Lincoln Buzz - Historians Changing View of President Lincoln's Sexuality by Michael Hamar

From William A. Percy
Jump to: navigation, search

"Historians' Changing View of President Lincoln's Sexuality"
Filed by: Michael Hamar in
September 4, 2010 4:00 PM

In 2005, the late C.W. Tripp posited that Abraham Lincoln was secretly a homosexual in his book, "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln." Not surprisingly, many historians and those on the far right were aghast - as if somehow being same-sex attracted makes one incapable of being a great leader and a wartime president. Never mind the many figures from history that were what we would nowadays call gay: Alexander the Great, Roman Emperor Hadrian, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci to name just a few. Some might question why 145 years after Lincoln's death the issue even matters. In my view, it is an very important question given the far right's never ceasing efforts to depict LGBT individuals as sick, perverted, mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addicts and many other derogatory things. That a major figure like Lincoln was one of us - albeit perhaps more or less in the closet - turns the agenda of our enemies upside down. It also will cause no small amount of angst amongst far right Republicans if their party's principal founder on the national level loved another man and slept with him for years. Indeed, if Joshua Speed (pictured at right, above) was in fact the "love of his life" for Lincoln, many anti-gay stereotypes are destroyed or at least seriously undermined.

Both and Gay City News [Doug Ireland] have stories on this still debated topic and the growing number of top flight historians who are beginning to admit that Lincoln was likely gay. Living out and proud changes many minds in our favor on a daily basis. And while younger generations are rapidly changing their attitudes about and levels of acceptance of LGBT citizens, by bringing out the real stories of gay figures from the past, may further accelerate the the ultimate defeat of anti-bigots. Plus, it's down right fun to imagine the conniption fits among the Bible beaters. Here are highlights, first from Gay City News: ...[T]he LGBT press has been ignoring an infinitely more significant development under way with vastly more important implications for the Republican Party: the increasing acceptance by historians that the loving heart of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator and the first GOP president, found its natural amorous passions overwhelmingly directed toward those of his own sex.

This shifting consensus about Lincoln's sexual orientation is certainly the most stunning and effective rebuke to the Republican Party's scapegoating of same-sex love for electoral purposes, which came to fever pitch during the 2004 race that [Ken] Mehlman spearheaded for George W. Bush.

"We are getting closer to the day that a majority of younger, less homophobic historians will at long last accept the evidence of Lincoln's same-sex component," John Stauffer, chair of Harvard University's Department of American Civilization, told Gay City News, adding, " We're already seeing the beginnings of a trend that will amount to a major paradigm shift."

Stauffer is one of the nation's leading experts on the Civil War era, and in his latest -- and best-selling -- book, "Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln," he supports the thesis that Joshua Speed was, as he put it, "Lincoln's soulmate and the love of his life." And in the latest issue of the scholarly journal Reviews of American History, Stauffer hammers home this point, writing, "In light of what we know about romantic friendship at the time, coupled with the facts surrounding Speed's and Lincoln's friendship, there is no reason to suppose they weren't physically intimate at some point during their four years of sleeping together in the same small bed, long after Lincoln could afford a bed of his own. To ignore this, as most scholars do, is to pretend that same-sex carnal relationships were abnormal. It thus presumes a dislike or fear about such relationships, reflecting a presentist and homophobic perspective."

A majority of Lincoln scholars dumped on Tripp's book when it was published five years ago, but the "paradigm shift" on Lincoln of which Stauffer speaks is not only being led by younger historians like himself (Stauffer received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1999, began teaching at Harvard that year, and was tenured in 2004).

In a lengthy article entitled "Abraham Lincoln and the Tripp Thesis" in a recent issue of one of the oldest scholarly journals devoted to the iconic president, the Lincoln Herald, a senior Lincoln historian and author of numerous Lincoln books, the octogenarian William Hanchett, professor of history emeritus at the University of California/ San Diego, "challenges historians to either refute the Tripp thesis or to rewrite Lincoln's biography. Hanchett believes that Tripp is correct at least in the broad outline of his work and finds it frustrating that most historians, rather than confronting this pioneering study, choose to ignore it," as the Lincoln Herald's editors put it in introducing Hanchett's revealing, carefully footnoted essay on Lincoln's same-sex affinities. Hanchett in particular breaks new ground when he deconstructs what we know of the much-ignored secret Memo books kept by Lincoln's law partner William Herndonas he spent a quarter century intensively researching his massive "Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life," published in 1889. The UC/ San Diego scholar details how he believes that the otherwise thorough Tripp missed the evidence there that backs up Hanchett's view that "Lincoln's secret" was homosexuality.

One of the few traditional Lincolnists to describe -- however obliquely -- the lifelong Lincoln-Speed relationship as homosexual was the Illinois poet Carl Sandburg, in his masterful, six-volume Lincoln biography. In the 1926 tome titled "The Prairie Years," Sandburg wrote that both Lincoln and Speed had "a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets."

"I do not feel my own sorrows more keenly than I do yours," Lincoln wrote Speed in one letter. And elsewhere: "You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting." In a detailed retelling of the Lincoln-Speed love story -- including the "lust at first sight" encounter between the two young men, when Lincoln readily accepted Speed's eager invitation to share his narrow bed -- Tripp notes that Speed was the only human being to whom the president ever signed his letters with the unusually tender (for Lincoln) "yours forever" -- a salutation Lincoln never even used with his wife. Speed himself acknowledged, "No two men were ever so intimate." And Tripp credibly describes Lincoln's near nervous breakdown following Speed's decision to end their four-year affair by returning to his native Kentucky.

"Why [have] scholars [been] so willfully blind to the host of historical evidence that Lincoln had a strong homosexual component?," Harvard's Stauffer wrote to this reporter in an email, explaining, "The answer stems from the intense homophobia throughout 20th century America, which has profoundly shaped Lincoln scholarship. Every scholar needs to read previous scholarship on Lincoln; and even comparatively open-minded scholars, after reading the mass of Lincoln scholarship, can easily be persuaded into perpetuating the blindness about Lincoln's relationship with Speed."

Stauffer, however, underscored in his email, "These explanations don't account for the fact that most scholars today can agree that other well-known and beloved figures, such as Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, had strong homosexual tendencies but deny that Lincoln did, despite similar evidence. The reason for this paradox, and perhaps the central reason why scholars have been willfully blind to the evidence on Lincoln, is because most view him as the 'redeemer president'-- essentially 'America's Christ' -- and don't want America's Christ having strong homosexual tendencies." follows a similar analysis and also adds these salient points that underscore why having the truth about Lincoln ultimately told is important:

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most revered figures in American history. Students around the country are required to memorize his Gettysburg Address. His debates are seen as some of the penultimate political rhetoric in U.S. electoral history. His mug is on the penny, the five-dollar bill, and on Mt. Rushmore. Scores of Republicans proudly boast that they're "the party of Lincoln." And his Emancipation Proclamation makes up one of the foundational documents in the U.S. civil rights narrative.

Stauffer's comments in the piece are pretty interesting, if not for the fact that they suggest that within historian circles, folks who dismiss claims about Lincoln's homosexuality might be doing so because of internalized, or not so internalized, homophobia. Today, we're making a big deal out of people like GOP strategist Ken Mehlman coming out of the closet, or conservative straight allies like Ted Olson, Margaret Hoover, Steve Schmidt, and Christine Todd Whitman, who willingly point their name down to support marriage equality. But what if it turns out that one of America's foremost historical figures, and someone dubbed one of the greatest Presidents our country has ever seen, "had a streak of lavender?"

September 12, 2010 Part 2 (Michael Hamar)

Last week I did a post here at The Bilerico Project that created Lincoln and Speed.jpgquite a bit of commentary and several personal attacks in comments that I did not approve for publication because of their nastiness.

I was particularly surprised by the number of comments by authors who were incensed that I referred to Lincoln as "gay" as opposed to "bisexual." My own experiences as a closeted gay man who married were likewise disparaged and I was accused of "gaywashing" history. Apparently, to some, the fact that one has had sex with someone of the opposite sex - regardless of what thoughts and fantasies were going through one's mind during the process - makes one bisexual no matter what. Indeed, to these folks it was nothing short of heresy to recognize that someone gay can have sex with an opposite sex partner - even if it is merely only the result of trying to do "what's expected by church and society" - and still be gay.

I continue to believe that the issue is relevant and it is through accurate history that minds can sometimes be opened and prejudice defeated.

Since writing the post, a reader forwarded me a copy of the last segment of William Hanchett's piece in the Lincoln Herald (which apparently is not available on line, but I can e-mail a copy to anyone who wants a copy). Hanchett has been described as one of the foremost authorities on the Lincoln assassination and in this article he challenges those who have had a knee jerk reaction to suggestions that Lincoln was homosexual as follows:

The thesis C. A. Tripp presents in The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln requires either that it be refuted or that Lincoln biography and American history be revised. So far it has been denounced but not refuted.... they have shown no interest in testing Lincoln's character and biography against the Tripp thesis. As editor Lewis Gannett put it, "If Tripp is right, they are wrong in a very big way,"

Hanchett then proceeds to review some of the evidence himself and makes the case that, indeed, Lincoln could well have been a homosexual in his sexual orientation. He also dismantles some of the myths and stories often cited to prove Lincoln's interest in women. He also looks deeply at the secret memorandums of Lincoln's one time law partner, William Herndon and Herndon's motivations to protect Lincoln's memory - as well as the political considerations that argued for keeping Lincoln a heterosexual for posterity. Here are some highlights:

In 1887 Williarn Herndon wrote a correspondent that "I know a good deal about Lincoln - more than I dare state in a book."' Near the beginning of his great collaboration with Jesse Weik, he told his young associate that there were things about Lincoln he could not tell him, "especially in ink." In another letter to Weik, Herndon observed that though Lincoln was informal and familiar, he kept people at a distance.... When someone asked him if he thought Lincoln would have wanted his life to be investigated, he responded with an emphatic No, Lincoln, he explained, was "a hidden man and wished to keep his own secrets." Herndon thus recognized his investigations into Lincoln's personal history were trespasses on the sacred ground of his friend's privacy.

Whatever he thought of the ultimate disposition of his material, he knew that the secret of Lincoln's sex life was safe with him. He would withhold knowledge of it indefinitely or forever rather than release it prematurely. In Lincoln's interests, he would not only suppress evidence by confining it to his secret Memo books, he might even invent history. It is conceivable that that is what he was doing when he seized upon a few fragments of information about Lincoln's friendship with Ann Rutledge and turned them into a love story whose tragic ending darkened the rest of Lincoln's life.... For most of the years of his mature life, marriage would provide adequate cover, as it did for many other men hiding the same secret.

It may even have occurred to Herndon that in giving Lincoln a heterosexual past, he was also protecting the achievements of his presidency. For if Lincoln's enemies - unreconstructed rebels, diehard Copperheads, opponents of the centralization of power in Washington - sensed in some post-Reconstruction era that their causes not lost after all, they might sooner or later seek to undo the accomplishments of his presidency, what better way to turn back the clock than by discrediting the president responsible for the wartime revolutions in American government and society, and how better discredit him than by exposing his personal immorality? A major rewriting of history would necessarily follow, and the image of a gay Lincoln transformed from a national icon to a national embarrassment would be helpless to do anything about it.

Personal tools