|How queer was Abraham Lincoln?
Abraham Lincoln, one of the most admired presidents of all time, was in many ways an enigma. To this day, the nature of his relationships and sexuality remain the subject of debate by scholars and gay activists.
Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, in a log cabin on the Kentucky frontier. With less than a year of formal schooling, he taught himself law and became partner in a legal practice in 1837. He served four terms in the Illinois state legislature and one in the U.S. Congress before being elected president in 1860. Although known for freeing slaves in the rebel southern states, Lincoln was neither an abolitionist nor a proponent of racial equality. Shortly after his second inauguration and days after the Civil War ended in April 1865, Lincoln was assassinated, and he never saw the nation reunited.
Lincoln's circumspection about his private life has engendered much speculation over the years. Based on the accounts of several townspeople, his one-time law partner and first biographer, William Herndon, wrote that in his early 20s Lincoln fell in love with an innkeeper's daughter, Ann Rutledge, and was distraught when she died in 1835; other scholars contend this relationship is a myth. A few years later, Lincoln dutifully proposed marriage to a friend's sister, Mary Owens. Much to his relief, she turned him down, saying he was "deficient in those little links which make up the chain of a woman's happiness."
Upon moving to Springfield, Ill., as a destitute new lawyer in 1837, Lincoln shared a roomand a bedfor four years with his "most intimate friend," Joshua Speed. When Speed moved away to marry, Lincoln fell into a deep depression. "I am now the most miserable man living," he lamented. In 1842, after a long on-and-off courtship, Lincoln married Mary Todd, the daughter of a prominent Kentucky businessman. The couple had four sons, three of whom died in childhood. Some historians believe they were happy together, but others contend she was shrewish and mentally unstable and he was melancholy and remote.
Carl Sandburg, who penned a multi-volume Lincoln biography in the 1920s, quipped that Lincoln and Speed's relationship had "a streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets." In addition, several gay authorsincluding Jim Kepner of the ONE Institute, historians Charley Shively and Jonathan Ned Katz, novelist Gore Vidal, and activist/playwright Larry Kramer have suggested that Lincoln was homosexual or bisexual.
The controversy erupted anew with the 2004 publication of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by C.A. Tripp, a psychologist who once worked with Alfred Kinsey. Tripp (who died just weeks after his manuscript was completed) claimed Lincoln was "predominantly homosexual," offering as evidence his purported early puberty, his "sex-minded" penchant for ribaldry (including a poem he wrote in his youth about two men who married each other), and his stepmother's assessment that he "was not very fond of girls." In addition to Speed, Lincoln also shared a bed with Billy Greene, his co-worker at a general store in the early 1830s (who told Herndon that Lincoln's thighs were "as perfect as a human being could be") and, three decades later, with his head bodyguard, David Derickson.
Several commentators argued that Tripp offered no more than flimsy circumstantial evidence. Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald argued that it was not uncommon for men in the 19th century to share a bed out of economic necessity, and that Lincoln used the salutation "Yours Forever" in letters to half a dozen other correspondents besides Speed (although never to his wife). Furthermore, Lincoln told tales of his flirtations with women and admitted to Herndon that he visited prostitutes. Finally, Donald suggests, Lincoln would not have been so open about his relationship with Speed if they had, in fact, been lovers.
Others, however, think a convincing case can be made that Lincoln was queer to some degree. While Tripp posited that Lincoln was a 5 on the Kinsey scale (with 6 denoting exclusive homosexuality), gay author Andrew Sullivan suggested he was more likely a 4, while Shively placed him somewhere between a 2 and a 3. "In any particular piece of evidence that Tripp discovers, I'd say it's easy to dismiss his theory," wrote Sullivan. "But when you review all the many pieces of the Lincoln emotional-sexual puzzle, the homosexual dimension gets harder and harder to ignore." Donald's student, Jean Baker (author of a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln), said that Lincoln "loved men, and they loved him, at whatever level" but he also loved his wife.
Given that the concepts of homosexual and heterosexual did not exist until years after Lincoln's death, it is anachronistic to force him into a contemporary sexual identity category. But, says Salon reviewer Andrew O'Hehir, Tripp's revelations offer a glimpse into a "vanished world of intimate male friendships of a kind almost unrecognizable to us." Ironically, modern notions of sexual identity have rendered certain types of homosocial relationships among men more rare, even as openly homosexual relationships have become more accepted.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 5 May 20, 2005