I ought to know him.” Donald wonders whether the president of the United States would have spoken so freely of a friendship if it had had any clandestine or forbidden elements.

Tripp moves on rapidly to Lincoln’s letters to Speed, written after the latter left Springfield and returned to Kentucky in 1841. There can be no question that the loss of Speed was quite a blow for Lincoln; their friendship was closer than any other he ever enjoyed. (Many of Lincoln’s colleagues and associates remembered him as generally cold and distant. David Davis, the Illinois political boss who got him the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, described him as having “no Strong Emotional feelings for any person — Mankind or thing.”)

In Lincoln’s letters, Tripp finds an entire world of sublimated erotic expression, which is quite a stretch when you consider that the most personal of these missives concern Speed’s impending marriage, which Lincoln consistently urges him to go through with. Tripp has an explanation, of course: Bisexual men “support each other’s heterosexual efforts in a spirit of being helpful, yet also as a way to stay close by and fully informed of every move.” (He has already stipulated that Lincoln was not bisexual but predominantly homosexual, but never mind — cataloging all the contradictions in this book would require more space than I have.)

Tripp seizes upon every expression of affection in the letters (“You well know that I do not feel my own sorrows much more keenly than I do yours,” Lincoln writes), but skips over the passages in which Lincoln praises “the heavenly black eyes” of Speed’s fiancée, and writes, “I am now fully convinced that you love her as ardently as you are capable of loving.” When Lincoln’s letters to Speed are entirely concerned with the business dealings and legal affairs of Springfield, Tripp detects an erotic tension beneath the mundane details, arguing that “it is precisely this kind of impersonal recounting of some irrelevant bit of news that is often resorted to by distraught lovers who are contending with some strain.”

Um, no. It is precisely this kind of ex post facto amateur psychoanalysis that gives sexologists like Tripp such a bad name when they exhume the dead to hunt for hidden signals of gayness. I’m prepared to believe in Lincoln’s possible bisexuality, but Tripp can feel the Speed case slipping through his fingers, and his claims become increasingly desperate. This would be a more honest book, and perhaps a more convincing one, if he had simply written: “Listen, I’m a gay man and a sex researcher, and I’m here to tell you that Abe Lincoln looks, sounds and smells like a homo. I can’t prove it, but I know it’s true.”

When it comes to David Derickson, who spent about eight months as Lincoln’s bodyguard in 1862 and ’63, there is much less evidence, but what there is, is considerably more suggestive. On Nov. 16, 1862, Virginia Woodbury Fox, a Washington socialite and the wife of assistant Navy secretary Gustavus Fox, recorded a bit of especially juicy gossip in her diary. A friend, Leticia McKean, had informed her that “‘there is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs. L. is not home, sleeps with him.’ What stuff!”

As David Herbert Donald remarks, this is the only contemporary observation that attributes any sexually unorthodox behavior to Lincoln, and it’s no better than a second-hand (or more likely third-hand) report. Still, his attempt to dismiss it doesn’t completely work. He may be right that Fox’s comment “What stuff!” means she is laughing off McKean’s rumor (as in “stuff and nonsense”), but Tripp reads her remark more as “Hot stuff!” or “Wow!”

There can be no question that the “Bucktail soldier” involved is Derickson, whose close friendship with Lincoln is well documented, and it also appears that the gossip spread a lot wider than a few Washington ladies. In Tripp’s one work of original research, he unearths a regimental history written in 1895 by Thomas Chamberlin, who was Derickson’s commanding officer in the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers (known as the Bucktail regiment). “Captain Derickson, in particular,” Chamberlin wrote, “advanced so far in the President’s confidence and esteem that, in Mrs. Lincoln’s absence, he frequently spent the night at his cottage [the Soldier's Home, outside Washington], sleeping in the same bed with him, and — it is said — making use of his Excellency’s night-shirts!”

This is a long way from being definitive, and Tripp predictably makes much more of it than he should, leaping almost instantly to the conclusion that Lincoln and Derickson clearly had “mutually and repeatedly satisfying” sex. But it does seem that more than a few people in the capital had the impression that the two were intimate beyond the bounds of propriety, and Donald’s explanation — it was a platonic, or “Aristotelian,” friendship in which Derickson comforted the lonely, war-plagued president as they talked late into the night and then tumbled into bed, swapping nightclothes along the way — is more than a little defensive.

On the other hand, these two men fathered 13 children between them (Derickson had nine from two marriages), so neither can be described as heterosexually inexperienced. After eight months of whatever degree of chaste or nasty closeness they enjoyed, Derickson asked Lincoln, in April 1863, to get him a promotion and a posting back home to Meadville, Pa. The president readily agreed, and they never saw each other again.

While I feel strongly that Lincoln’s friendship with Speed looks less and less sexual the closer you look at it, the Derickson case remains more mysterious. Did the possibility that the two men were having sex even occur to people like Fox and Chamberlin? Were those rumors spread by Lincoln’s political opponents? Did Lincoln just want a physical reminder of his rustic sleeping arrangements back in Springfield? Or is this the long-awaited indicator that the Great Uniter swung both ways?

It might seem like a cop-out to say that we’ll never know, but, well, we won’t. Tripp’s various excursions into quasi-quack theorizing — some accounts suggest that Lincoln experienced puberty as early as age 9 or 10, which, according to Kinsey lore, makes a man both hypersexual and unusually open to same-sex experiences — don’t help much. In fairness, Tripp never claims that Lincoln’s sexual behavior had any effect on his prosecution of the Civil War, his attitude toward slavery or his memorable oratory. He begins to make a case that Lincoln’s distrust of religion and dislike of moralizing, his capacity for original thinking, and his solitary nature are connected to unconventional sexuality, but the book peters out, in its final chapter, into an irrelevant tangent concerning Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and World War II.

Does it matter that we don’t understand Lincoln’s private life well, and that we have to admit to some uncertainty about the nature of his sexuality? I can’t see that it does. Activists eager to claim a “first gay president” should take a long look at Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, who never married and lived with William Rufus King, an Alabama senator, for many years. Of course, the fact that Buchanan was an inept, pro-slavery chief executive who blundered his way into the Civil War makes him a slightly less desirable role model than Lincoln.

Recent revelations about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings speak directly to Jefferson’s hypocrisy on the issues of slavery and the universal equality espoused in the Constitution he helped write, and provide a vivid object lesson in the brutal but nearly invisible intimacy of American race relations. Even if Lincoln was as homosexual as Tripp says he was, there was no public consciousness of sex between men as an “issue” in his time, and Lincoln himself would have had no name for his behavior, and no category to put himself in.

Perhaps, as advocates like Doug Ireland have argued, it would embarrass the anti-gay zealots of today’s Republican Party to learn that their legendary founder engaged in practices they despise. But Ireland should know by now that there is no way to embarrass today’s Republicans (whose connection to Lincoln is entirely mythological at this point). In any case, using history as political propaganda generally results in bad history and bad politics. Whatever Abraham Lincoln did in bed, and whomever he did it with, he stands above today’s cultural and sexual wars as surely as he dwarfed the factional disputes of his own age. If no man is bigger than history, Lincoln sticks out of it awkwardly as an icon of our unrealized possibilities, the loneliest and strangest man ever to lead this troublesome country.

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