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The sexuality of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), the 16th President of the United States, has been a topic of fringe historical debate and scholarship, particularly since the late twentieth century. Lincoln was married to Mary Todd from November 4, 1842, until his death on April 15, 1865, and fathered four children with her. According to several historians, there was no indication during Lincoln's lifetime that anyone suspected him of homosexuality and few researchers have argued to the contrary. In a 2005 book, psychologist C. A. Tripp described Lincoln as having a problematic and distant relationship with women, in contrast to his warmer relations with a number of men in his life; Tripp writes that two of those relationships had possible homoerotic overtones. Tripp's view has been particularly criticized for flawed historical methodology. Some Lincoln biographers, including David Herbert Donald, have strongly contested claims that Lincoln was homosexual or bisexual. In opposing such claims, Donald cites Lincoln's letters for context, in which he frequently referred to acquaintances, even political enemies, as "my personal friend".
Commentary on President Abraham Lincoln's sexuality has existed since the early 20th century. Attention to the sexuality of public figures has been heightened since the gay rights movement of the later 20th century. Lincoln's case re-entered the public light in 2005 with the posthumous publication of psychologist C. A. Tripp's book, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.
In his 1926 biography of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg alluded to the early relationship of Lincoln and his friend Joshua Fry Speed as having "a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets". "Streak of lavender" was slang in the period for an effeminate man, and later connoted homosexuality. Sandburg did not elaborate on this comment.
Lincoln wrote a poem that described a marriage-like relation between two men, which included the lines:
|“||For Reuben and Charles have married two girls,|
But Billy has married a boy.
The girls he had tried on every side,
But none he could get to agree;
All was in vain, he went home again,
And since that he's married to Natty.
This poem was included in the first edition of the 1889 biography of Lincoln by his friend and colleague William Herndon. It was expurgated from subsequent editions until 1942, when the editor Paul Angle restored it. This is an example of what Mark Blechner calls "the closeting of history," in which evidence that suggests a degree of homosexuality or bisexuality in a major historical figure is suppressed or hidden.
C. A. Tripp, who was gay and died in 2003, was a sex researcher and protégé of Alfred Kinsey. He began writing The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln with Philip Nobile, but they had a falling out. The New York Times quoted Nobile saying, "Tripp's book is a fraud", noting that Nobile "declined to say what was fraudulent, however, because he said he was writing his own article about it".
Nobile wrote a critical review of Tripp's book, published in the Weekly Standard, in which he accused Tripp of distortion, plagiarizing his own work, and relying heavily on the work of Charles Shiveley without proper attribution. Nobile has never published a book on Lincoln. In 2007 he encountered controversy of his own, related to his allegedly wrongfully accusing his superiors of involvement in a cheating scheme at his school.
Tripp's book includes an afterword by historian and Lincoln biographer Michael Burlingame titled "A Respectful Dissent", in which he states:
|“||Since it is virtually impossible to prove a negative, Dr. Tripp's thesis cannot be rejected outright. But given the paucity of hard information adduced by him, and given the abundance of contrary evidence indicating that Lincoln was drawn romantically and sexually to some women, a reasonable conclusion, it seems to me, would be that it is possible but highly unlikely that Abraham Lincoln was "predominantly homosexual."||”|
In a second afterword to the book titled "An Enthusiastic Endorsement", historian Michael B. Chesson makes the argument for the historical significance of the work:
|“||Tripp, for all his research, sophistication, and insight, has not proved his case conclusively. … But any open-minded reader who has reached this point may well have a reasonable doubt about the nature of Lincoln's sexuality. The "Tall Sucker" was a very strange man, one of the strangest in American history, and certainly the oddest to reach a position of national prominence, let alone the presidency. If Lincoln was a homosexual, or primarily so inclined, then suddenly our image of this mysterious man gains some clarity. Not everything falls into place. But many things do, including some important, even essential, elements of who Lincoln was, why he acted in the way he did, and a possible reason for his sadness, loneliness, and secretive nature.||”|
Time magazine addressed the book as part of a cover article by Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. Shenk dismissed Tripp's conclusions, stating that arguments for Lincoln's homosexuality were "based on a tortured misreading of conventional 19th century sleeping arrangements". Charles Morris in 2009 has critically analyzed the academic and popular responses to Tripp's book, arguing that much of the negative response by the Lincoln Establishment reveals as much rhetorical and political partisanship as that of Tripp's defenders. In an earlier 2007 essay, Morris argues that in the wake of playwright Larry Kramer's "outing" of Lincoln, the Lincoln Establishment engaged in "mnemonicide", or the assassination of a threatening counter-memory. He put in this category what he called the methodologically flawed but widely appropriated case against the "gay Lincoln thesis" by David Herbert Donald in his book, We Are Lincoln Men.
In 1999, Larry Kramer claimed that he had uncovered previously unknown documents while performing research for his work-in-progress, The American People: A History, including some allegedly found hidden in the floorboards of the old store once shared by Lincoln and Joshua Speed. The documents reportedly provide explicit details of a relationship between Lincoln and Speed, and currently reside in a private collection in Davenport, Iowa. Their authenticity, however, has been called into question by historians such as Gabor Boritt, who wrote, "Almost certainly this is a hoax." C. A. Tripp also expressed his skepticism over Kramer's discovery, writing, "Seeing is believing, should that diary ever show up; the passages claimed for it have not the slightest Lincolnian ring."
Critics of the hypothesis that Lincoln was homosexually inclined note that Lincoln married and had four children. Scholar Douglas Wilson claims that Lincoln as a young man displayed heterosexual behavior, including telling stories to his friends of his interactions with women.
Tripp notes that Lincoln's awareness of homosexuality and openness in penning this "bawdy poem" "was unique for the time period." Donald, however, notes that Lincoln would have needed to look no further than the Bible to realize "that men did sometimes have sex with each other", and historian William Lee Miller, among others, has acknowledged that Lincoln was reading the Bible well before his twentieth birthday.
Lincoln's stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, commented that he "never took much interest in the girls". However some accounts of Lincoln's contemporaries suggest a strong but controlled passion for women. Lincoln was devastated over the 1835 death of Ann Rutledge. While some historians have questioned whether he had a romantic relationship with her, historian John Y. Simon reviewed the historiography of the subject and concluded that "Available evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Lincoln so loved Ann that her death plunged him into severe depression. More than a century and a half after her death, when significant new evidence cannot be expected, she should take her proper place in Lincoln biography."
Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, in his biography of Lincoln, attests to the depth of Lincoln's love for Ann Rutledge. An anonymous poem about suicide published locally exactly three years after her death is widely attributed to Lincoln. In contrast, his courting of Mary Owens was diffident. In 1837, he wrote to her from Springfield to give her an opportunity to break off their relationship. Lincoln wrote to a friend in 1838: "I knew she was oversize, but now she appeared a fair match for Falstaff".
In 2012, Sylvia Rhue, a filmmaker and activist, interviewed Reverend Cindi Love about her family history and research. Love, a descendant of William Herndon, noted that family tradition held that Herndon was gay and the lover of Lincoln.
In her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin argues:
Their intimacy is more an index to an era when close male friendships, accompanied by open expressions of affection and passion, were familiar and socially acceptable. Nor can sharing a bed be considered evidence for an erotic involvement. It was a common practice in an era when private quarters were a rare luxury... The attorneys of the Eighth circuit in Illinois where Lincoln would travel regularly shared beds. (58)
Goodwin also states, echoing Donald Yacovone, that "the preoccupation with elemental sex" reveals more about the later centuries "than about the nineteenth" (58).
As noted above, in 19th-century America, men commonly bunked with other men. For example, when lawyers and judges traveled "the circuit" with Lincoln, the lawyers often slept "two in a bed and eight in a room". William H. Herndon recalled, "I have slept with 20 men in the same room".
A tabulation of historical sources shows that Lincoln slept in the same bed with at least 11 boys and men during his youth and adulthood. There are no known instances in which Lincoln tried to suppress knowledge or discussion of such arrangements, and in some conversations, raised the subject himself. Tripp discusses three men at length and possible relationships: Joshua Speed, William Greene, and Charles Derickson.
Lincoln met Joshua Fry Speed in Springfield, Illinois, in 1837. They lived together for four years, during which time they occupied the same bed during the night (some sources specify a large double bed) and developed a friendship that would last until their deaths. According to some sources, William Herndon and a fourth man also slept in the same room. Historians such as Donald point out it was not unusual at that time for two men to share even a small bed due to financial or other circumstances, without anything sexual being implied. Putting the issue in historical perspective, Jonathan Ned Katz wrote of the bed sharing:
|“||At the start of the twenty-first century it may even be difficult to imagine a man, especially a bachelor, offering another a place in his bed without some conscious fear or desire that the proposition will be understood as a come-on. |
In the nineteenth century, Speed was probably not conscious of any such erotic possibility. His immediate, casual offer, and his later report of it, suggests that men's bed sharing was not then often explicitly understood as conducive to forbidden sexual experiments.
Katz does indicate that such sleeping arrangements "did provide an important site (probably the major site) of erotic opportunity". Katz notes that referring to present day concepts of "homo, hetero, and bi distort our present understanding of Lincoln and Speed's experiences." He notes that, rather than there being "an unchanging essence of homosexuality and heterosexuality," people throughout history "continually reconfigure their affectionate and erotic feelings and acts". He suggests that the Lincoln-Speed relationship fell within the 19th-century category of intense, even romantic man-to-man friendships with erotic overtones that may have been "a world apart in that era's consciousness from the sensual universe of mutual masturbation and the legal universe of 'sodomy,' 'buggery,' and 'the crime against nature'".
Some correspondence of the period, such as that between Thomas Jefferson Withers and James Henry Hammond, may provide evidence of a sexual dimension to some same-sex bed sharing. The fact that Lincoln was open about sharing a bed with Speed is seen by some historians as an indication that their relationship was not romantic. None of Lincoln's enemies hinted at any homosexual implication.
Joshua Speed married Fanny Hennings on February 15, 1842. He and Lincoln seem to have consulted each other about married life. Despite having some political differences over slavery they corresponded for the rest of their lives, and Lincoln appointed Joshua's brother, James Speed, to his cabinet as Attorney General.
Lincoln and Mary Todd met in Springfield in 1839 and became engaged in 1840. In what historian Allen Guelzo calls "one of the murkiest episodes in Lincoln's life", Lincoln called off his engagement to Mary Todd. It was at the same time as the collapse of a legislative program he had supported for years, the permanent departure of his best friend Joshua Speed from Springfield, and the proposal by John Stuart, Lincoln's law partner, to end their law practice. Lincoln is believed to have suffered something approaching clinical depression. In Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, Paul Simon has a chapter covering the period, which Lincoln later referred to as "The Fatal First", or January 1, 1841. That was "the date on which Lincoln asked to be released from his engagement to Mary Todd". Simon explains that the various reasons the engagement was broken contradict one another. The incident was not fully documented, but Lincoln did become unusually depressed, which showed in his appearance, and Simon wrote that "it was traceable to Mary Todd". During this time, he avoided seeing Mary, causing her to comment that he "deems me unworthy of notice".
Jean H. Baker, historian and biographer of Mary Todd Lincoln, describes the relationship between Lincoln and his wife as "bound together by three strong bonds – sex, parenting and politics". In addition to the anti-Mary Todd bias of many historians, engendered by William Herndon's (Lincoln's law partner and early biographer) personal hatred of Mrs. Lincoln, Baker discounts the criticism of the marriage. She says that contemporary historians have a basic misunderstanding of the changing nature of marriage and courtship in the mid-19th century, and attempt to judge the Lincoln marriage by modern standards.
Baker notes that "most observers of the Lincoln marriage have been impressed with their sexuality". Some "male historians" suggest that the Lincolns' sex life ended either in 1853 after their son Tad's difficult birth or in 1856 when they moved into a bigger house, but have no evidence for their speculations. Baker writes that there are "almost no gynecological conditions resulting from childbirth" other than a prolapsed uterus (which would have produced other noticeable effects on Mrs. Lincoln) that would have prevented intercourse, and in the 1850s, "many middle-class couples slept in separate bedrooms."
Far from abstaining from sex, Baker suggests that the Lincolns were part of a new development in America of smaller families; the birth rate declined from seven births to a family in 1800 to around 4 per family by 1850. As Americans separated sexuality from child bearing, forms of birth control such as coitus interruptus, long-term breast feeding, and crude forms of condoms and womb veils, available through mail order, were available and used. The spacing of the Lincoln children (Robert in 1843, Eddie in 1846, Willie in 1850, and Tad in 1853) is consistent with some type of planning and would have required "an intimacy about sexual relations that for aspiring couples meant shared companionate power over reproduction".
Captain David Derickson was Lincoln's bodyguard and companion between September 1862 and April 1863. They shared a bed during the absences of Lincoln's wife, until Derickson was promoted in 1863. Derickson was twice married and fathered ten children. Tripp recounts that, whatever the level of intimacy of the relationship, it was the subject of gossip. Elizabeth Woodbury Fox, the wife of Lincoln's naval aide, wrote in her diary for November 16, 1862, "Tish says, 'Oh, 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!" This sleeping arrangement was also noted by a fellow officer in Derickson's regiment, Thomas Chamberlin, in the book History of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Second Regiment, Bucktail Brigade. Historian Martin P. Johnson notes that the strong similarity in style and content of the Fox and Chamberlin accounts suggests that, rather than being two independent accounts of the same events as Tripp claims, both were based on the same report from a single source. David Donald and Johnson both dispute Tripp's interpretation of Fox's comment, saying that the exclamation of "What stuff!" was, in that day, an exclamation over the absurdity of the suggestion rather than the gossip value of it.