Monday, February 12, 2007

Was Abraham Lincoln Gay?

First off, we here at The Cup of Joe need to send a birthday shout-out to Abraham Lincoln. He would have been 198 today, had he lived. (I understand he tells all his friends in heaven that he's only 129.)

Last week, on Andrew Sullivan's blog, Andrew got me thinking when he wrote that Walt Whitman was arguably the most distinguished gay American in history, then noted parenthetically that this is true "if you don't count Lincoln."

Now, I realize that Andrew is being a little tongue-in-cheek in so casually acknowledging the premise that Lincoln may have been gay, a premise advocated in recent years through various books and articles. But the idea has been around for decades, and was slyly alluded to in a Carl Sandburg 1926 biography that hints that Lincoln's relationship with Joshua Speed had "a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets."

Was Lincoln gay? It's a good time to revisit the question, especially since the Party of Lincoln has become the Party of Cheney, as in Mary Cheney.

I've read a good amount on Lincoln, so I've given this question some thought before. Of all the books I've read, I think the best single "straight" biography of Abe is David Donald's book Lincoln, for its scope, thoroughness, the objectivity of its decidedly unheroic portrait, and the author's emphasis on primary sources.

What do I mean by a primary source? Well, Donald didn't rely on newspaper accounts, or, say, the multi-volume biography of Lincoln by Sandburg or the biographical accounts of any number of other historians. Nope, Donald relied on primary sources, like letters and diaries and government documents and presidential papers. First-hand accounts. Straight from "Mary's" mouth, so to speak, as in Mary Todd and others.


I've snapped a photo of the page from the Donald book that describes how Lincoln first met his best and most intimate friend, Joshua Speed. (CLICK TO ENLARGE THE PHOTO.) It should be noted that David Donald has made clear in interviews that he does NOT subscribe to the notion that Lincoln was a Friend of Dorothy.

So why do some people say Lincoln was gay? Here's a quick review:

* Joshua Speed and Lincoln shared a bed for four years, a fact that is not up for historical debate. It happened. Does this make Lincoln gay? Not necessarily, because it was common for men to share beds in rooming houses at the time. So you can't say for sure.

* Lincoln also is said to have shared his bed with a solder (David Derickson) for an eight-month period during The Civil War but only when his wife was away, according to C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (2005). Does this make him gay? Well, it's impossible to say. The behavior is a little strange, but during a Civil War when you're the president, wouldn't you want a bodyguard close by, particularly if it's a strapping soldier with buns of steel and the guns to match?

On second thought, you don't have to even answer the question since the book's conclusions based on available evidence have already been pretty much discredited.

* Lincoln didn't have particularly close relationships with women, but Joshua Speed was his closest and most intimate friend. Even an old-fashioned and cautious historian like David Donald emphasizes this closeness and intimacy.

* Lincoln certainly suffered from depression, which sometimes sounds more like bi-polar disorder. Was Lincoln depressed in part because he had, on some level, a kind of self-hate that many closeted homosexuals experience?


What's the bottom line for me?

You can't say that Lincoln was definitely not gay. There's evidence to indicate that Lincoln hardly was what you'd call a Kinsey 1 or zero, and that on the spectrum of sexuality he certainly wasn't in the same camp with, say, Sam Elliot.

But to leap to the conclusion that Lincoln was gay is quite the stretch. In Lincoln's day people didn't discuss sex. Sex wasn't a topic for polite company during the Victorian Era. This generation didn't leave us the evidence we'd need to arrive at some sound answer to the question. (And we also have to be careful not to read a 19th century letter or diary entry with a 21st century mindset.)

We'll never know whether Lincoln was gay or not, and anybody who claims otherwise is going to have to show me the YouTube video (shot in secret by Matthew Brady, of course) to prove that Lincoln was splitting more than just rails.

Maybe if we had video-shooting cell phones,, blogs, gay hooker Mike Jones and crystal meth way back when, we'd have some clearer and substantial evidence on the whole matter, and we could declare Lincoln as not only America's finest president, but also its greatest and finest Otter as well.


Bobby M said...

It is a shame that all of this seems to matter to people. It makes as much difference that I know if Lincoln was heterosexual or homosexual as it does to know if Dick Cheney prefers the missionary position or doggy-style. (Get that image out of my head!)

Lincoln never brought sex into his politics, and his reputation has stood the test of time. Unfortunately Cheney has brought sex into his politics...I wonder if his reputation will match up to Lincoln's after 140 years or so?

Slackjawed Trad said...

Somehow I'm not surprised! A tyrant, a scoundrel, a bastard...and a pervert, too! It wasn't just the Southern States who took it up the...nevermind.

Anonymous said...

Lincoln wasn't "gay" since the term didn't exist in it's modern usage back then. He just liked to sleep with other men. Since he was married, it was most likely he was bi-sexual.

Anonymous said...

well, i personally could never say either way.
Slackjawed trad, you are an ignorant person from the sounds of it and should learn to keep your mouth shut. didn't your mother ever tell you if you have nothing good to say, don't say it at all?
i do feel, however, that it does matter. not because this country needs the biggest scoop, but because this country is fighting against homosexuality, and if lincoln was gay, what would people say? He is a shining jewel of morality and it takes a big "gay" figurehead to show people that homosexuality is not a bad thing. You have to fight ignornace with ignorance these days. its hard to find people who can concede an argument. pride has over-ridden this country's mentality.
and to think, in "christian america" i thought pride was a sin.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't care whether he was straight or gay. If he was a closet homosexual, it wouldn't bother me. So what? Either way he was one of our greatest Presidents.