Dishonest Abe, Honest Babe?

Dishonest Abe, Honest Babe?

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 presidents 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?

Thats my line (Laughs). I see it as an important insight. In the long run its what you do that matters and not why you do it. Its what he did that we admire. [But it] would explain Lincolns 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: youre supposed to lie about sex, especially if youre 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. Whats the big deal? In the Mediterranean nobody makes these distinctions. How is it that Latins and Greeks, who are founders of culture, didnt have a word for faggot? There always have been feminine men and masculine women, and theyve been found peculiar or funny or been persecuted. Those are different thingsthey 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 wasnt 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. Hes 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. Lincolns 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, its successful.
Im 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 womens 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. Theres this general sense that Lincolns 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.
When you first read the book, were you open to its idea about Lincolns sexuality, or did you have to be persuaded?

I was fairly open to it. One of the reasons is personal. Ive had my run-ins with this tight fraternity of scholars. When I was working on a bio of Mary Todd Lincoln, other scholars refused to let me see the insanity records. Ive always felt myself to be an outsider in this group. I suppose I was predisoposed to like Tripps work and what he was doing. Tripp was a sex researcher and he saw stuff that a heterosexual historian might not see. Theres this idea that history is cold dead facts. People dont understand the process of history.
I dont think you have to support every contention that Tripp has made to believe that he does have a case. Again, sexuality in the 19th century is inferential and circumstantial. I guess what these folks [the skeptics] want is a smoking gun or a stained blue dress from the Gap.

David S. Reynolds, prize-winning author of Walt Whitmans America and the forthcoming John Brown, Abolitionist

(Professor Reynolds responded to an e-mail request for comments about the book and the debate over it.)

I havent read Tripps book but have read about it in the press. My view is that Lincoln was not consciously a homosexual. Certainly he was not one in our sense of the word. The word homosexual was not used in English until 1892, long after Lincolns death. It was not widely known to the public until the mid-1920s, when it was first used in The New York Times. In Lincolns time, passionate intimacy between people of the same sex was common. The lack of clear sexual categories (homo-, hetero-, bi-) made same-sex affection unself-conscious and widespread. Same-sex friends often loved each other passionately. Lover had no gender connotation and was used interchangeably with friend. It was common among both men and women to hug, kiss, and express love for people of the same sex. In hotels and inns, complete strangers often slept in the same bed.
Even the poet Walt Whitman, who manifested romantic feelings toward men far more intensely than Lincoln ever did, resists easy characterization as a homosexual in our sense. When the gay writer John Addington Symonds asked Whitman if his comradely Calamus poems expressed sexual inversion (the eras term for homosexuality) Whitman replied that such morbid inferences were damnable. Whitman saw himself as a working-class comrade who had a series of ardent relationships with young men, most of whom went on to get married and have children. The passages of same-sex in his poems were not out of keeping with then-current theories and practices that underscored the healthiness of such love. It tells us a lot about sexual mores of the time that the most prudish censors of Whitmans poems complained of even the mildest references to heterosexual sex while finding nothing objectionable in his images of same-sex love. Whitman wanted to be the one who brought real-life American friendship to the printed page. He insisted that his poems mirrored the approval, admiration, friendship seen among young men of these States, who he said had wonderful tenacity of friendship, and passionate fondness for their friends.
In my view, Lincoln can be best viewed as a typical 19th-century romantic comrade. Like a number of Whitmans male lovers, Lincoln had ardent friendships with men before and during heterosexual marriages that produced children.