[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Was Lincoln Gay?
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Was Lincoln Gay?
New York Times Book Review, 5.1.9
By RICHARD BROOKHISER
THE INTIMATE WORLD OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
By C. A. Tripp.
Edited by Lewis Gannett.
343 pp. Free Press. $27.
THIS book is already getting noticed. In ''The Intimate
World of Abraham Lincoln,'' C. A. Tripp contends that
Lincoln had erotic attractions and attachments to men
throughout his life, from his youth to his presidency. He
further argues that Lincoln's relationships with women were
either invented by biographers (his love of Ann Rutledge)
or were desolate botches (his courtship of Mary Owens and
his marriage to Mary Todd). Tripp is not the first to argue
that Lincoln was homosexual -- earlier writers have parsed
his friendship with Joshua Speed, the young store owner he
lived with after moving to Springfield, Ill. -- but he
assembles a mass of evidence and tries to make sense of it.
Tripp died in May 2003, after finishing the manuscript of
this book, which means he never had a chance to fix its
flaws. The prose is both jumpy and lifeless, like a body
receiving electric shocks. Tripp alternates shrewd guesses
and modest judgments with bluster and fantasy. He drags in
references to Alfred Kinsey (with whom he once worked) to
give his arguments a (spurious) scientific sheen. And he
has an ax to grind. He is, most famously, the author of
''The Homosexual Matrix.'' Published in 1975, it was a
document of gay liberation. Since the other president
sometimes thought to have been gay is the wretched James
Buchanan, what gay activist wouldn't want to trade up to
Lincoln? Still, obsession can discover things that have
been overlooked by less fevered minds.
Tripp surveys seven of Lincoln's relationships, four with
men and three with women, as well as two episodes from his
early life. The discussion of Lincoln's youth is worthless.
Relying on Lincoln's law partner and earliest biographer,
William Herndon, Tripp decides that Lincoln reached puberty
when he was 9 years old. Since Kinsey concluded that early
maturing boys tended to become witty masturbators with lots
of homosexual experience, Tripp concludes the same of
Lincoln. He claims even more for Lincoln's adolescence,
including a source for his religious heterodoxy. ''Since
Lincoln had already arrived on his own at the powerful
pleasures of orgasm . . . one can be sure that like most
precocious youngsters he was in no mood to give it all up
for bookish or Bible reasons.'' One can be sure, if one is
as credulous as Tripp.
Lincoln's story becomes interesting when Tripp discusses
real people. In 1831, when he was 22, Lincoln moved to New
Salem, an Illinois frontier town, where he met Billy
Greene. Greene coached Lincoln in grammar and shared a
narrow bed with him. ''When one turned over the other had
to do likewise,'' Greene told Herndon. Bed-sharing was
common enough in raw settlements, but Greene also had vivid
memories of Lincoln's physique: ''His thighs were as
perfect as a human being could be.'' Everyone saw that
Lincoln was tall and strong, but this seems rather gushing.
Six years later, Lincoln moved to Springfield, where he met
Joshua Speed, who became a close friend; John G. Nicolay
and John Hay, two early biographers, called him ''the only
-- as he was certainly the last -- intimate friend that
Lincoln ever had.'' Lincoln and Speed shared a double bed
in Speed's store for four years (for two of those years,
two other young men shared the room, though not the bed).
More important than the sleeping arrangements was the tone
of their friendship. Lincoln's letters to Speed before and
after Speed's wedding in 1842 are as fretful as those of a
general before a dubious engagement. Several of them are
signed ''Yours forever.''
By contrast, Lincoln's relations with women are either
problematic or distant. Ann Rutledge was the daughter of a
New Salem tavernkeeper with whom Lincoln boarded in 1832.
Three years later she died of malaria and typhoid. Lincoln
biographers have been feuding for decades over whether
Lincoln loved her. Tripp, naturally, sides with the
skeptics. He concedes that Lincoln was devastated by her
death, but argues that it was death itself that distressed
In 1836 Lincoln courted Mary Owens. Tripp correctly
characterizes his diffident suit as ''reaching forward
while sharply leaning back.'' In 1837 Owens broke the
relationship off. Lincoln then wrote a jeering letter to a
friend, explaining that he had lost interest because Owens
was so fat. ''I knew she was oversize, but now she appeared
a fair match for Falstaff.'' The nervous hostility of this
letter, disguised as humor, is cringe-making. (Tripp finds
The longest relationship of Lincoln's life was with his
wife, Mary Todd, whom he married in 1842; they had four
children, on whom Lincoln doted. Mary Lincoln's character
is also dark and bloody ground for biographers. Tripp
unhelpfully suggests that she had a psychopathic
personality, like ''various outlaw types, from Hitler down
to myriad petty criminals.'' Explosive, imperious,
profligate, she may well have been mad. But in fairness to
her, Lincoln was maddening -- remote and unavailable, when
he was not physically absent.
Tripp highlights two relations with men from Lincoln's
presidency. Col. Elmer Ellsworth was a flashy young
drillmaster, ''the greatest little man I ever met,'' as
Lincoln put it. Lincoln recruited him to his Springfield
law office, made him part of his presidential campaign and
gave him a high military post as war loomed. A few weeks
after the fall of Fort Sumter, Ellsworth was killed hauling
a rebel flag down from a hotel in Alexandria, Va. Lincoln
For nearly eight months in 1862-3, Capt. David Derickson
led the brigade that guarded Lincoln at the Soldiers' Home
in the District of Columbia, the Camp David of the day.
Derickson, in the words of his regiment's history,
published three decades later, ''advanced so far in the
president's confidence and esteem that in Mrs. Lincoln's
absence he frequently spent the night at his cottage,
sleeping in the same bed with him, and -- it is said --
making use of his Excellency's night shirt!''
Tripp can lay out a case, but his discussion of its
implications is so erratic that the reader is often left on
his own. One wonders: What does it mean to be homosexual?
Not all of the men Lincoln admired were. Ellsworth seems
straight as a ruler: he was engaged to a woman he
passionately loved when he died. Even Derickson married
twice and fathered 10 children (one son was serving in his
unit while he was sleeping with Lincoln). Tripp argues that
a cultural innocence -- the word ''homosexual'' had not yet
been coined -- allowed acts of physical closeness between
men that had no deeper meaning, as well as acts that did
but could escape scrutiny. We know more than our ancestors,
and our reward is that, in some ways, we may do less. In
any case, on the evidence before us, Lincoln loved men, at
least some of whom loved him back. Their words tell us more
than their sleeping arrangements.
What does Lincoln's erotic life tell us about Lincoln? For
a gregarious, popular man, he had few intimates (Tripp's
very title is a misnomer). Like many secretive types --
Benjamin Franklin comes to mind -- he kept the world at bay
with a screen of banter. Yet behind the laughs lay an
almost bottomless sadness, and sympathy for those he saw as
fellow sufferers. There were many Lincolns: the joker, the
pol, the logician, the skeptical theologian. But the man of
sorrows may be the most important. ''The president has a
curious vein of sentiment running through his thought which
is his most valuable mental attribute,'' as his secretary
of state, William Seward, said. Desiring what he could not
consistently have did not make him grieve -- what Virgil
called the tears of things did that -- but it may have
deepened his grief.
Towering above these Lincolns is the man who saw liberty
and equality as facets of the same thing, and who
maintained his (he called it his and the founders') vision
in the face of Northern confusion and Southern fury. This
is the Lincoln that matters. The rest is biography.
Richard Brookhiser is the author of ''Gentleman
Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the
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