Dishonest Abe, Honest Babe?


By Editors

For years now historians, journalists, and writers have been debating whether Abraham Lincoln had male lovers; as early as 1926, Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote that the president and his friend Joshua Speed both had 'a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets.' This month, after several delays, the Free Press is publishing The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by C.A. Tripp, a former Kinsey sex researcher best known for his book The Homosexual Matrix. In the new book, Tripp offers a fascinating reading of the voluminous Lincolniana (diaries, memoirs recorded during his lifetime or shortly after his death, letters) in which he presents a compelling case for the argument that our 16th president's emotional and sexual life included both men and women. Out executive editor Bruce Shenitz interviewed a number of Lincoln experts to get their reactions; their edited comments appear below:

Gore Vidal, prolific novelist, essayist, playwright, public intellectual, author of books ranging from Myra Breckinridge (1968) to Burr (1973) to Lincoln (1984).

Why does it matter if Lincoln was having sex with men?

That's my line (Laughs). I see it as an important insight. In the long run it's what you do that matters and not why you do it. It's what he did that we admire. [But it] would explain Lincoln's extraordinary empathy and ability to get inside other people, inside the differences.

Why is there so much resistance to the possibility, particularly within the historical profession?

I have dealt before with the Lincoln brigade. They tell lies like neoconservatives. They lie about everything; if they lie about sex, so what. That was always our general liberal advice about sex to Clinton: you're supposed to lie about sex, especially if you're a married man. Because I was brought up in Washington, D.C., nothing shocks me at all. My grandfather spent 30 years im the Senate: He was a devout atheist from the Bible Belt and kept that from his constituency.

Since the term 'gay' would be ahistorical as applied to Lincoln, how would you describe him?

Literally he was bisexual. I quite believe the business about Captain Diedrickson [a soldier Lincoln frequently shared a White House bed with]. My corollary to that is, Everyone is. What's the big deal? In the Mediterranean nobody makes these distinctions. How is it that Latins and Greeks, who are founders of culture, didn't have a word for 'faggot'? There always have been feminine men and masculine women, and they've been found peculiar or funny or been persecuted. Those are different things'they have nothing to do with sex.

Jean Baker, Professor of History, Goucher College, Baltimore. Professor Baker wrote the foreword to the new Lincoln book and is the author of Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography.

Why should we care who Lincoln was or wasn't having sex with?

We should care for a couple of reasons. Lincoln is an American icon, the more we know about him, the more we may be able to 'clone' him. He's a fascinating guy because of his elusiveness. To the degree we want a full biographical profile of him, we need to consider sexuality.
There is an additional reason. Lincoln's contrarian independence of mind and self-reliance tied into his homosexuality. Which makes him to some degree marginal. We have to be careful to transfer our 21st-century views of sexuality. This is just another way of trying to understand Lincoln. To the degree that Tripp did this, it's successful.
I'm not going to argue that because he was gay he freed the slaves. But his presidential leadership can be tied to his marginality, as was his ability to deal with opposing viewpoints and understand what others are thinking.
One of the contributions of women's history is this idea that the personal is the political. None of it can be totally understood without some degree of understanding of our sexuality. There's this general sense that Lincoln's successful presidential leadership in the most difficult times in the history of the republic is based on his tolerance, understanding, his very creative thinking. Parts of this creative thinking came not only from the fact that he was self-taught, but had a sexuality outside of the time.