Was The Father of Our Country A Queen? Maybe the reason why, even under the Bush regime, the US has no king
This article was published in February 2005 issue of The Guide
Among the Revolutionary War heroes of July 4th, none appears straighter to us now than George Washington. However, his straightness (like so much of compulsory heterosexuality) forms only an illusion. What you learned in grade school that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then confessed, "Father, I cannot tell a lie" is a lie. And what your teacher didn't tell you that "Washington was a homosexual" is true.
Evidence of Washington's love of men has been published before. Noel I. Garde in 1964 included George Washington in Jonathan to Gide, The Homosexual in History. The author's vision came out of the 60s sexual liberation which lead to Stonewall. As a source, Jonathan to Gide cites J.V. Nash, Homosexuality in the Lives of the Great, Little Blue Book No. 1564, which was published in Girard, Kansas, during the 1930s by radical populists. Their publication of Homosexuality in the Lives of the Great like the original Wizard of Oz (published during the Depression of 1893) attacked the sacred standards of the time. In Kansas somewhere over the rainbow they were fighting against the heterosexual standard as well as the gold standard.
Today the United States Army is so militantly anti-gay that many cannot imagine that the man "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen" loved other men. But military men before Washington actively pursued men, and in. the armies of the 18th century, there were literally armies of lovers. In 1759 Washington recognized his own gay heritage by ordering busts of six famous generals: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar (who was hailed in the streets of Rome: "Regina! Regina!"), Charles XII of Sweden, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Prince Eugene of Savoy, and the Duke of Marlborough (Winston Churchill's ancestor). Major General Frank M. Richardson includes all these generals in his study Mars Without Venus, A Study of Some Homosexual Generals (1981). Known as "Mme l'Ancienne," Prince Eugene, for instance, "belonged to a small effeminate set that included such unabashed perverts as the young Abb de Choisy, who was invariably dressed as a girl, except when he wore the lavish earrings and make-up of a mature woman."
Recent televised versions of Washington's life have transformed him into a lady's man. While he loved the company of women, he never favored them sexually. His father died early and his mother kept him in hand as a young boy and prevented his going away to England, or even to William and Mary, for schooling. She prohibited his joining the navy. Washington's tastes in women ran to mothers and married women. Much has been made of his attachment to Mrs. Sally Fairfax, who taught him about plays, art, current music, and gossip. Like many gay men, he turned to womanly culture, but that made him neither a woman nor a sexual partner of women. Martha Custis provided him a perfect consort/cover. A very wealthy widow with two children, she was 26 when she married George, and the couple never had any children.
Sensitive and drawn to women's wit, Washington was also drawn to military men. He loved uniforms and was particularly keen on his own appearance. He totally adored his older brother Lawrence, Virginia's Adjutant General, who died in his arms. George then turned to older men, such as his brother's patron, Lord Fairfax, or General Braddock, for guidance and affection. He loved sleeping in the field with the men on long marches during the 18th century colonial wars. Washington himself was quite a hunk. "I have sometimes thought him," a nephew wrote of his uncle, "decidedly the handsomest man I ever saw; and when in a lively mood, so fully of pleasantry, so agreeable to all with whom he was associated, that I could hardly realize that he was the same Washington whose dignity awed all who approached him." The general loved to dance.
Glittery inner circle
During the American Revolution, Washington gathered a very gay group of staff officers. The General's relations with a handsome West Indian youth (Alexander Hamilton) have lead some historians to speculate that the boy was Washington's illegitimate son. The two men had passionate lovers' quarrels. After one of these battles, Hamilton confided to another friend that after the war he could "say many things" about the old man's character. Letters from Alexander Hamilton to John Laurens (when he was away on a mission) contain more than common rhetorical phrases such as "your obedient servant." "Cold in my professions, warm in friendships, I wish my Dear Laurens," Hamilton writes in April, 1779, "it might be in my power, by action rather than words, to convince you that I love you." And in September, he wrote, "like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed and my vanity piqued." (Jonathan Katz, Gay American History, p. 453). Hamilton writes about his "size," intercourse, and jeu de follie, a playful sexual term. Hamilton read all these letters to his commander.
The Homintern (international homosexual conspiracy) was very lively in the 18th century. For his quartermaster, Washington chose Frederick William Von Steuben, who communicated with the commander through French-speaking Hamilton and Laurens. Steuben himself had served Frederick the Great and his brother Prince Henry in Prussia; both generals were quite openly lovers of men. Steuben claimed the closest intimacies with both; his stories of being a baron and being so close to the royal family, like so many queen stories, have a kernel of truth and a bushel of elaboration. But Steuben's companion who wrote his first biography in 1859 describes the general who brought Steuben out as a person "of debauchery and profligacy." And there were stories that Steuben had to flee Germany because of his being "accused of having taken familiarities with young boys."
Steuben taught the American boys discipline (he spoke only German and French at the time) and took two boys from the United States Army for his lifelong lovers. Later to mark their love for each other William North and Frederick Steuben carved their initials together on a tree at their rural retreat. The general called his American boys sans culottes (without breeches, the tight pants Washington always wore), a term later applied to the French Revolutionaries. Doubtless he studied closely the soldiers' asses and crotches; the more modest trousers have been with us ever since. Steuben never married and never had any children. At the time of his death in 1794 he was living with a young Columbia university graduate John W. Mulligan, to whom the old general whispered his dying words, "Don't be alarmed, my son." In his own old age Mulligan became US Consul at Athens.
All of the gay boys in Washington's headquarters loved him and vied for his affections. In his dealings with the boys the commander kept teasing them, leading them on and playing them off against each other. His closest ties were with a young Frenchman, Lafayette, whom (in Gershwin-style) he called "the man I love." A teenager when he left France, Lafayette's hazel eyes, red hair, and puppy-dog obedience won Washington over; after the battle of Monmouth in 1778 the two spent the night, snuggled together under the general's great coat. In a letter to his commander, the youth asked for a locket from Washington and called himself his "sweetheart." After Lafayette had been away on furlough, Washington promised to embrace him "with all the warmth of an affectionate friend when you come to headquarters, where a bed is prepared for you." The boy trapped the British at Yorktown in 1781 and Washington arrived in time to receive the surrender. When the two met on the battlefield, Lafayette kissed Washington from ear to ear several times "with as much ardor as ever an absent lover kissed his mistress on his return." The band played "The World Turned Upside Down."
Washington's boys continued to follow him after the war. Lafayette took the Bastille (July 14, 1789) and sent Washington the key to that prison. Von Steuben tried to get the very gay Prince Henry of Prussia to become king of the United States. And Hamilton and others tried to make Washington himself king. In his new cabinet, Alexander Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury and Washington's closest advisor.
Washington's love of boys and men means more to the United States than a little gossip. Had he had lots of children (like the Kennedys) he might well have been tempted to become king for his descendants' sake. But he never faced that temptation. And his lack of offspring made it easier for him to free his slaves (after his and Martha's deaths). The notion that "Washington slept here" now takes on new meaning.
A version of this essay appeared in Gay Community News in 1990
Abe Lincoln and Hillbilly Sex
Let Alone Log Cabins, Barnyards & Raft Rides Can Turn Any Lad Queer
My first introduction to C.A. Tripp's work came through his quite comprehensive Homosexual Matrix ("a multi-disciplinary perspective that owes much to the work of Alfred C. Kinsey"). It came out in 1975, and Boston's Gay Male Liberation Study Group immediately acquired all ten copies stocked in the Harvard Cooperative Bookstore. Three years before, we'd also connected with Harry Hay, after he had moved to the Arizona desert and developed a gay liberation outpost there. Later when Harry returned to Los Angeles, he introduced me to Jim Kepner and Don Slater, who served us bourbon straight on the rocks in recycled mayonnaise jars. At the One Institute in LA, Dorr Legg entertained several of my lectures, including one that examined Abraham Lincoln's homosexuality. This later appeared in the Gay Community News and then in Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers (Gay Sunshine Press, 1989).
In 1990, the Lesbian and Gay Historians included a panel on gay presidents, chaired by Professor William A. Percy, at the American Historical Association conference. My own contribution was titled "George Washington, Abraham Lincoln & Appalachian Sexuality." That was perhaps my first meeting with Tripp, who was as engaging in person as in his writings. Subsequently we spent many hours on the telephone talking about Lincoln.
Now we have before us Tripp's Abraham Lincoln from the Inside, a wonderful book, saved by his survivors from the destruction/oblivion that befell the ancient Alexandrian Library. Among several other researchers, writers, heirs and friends, Lewis Gannett has labored to bring this comprehensive work into print. We must all be grateful for the results, although some "professional" Lincoln scholars may grit their teeth at the results. In a recent review of several current Lincoln books, James M. McPherson, a dean of Civil War scholars and professor at Princeton University, writes in his review, "Of the making of many books about Abraham Lincoln there is no end. But the rest of this updated proverb from Ecclesiastes may be inapplicable. Much study of these books is not necessarily a weariness of the flesh" (The Nation, June 14, 2004). Tripp documents with notable clarity some remarkable aspects of Lincoln's flesh.
No one ever understands another person completely; only parts can be understood. Some figures, however, are particularly enigmatic and complex. Certainly, Lincoln has never been completely transparent never at any time during his life nor subsequently. Two among many attempts to address this issue are Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (1958) or Stephen B. Oates, Abraham Lincoln, The Man Behind the Myths (1984). They say little about his sexuality and nothing about his homosexuality, but they make clear that there's more to Lincoln than meets the eye. Now C.A. Tripp's work carefully documents what Carl Sandburg had earlier alluded to as Lincoln's "Lavender Streak," something that early gay activist Jim Kepner picked up on immediately.
Tripp has a special license to understand Lincoln through Alfred Kinsey. Kinsey (working in Muncie, Indiana) seems to have been surprised at what he found in the Midwest. His landmark Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) documented behaviors such as fellatio or cunnilingus that had once been considered Greek, Roman or Parisian deviations were in fact widespread, alive and well, florid and thriving even in Indiana.
The geography/topography of the Lincoln/Kinsey landscape took its present shape from several glaciers that essentially flattened northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Near Middletown, Ohio, a highway sign marks where the last glacier stopped. North of that line the New England/New York influences have prevailed, while south of the line, the hillbillies have had their fun. William B. Hesseltine (Civil War expert, who examined me at the University of Wisconsin) called it the Appalachian "Lap-over." Hesseltine may have had an inkling that Sandburg's "Lavender Streak" was on mark, since he called the Hoosier poet a "guitar-strumming son-of-a-bitch."
Lincoln's birthplace, childhood home, and early career certainly bear an indelible Appalachian mark. Born in a Kentucky log cabin, he soon moved with his family to southern Indiana, and later to the White House, where another Southerner shot and killed him. His gifts and place in history may be unique, but Lincoln shared what Carl Sandburg identified as his "Lavender Streak" with Walt Whitman, the Log Cabin Club, Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, and many others.
Most writing about homosexuality has centered on the great cities such as Athens, Rome, London, Paris, Berlin, New York or San Francisco. The hinterlands, however, may be much richer in the life of the "flesh," than people think. My own experience began in the Southern Ohio lap-over in Afton, Ohio. At three I ran away from home to join an older man who lived down Percy's Lane near a railroad track; later I played in a corn shock with my Uncle Roy James who gave me love and Vienna sausages. At 12, I caroused in the corncrib and fields with Virgil Jesse and Bobby Bond. The taste of semen in my prepubescent mouth was very interesting. Later my family moved to Hamilton, Ohio, on the Little Miami River. We lived outside the city in a rural slum called "Gobbler's Knob," a hillbilly enclave. There I practiced jerking-off in a pasture field with a neighboring boy; he wanted me to fuck a nearby cow, but I found him more enticing. Later a next-door neighbor piano player and holyroller evangelist fucked me and soon Earl Ivy became a regular lover, after first fucking me in a pigpen. The piano player was later born-again while Earl went off to prison and I went to Harvard.
At Muncie, Indiana, Alfred Kinsey seems to have been surprised at the country sexuality, which he had at first thought occurred only in Chicago and other large cities. Tripp quotes Kinsey's observation: that the "highest frequencies of the homosexual which we have ever secured anywhere have been in particular rural communities in some of the more remote sections of the country." En route to New Harmony, Indiana, fellow Fag Ragger Mike Riegle and I received a happy welcome in Terra Haute for the Fag Rag and our gay erotic poetry. Of course, Lincoln also knew more than the backcountry, but the local saying has been that "you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy."
Abe like Huck
A friend in New Salem, Indiana, Denton Offutt was attracted to the youngster Abe Lincoln, and invited him to share a raft to New Orleans in 1831. The two carried crops south, sold them and the raft; then they walked back to Illinois, camping out on the way. Lincoln himself later recalled that during this "boat enterprise," Offutt first "conceived a liking" for him. Lincoln also expressed shock at the sight of the slave auctions in New Orleans, but left little account of the relatively open sexuality there. Another traveler to New Orleans had been Walt Whitman in 1848. The poet may have picked up the Spanish word camerada which he heard or himself masculinized as camarado) the military term among Spanish soldiers for a bedmate. On his Springfield office desk, Lincoln himself kept a copy of the second edition of Leaves of Grass (1856), which he sometimes read to his sidekick Billy Herndon or other guests. That edition contains Whitman's first use of the word camerado (spell-check suggests changing it to "camera do"!). The poet probably picked up on the word in the streets of New Orleans, which have long been filled with sailors and back-country boys like Lincoln.
Francis Grierson (1848-1927) witnessed the Lincoln/Douglas debates (1858 in Illinois), which he later described in his Valley of the Shadows (1909). Francis served another Republican presidential candidate, John Fremont, in Missouri, where he served as the General/Governor's secretary when he was only a teenager. Later the Grierson family moved to Niagara Falls, where the youth learned to play the piano and soon began a successful tour along the Atlantic Coat, where he met Walt Whitman. The two became life-long friends. On tour in Paris he visited Paul Verlaine and thought that two lines of the French poet were worth more than the whole of Milton's Paradise Lost.
Prez on the prowl?
During the 1860's when both Whitman and Lincoln were in Washington, DC, they had at least a nodding acquaintance. Both spent time at night in the Smithsonian Institute grounds, which then and for many years after provided opportunities for men to rendezvous at their own risk. Lafayette Park (just across the street from the White House) also had had a long reputation as a meeting place for male homosexuals. During the 1950s the urinals became more risky after the DC police installed a one-way mirror, behind which they crouched to witness various "crimes against chastity."
One additional note on Speed: Lincoln did appoint Joshua's brother to his cabinet. After the 1860 election, Joshua and Lincoln had met in a Chicago hotel room with the president-elect en route to Washington sprawled out on the bed. Lincoln offered Joshua any office he might want in the new administration. While Joshua turned down this generous offer, Speed's brother did receive a cabinet appointment, and Whitman received a clerkship in the Justice Department. When the Methodist Attorney General searched Whitman's desk there, he found revisions for the third edition of Leaves of Grass, which contained what he thought were "smutty passages." He fired Whitman on the spot. Secretary Speed then offered Whitman a job in his own department, where the poet continued to draw a salary even after he had gone on sick-leave to his mother's house on Long Island, where he wrote perhaps the greatest eulogy in American English, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed."
Get over it
Tripp has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that Lincoln had an important "lavender streak," as Carl Sandburg so appropriately called it. So what? People have come to grips with Thomas Jefferson's intimate friendship with his slave Sally Hemings. He largely wrote the "Declaration of Independence," while he loved his slave. Lincoln wrote the forever-memorable "Gettysburg Address," which marked the end of slavery, while he invited one of the Pennsylvania Bucks to sleep with him during his wife's shopping trips to New York City. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" defined one memorable goal of the Civil Rights movement, while he carried on an active heterosexual life beyond his marriage. They shot Lincoln, they shot Martin Luther King, but their dreams live on. Alexander the Great lamented that he had no Homer to remember his deeds; Abraham Lincoln has been more fortunate in having a perennial group of poets and scholars to celebrate his life. Among them, Tripp has now illuminated Lincoln's "lavender streak" more brilliantly and thoroughly than any previous Lincoln scholar.