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A double standard in Lincoln studies?

LINCOLN'S SOUL MATE and the love of his life was a man named Joshua Speed," John Stauffer writes in his dual biography of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Stauffer refers to carnal love, not to one of those asexual "romantic friendships" in vogue with certain scholars. He chairs the History of American Civilization Department at Harvard; Stauffer's perspective can't be easily dismissed as fringe. But that did not deter Sean Wilentz.

Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, published a gargantuan (25,000-word) review-essay on Lincoln literature in the July 15, 2009, issue of The New Republic. He critiques seven books, including Stauffer's, that have appeared in tandem with the bicentennial. Wilentz is an elegant writer with an elegant mind. He's also a mean-spirited crank on various topics, including Barack Obama. Wilentz has a problem with the liberal intelligentsia finding Obama "Lincolnian." He thinks it's naive, misplaced, and just plain wrong; and he might be right. But as he himself admits, the historical verdict is a long way off. Who knows what impends? And in any case, Wilentz shoots himself in the foot when he acknowledges that Obama shares Lincoln's coolly calculating and opportunistic political style. The similarities don't end with both being tall, skinny, self-made, eloquent guys from Illinois.

In much the same way that Wilentz objects to the identification of Obama with Lincoln, he objects to Stauffer's comparison of Frederick Douglass to Lincoln. For example, he dismisses Stauffer's observation that both Douglass and Lincoln achieved greatness against extremely long odds. America teemed with "self-made" white men, Wilentz insists. Well, yes. But this point detracts not at all from Stauffer's theme: what could be more remarkable or more inspiring than the fact that a white-supremacist hick, self-educated, and a fugitive slave, also self-educated, ended up playing pivotal roles in the most profound upheaval in American history? Wilentz argues that Douglass had little or no influence on Lincoln's conduct of the Civil War. He seems by extension to suggest that Douglass had no influence on Lincoln's long journey to the abolition of slavery. Yet, as Stauffer makes clear--thrillingly clear--Douglass loomed very large indeed in the mobilization of anti-slavery opinion. Lincoln had no choice but to reckon with Frederick Douglass. The man exemplified everything that the Southern traitors (yes--traitors! Stauffer refreshingly reminds us of this) sought to deny, namely, that blacks are just as educable and worthy as whites.

But Wilentz saves his most scathing criticism for Stauffer's assessment of Lincoln's sexuality. Referring to Stauffer, Wilentz writes: "He notes an intellectual debt to C. A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, a discredited hodgepodge of supposition and deception, which appeared in 2003 [sic], though he does not endorse Tripp's sensational claim that Lincoln was 'predominantly homosexual.'" (Disclosure: I assisted the late C. A. Tripp with the preparation of his book prior to his death in 2003.)

To be sure, Tripp's book received much critical scorn, to the point that one has to wonder about some of the motives. Wilentz echoes the vehemence, taking for granted that Tripp simply concocted his thesis and thereby setting up Stauffer for an equally brusque smack-down. Tripp characterized Lincoln's four-year bedmate, Joshua Speed, as the great love of Lincoln's life. As noted, Stauffer concurs with that opinion. Wilentz remarks: "Stauffer's rehearsal of the old Speed story illustrates the difference between a historian and a professor with an agenda." Before making this claim, Wilentz also says of Stauffer: "He departs most vigorously from the standard accounts by pushing hard what evidence he can muster about Douglass' and Lincoln's sexual lives and proclivities, and especially about what he imagines were their homo-erotic tendencies."

In fact, Stauffer limits his discussion of Douglass' "homoerotic tendencies" to an inconclusive paragraph and devotes a grand total of seven pages to Lincoln's sexuality. Wilentz quite wrongly suggests that sex is a main focus of this book. There's something a bit odd going on here. Wilentz is married to the historian Christine Stansell, who, coincidentally enough, reviewed Tripp's book in The New Republic. Stansell meted out many of the oft-heard complaints but conceded that Tripp might be right about Lincoln's affair with Speed. So, it's not a question of "case closed," as Wilentz has it. What's up with the Princeton professor's fixation? Why does he take such pains to make the homosexual angle his "gotcha" moment on Stauffer? Finally, is he dissing his own wife?

Historians have long puzzled over Lincoln's early love life. One problem is that, conventionally speaking, it seems to have been nonexistent. The poet Edgar Lee Masters declared in 1931: "Lincoln was an under sexed man. That is the simplest way to express it. He liked to be with men when he liked to be with anyone. ... He was one of those manly men, whose mind made him seek masculine minds. Marriage with him had the slightest sexual aim. It was rather taken for social reasons, or other self-regarding motives, all apart from romantic impulses." Masters was wrong about Lincoln being "under sexed." But he put his finger on something that a great many observers, including Lincoln's step-mother, said of the man: he almost literally ran away from girls and eligible women. For many decades now, this has set the door ajar to other possibilities. Masters wasn't the only poet who sensed something unusual about Lincoln. As Wilentz notes, the redoubtable Carl Sandburg wrote of "a streak of lavender" that ran through both Lincoln and Speed. Tripp pointed to another comment from Sandburg, the final sentence of his preface to the 1926 edition of The Prairie Years, in which the Chicago bard spoke of Lincoln's "invisible companionships": "Month by month in stacks and bundles of fact and legend, I found invisible companionships that surprised me. Perhaps a few of these presences lurk and murmur in this book."

Sandburg had a few shortcomings as a Lincoln biographer, but he had a poet's ear for language. One can be sure that he chose the words "streak of lavender," "invisible companionships," and my favorite, "lurk," quite carefully indeed. He was telling his readers in not-so-impenetrable code that Lincoln liked men sexually.

Let us fast-forward to 1995, when the distinguished scholar David Herbert Donald went on tour to promote his masterpiece, Lincoln. Donald reported with bemusement that the question most often asked of him was, "Was Lincoln gay?" What in the Zeitgeist prompted readers to ask this? Tripp's book wasn't published until 2005. Larry Kramer hadn't yet made headlines with his claim that he'd obtained Joshua Speed's diary, which allegedly contained details of a romance with Lincoln (the claim remains unsubstantiated). As they say nowadays, something had "gone viral." A legacy from Carl Sandburg? Or perhaps from Charley Shively, who had published on Lincoln's homosexuality in 1989.

In any case, the Donald anecdote makes it clear that mainstream Lincolnists had a problem on their hands. The icon's guardians couldn't tolerate the slightest gay-ification of their hero. They needed proof that Lincoln was straight. But such proof, for the young Lincoln, anyway, was hard to come by. Whatever would they do?

It so happened that at this time, in the 1990's, a curious development took the Lincoln world by storm. The Ann Rutledge story--a tale of doomed high romance between Abe and a village belle who died tragically young--had been laughed out of the academy fifty years before, with the great James G. Randall, preeminent Lincolnist of his day and David Donald's mentor, delivering the coup de grace. The Rutledge story had been an embarrassment since the 1920's, actually, but remained a presence in biographies and in popular culture. Randall's commentary, written with the assistance of his wife, Ruth Painter Randall, turned off the lights. But in 1990, two scholars, John Y. Simon and Douglas L. Wilson, independently published articles that seemingly overnight restored the love story to scholarly respectability. Did Simon and Wilson undertake the rehabilitation because the Lincoln profession was having trouble with Lincoln's hetero street cred? Well, that's conceivable, but it must be stated that both Simon and Wilson on other subjects have produced scholarship of the highest order. The reality here isn't likely to be something so simple as dubious motives.

On the other hand, motivation and unconscious bias can be tricky issues in historiography. It would be reckless to accuse Simon or Wilson of consciously choosing to bring back Ann Rutledge only to save Lincoln from rumors of homosexuality. But it's not reckless to suggest that the Rutledge story offered the highly seductive prospect of redeeming Lincoln's red-blooded, skirt-chasing manliness. In point of fact, the scholarship that brought the Ann Rutledge story to respectability in the 90's is highly suspect. This charge applies far less to John Simon than to Douglas Wilson; Simon made a comparatively conservative case about Abe's love for Ann. Wilson, however, claims that Lincoln not only passionately loved Rutledge but also secured from her a commitment to marry. The evidence Wilson cites is extraordinarily weak, and the method that he uses to marshal that evidence is even weaker.

The Lincoln scholarly establishment, with a few notable exceptions, bought the Wilson interpretation hook, line, and sinker. Other than objections from David Donald, Jean Baker, and Michael Chesson, Wilson's telling of the story of Lincoln's ill-fated ardor for Rutledge has never been challenged by recognized experts in American 19th-century history. How could this be so, if Wilson's Rutledge story doesn't hold water? I think a compelling reason that the Lincoln establishment was so willing to accept Wilson's preposterous reincarnation of the Rutledge story was a desire, whether conscious or not, to believe that a girlfriend had been found for the youthful Abe Lincoln.

ALL OF THIS puts Sean Wilentz's trashing of Tripp and Stauffer in an ironic light. Compared to Wilson's case for Ann Rutledge, Tripp's case for Joshua Speed is a slam dunk. Critics charged Tripp with creating the picture he wanted to see via selective use of evidence, omitting evidence that contradicted that picture. I'd be the first to admit that his book has flaws. It's also true that the book packs no smoking guns. Furthermore, Tripp did use intuition, "gaydar," if you will, in his assembly of evidence to paint a homosexual Lincoln. While Tripp was no gay libber in the movement sense--he never publicly came out--he belonged to the gay tribe and looked at evidence through a lens that he undoubtedly acquired from leading a gay life. Of course, he had many lenses; the most powerful at his disposal came from the Kinsey tradition of sex research.

Tripp's best evidence for Lincoln's homosexuality included a diary entry written by a Washington socialite while Lincoln was president and a regimental history that confirmed the diary entry's subject, namely Lincoln's habit of sleeping with the captain of his bodyguards when Mary was out of town. Tripp also had at his disposal a poem written by Lincoln at age nineteen about two boys who marry and whose sexual intercourse cannot produce a baby. He had a fascinating chunk of Lincoln's correspondence with Speed, which he analyzed with considerable finesse; they were the tenderest and most intimate letters Lincoln ever wrote to anyone, including his wife. Tripp had many reliable stories about Lincoln fleeing available women until he married Mary, whom Lincoln wed nervously at age 33 after having fled her, too. He had the undisputed fact that Lincoln and Speed shared the same bed for four years in a room over Speed's Springfield store, an arrangement that most Lincolnists attribute to a scarcity of mattresses in the 19th century. But, as noted by Jean Baker, Mary Lincoln's respected biographer and the author of the introduction to Tripp's book, men with financial means rarely shared their beds with other men; to do so bordered on impropriety. Not long after moving to Springfield and into Speed's bed, Lincoln's lawyering earned him more than enough to find his own place. But he stayed on with Speed for four years.

Not an iota of comparable evidence supports a Lincoln love affair with Ann Rutledge near the tiny hamlet of New Salem, Illinois. Such evidence as exists mostly comes from a small component of testimony that William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, gathered after the president's 1865 assassination from people who either personally knew Lincoln or knew people who knew him. None of these people, with one exception, had a specific memory of Lincoln courting Rutledge. The exception was a small child when Rutledge died, and, as David Donald has pointed out, her story is wildly improbable.

What people remembered had to do with Lincoln's behavior at the time of Ann's death. The testimony that he went into a deep depression is significant. It's worth noting, however, that of the eight members of the Rutledge family whom Herndon queried (directly or indirectly), not one reported personal knowledge of that depression. We have no eyewitness accounts of a grief-stricken Lincoln at the funeral or the burial. The fever that killed Ann Rutledge (probably typhoid) had swept the entire region, as had malaria, leaving not enough well people to care for the sick and the dying. Lincoln helped out heroically amid gruesome conditions until he suffered a mental and perhaps a physical breakdown. Accounts of his funk veer sharply from suicidal madness to a more generic gloominess, but not a single informant recalled Lincoln saying anything about loving or marrying Rutledge during this period. Some informants attributed his behavior to exhaustion from overdoing his law studies. When considering Lincoln's state of mind during this episode, one must therefore consider a number of factors. To conclude from them that Lincoln had fallen madly in love with Ann and yearned to marry her is voodoo historiography.

Ann Rutledge's name appears nowhere in Lincoln's Collected Works. They apparently never corresponded, even while Lincoln was away serving as a state representative in Vandalia--something one would expect to see had they been in love. Indeed, no contemporary documents attest to a romance. The evidence consists of reminiscences that, apart from those of a man named Isaac Cogdal, informants told dimly, mistily, after a span of thirty or more years. * A theme of doomed romance tints much of the testimony with the faux sentimentality of a Harlequin novel. Lincoln was capable of being chummy with married women; they posed no possibility of amorous entanglement. Two of his good women friends in New Salem, Elizabeth Abell and Hannah Armstrong, had nothing at all to say about a love affair. Many other New Salemites had nothing to say, either about a romance or about Lincoln's despondency after Ann's death. Wilson claims that Ann discussed marriage to Lincoln with one of her brothers, Robert, who served as family spokesman to Herndon. What a whopper! It's very clear that the conscientious Robert Rutledge personally knew nothing whatever about his sister's relations with Lincoln. Wilson's claim is quite simply bizarre. Yet out of this gauzy fabric he fashioned a most vivid tableau indeed.

And so, an unavoidable question arises. Who is guiltier of "creating the picture he wanted to see," Tripp or Wilson? Tripp may have rhapsodized over some of his evidence in a questionable manner, but he produced a case far more compelling about Lincoln and Speed than Wilson did about Lincoln and Rutledge. That is of course a minority view. Most Lincolnists see Tripp's book as a pastiche of homo distortion. I see Wilson's Rutledge oeuvre as a shockingly confected hetero distortion. In the end, of course, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Wilson has prevailed.

Still, it's disturbing that he has. Lincoln scholars are smart people who generally greet revisionist opinion with hard, skeptical eyes.

And they should be skeptical, because the mysterious Lincoln can so easily be construed according to whatever fad has seized the moment. Therefore, they had good reason to rough up Tripp; no one should be able to come along and say what Tripp said and not get the third degree.

But what became of this institutionalized caution when Wilson and others reinstated Ann Rutledge as perhaps the most important figure in the young Lincoln's life? Academia yielded to this putsch without a quiver of dissent. Fifty years of scholarly disdain for the Rutledge story collapsed almost instantly. In view of Wilson's flimsy evidence and flimsier methodology, it really is more than a little strange. I conclude that Lincolnists succumbed en masse to the Rutledge siren song only because they might otherwise have had to entertain the unthinkable, which, by the time of Donald's 1995 book tour, was creeping through minds across the land.

It's a serious charge that deserves to be summed up baldly. Lincoln scholars relaxed evidentiary standards to accommodate a hetero-romance story in order to ward off homo-romance stories. When Tripp laid out the homo story, those same scholars devoutly denounced it on evidentiary grounds. They slackened with one hand and garroted with the other. I don't assume that most Lincolnists consciously adopted this double standard. Since Lincoln scholars tend to be idealists, most of them lack the requisite cynicism to make this leap. But that's the thing about a tribe. The fiercer the members' allegiance to its credo, the more resolutely they see what they want to see regardless of the evidence. This, of course, defines idealism in one of its most potent forms.

What does that imply about Tripp's picture of a homosexual Lincoln? Does tribalism taint that, too? Is "gaydar" inadmissible in the court of scholarly opinion? The short answer is that Tripp's argument is open to attack in some respects, but it's not a hallucination. Meanwhile, there are compelling reasons to think that Douglas Wilson's Rutledge story is, in fact, a fantasy. I don't know if Sean Wilentz buys Wilson's Rutledge account; but he doesn't contest it.

* The curious can consult Tripp's article about Cogdal in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association ("The Strange Case of Isaac Cogdal," 23.1, Winter 2002). Tripp called Cogdal's testimony a fraud, an opinion that David Donald endorsed. See also Gannett's article in this journal ("Scandal Brewing in Lincoln Country," 11.2, March-April 2004); and his related piece in The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association ("'Overwhelming Evidence' of a Lincoln-Ann Rutledge Romance?" 26.1, Winter 2005).

Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

by John Stauffer

Twelve. 432 pages, $30. (paper, $14.99)

"Who Lincoln Was"

by Sean Wilentz

Article in The New Republic, July 15, 2009

Lewis Gannett assisted C. A. Tripp in the preparation ofThe Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.
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Title Annotation:ESSAY; Abraham Lincoln
Author:Gannett, Lewis
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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