Honest, Abe was gay ... or at least bisexual, according to a convincing mass of evidence presented in a just-published book by late Kinsey researcher C.A. Tripp.
Was Lincoln gay? That has been a public question for only a couple of decades, even though the proof that his closest emotional attachments were always with men has been available to every historian who has written about him during the last century and a half. But in the venerable tradition of malting all great men robustly heterosexual, almost every biographer of the great emancipator has ignored, suppressed, or distorted the abundant evidence that Lincoln was at the very least bisexual in his feelings--and probably in his acts.
C.A. Tripp, a psychologist and sex therapist who had been one of Alfred Kinsey's assistants, spent the last 10 years of his life sifting through the vast Lincoln archive to redress the balance. Tripp died in 2003, just after completing this manuscript. The result is a rambling, sometimes infuriating, but always fascinating book that, as (heterosexual) historian Michael B. Chesson writes in an afterword, proves "at the very least, that in his orientation Lincoln was not exclusively heterosexual."
The debate begins with Lincoln's relationship with Joshua Speed, the storekeeper with whom the future president shared a bed for four years. Straight historians have always dismissed this as serious evidence of anything, because so many men shared beds with each other in the 19th century--and Lincoln couldn't afford the $17 needed to secure his own single bed when he moved to Springfield, Ill., on April 15, 1837.
But Tripp provides ample evidence of an intimate relationship between the two men. As soon as Lincoln revealed his poverty, Speed invited him to be his bedmate. Tripp calls this invitation "immediately warm, embracing, and open-ended, more geared to desire than to accommodation" and points out that while bed-sharing by two men was not unusual, when it was "protracted or not explained by circumstance," it "bordered on impropriety," in the words of another Lincoln historian.
The future president also suffered a severe depression three weeks after Speed moved out on him at the beginning of 1841. Other historians have attributed this despondency to Lincoln's temporary breakup with his future wife, but Tripp argues convincingly that Lincoln's words sound much more like those of a lover spurned than those of someone who has just chosen to end a relationship.
"I am now the most miserable man living," Lincoln wrote three weeks after Speed was gone. "Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell.... To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me." Lincoln's letters to Speed were also the only ones that almost always ended "Yours forever" (a phrase Lincoln never used with his wife), and two of Lincoln's secretaries wrote in a biography that "Speed was the only--as he was certainly the last--intimate friend that Lincoln ever had."
Other historians naturally concluded that the subsequent marriages of Lincoln and Speed were enough to prove their heterosexuality. But Tripp suggests that Lincoln's letters to Speed regarding Speed's marriage show something else altogether. In response to Speed's first letter after his wedding night, Lincoln writes back, "I opened the latter [letter] with intense anxiety and trepidation; so much, that although it turned out better than I expected, I have hardly yet, at the distance of ten hours, become calm." Before the wedding Lincoln had written Speed, "But you say you reasoned yourself into [courting your wife]. What do you mean by that? Was it not that you found yourself unable to reason yourself out of it? Did you think ... of courting her the first time you saw or heard of her? What had reason to do with it at that early stage.... I shall be so anxious about you that I want you to write me every mail."
The argument that necessity was the mother of Lincoln's sleeping arrangements with Speed breaks down altogether as Tripp amasses evidence that Lincoln also shared his bed with at least three other men. A contemporary writes that A.Y. Ellis had "come up from Springfield and taken quite a fancy to Lincoln. The two slept together and Lincoln frequently assisted hint in the store." Another young friend, Billy Greene, remarked on Lincoln's "perfect" thighs, and they also shared a bed.
And although it isn't clear whether they ever slept together, Lincoln was clearly besotted with one Elmer Ellsworth, whose friend John Cook writes to him, "[Lincoln] has taken in you a greater interest than I ever knew him to manifest in any one before," while another witness reported, "Lincoln watched the two-hour drill with kindling eyes. He too centered his attention upon the boyish-looking commander. Afterwards he said of Colonel Ellsworth, 'He is the greatest little man I ever met.'" Ellsworth became the first casualty of the Civil War, and when the president learned of his death, he cried openly.
Tripp has also unearthed this diary entry by a Washington socialite, from November 16, 1862: "Tish says, '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!" And he provides independent confirmation that the soldier, David V. Derickson, slept with the president--and that Lincoln even loaned him his nightshirt.
Opposing historians who doubt Lincoln's bisexuality only bolster Tripp's claims with the lameness of their arguments. Consider this, from David Herbert Donald, the author of We Are Lincoln Men, who tries to explain away the mountain of evidence by quoting a single psychoanalyst: "My judgment is strongly influenced by the opinion of Charles B. Strozier, the psychoanalyst and historian, who concludes that if the friendship [with Speed] had been sexual, Lincoln would have become a different man. He would ... have been 'a bisexual at best, torn between worlds, full of shame, confused, and hardly likely to end up in politics.'" But Tripp proves that Lincoln was never a prisoner of the conventional wisdom on any subject--and there is nothing in his life to suggest that his own bisexuality would have made him ashamed.
As Michael Chesson writes, the unspoken credo of almost all the other Lincoln biographers was "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue." The one exception was Carl Sandburg, who, as Tripp reminds us, found "streaks of lavender" in both Lincoln and Speed. After this book, no future historian will be able to ignore those violet streaks again.
Eight score years ago ...
Excerpts from letters and diaries written by Abraham Lincoln and his contemporaries make the case for his same-sex attractions.
"It now thrills me with joy to hear you say you are 'far happier than you ever expected to be....' I am not going beyond the truth when I tell you that the short space it took me to read your last letter gave me more pleasure than the total sum of all I have enjoyed since the fatal first of Jany--'41."
--Joshua Speed, writing to Lincoln in 1842, after Speed's marriage and shortly before Lincoln's
"Tish says, 'there is a Bucktail soldier [Colonel Derickson] here devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs. L. is not home, sleeps with him.' What stuff!"
--From the diary of Virginia Woodbury Fox, wife of an assistant Navy secretary, November 16, 1862
--Lincoln's closing salutation in his letters to Speed
"You ask me if I have seen your friend Lincoln. I answer yes repeatedly and never without the conversation turning upon you.... He has taken a greater interest in you than I ever knew him to manifest in any one before."
--A letter from Col. John Cook to Col. Elmer Ellsworth, a favorite of Lincoln's, March 1860
Kaiser is an Advocate columnist and the author of The Gay Metropolis (Houghton Mifflin).
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Feb 15, 2005|
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