Thursday, December 16, 2004

Gosh, I don't know where to start with this article in the NY Times about a new book coming out by C. A. Tripp arguing that Lincoln was homosexual. The evidence is stuff that gays have been kicking around for years: the fact that Lincoln shared a bed with his friend, Joshua Speed; or that Lincoln used affectionate terms to refer to some male friends.

I'm with David Herbert Donald in not putting much stock in any of these stories.
In "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln," to be published next month by Free Press, Mr. Tripp, a psychologist, influential gay writer and former sex researcher for Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, tries to resolve the issue of Lincoln's sexuality once and for all. The author, who died in 2003, two weeks after finishing the book, subjected almost every word ever written by and about Lincoln to minute analysis. His conclusion is that America's greatest president, the beacon of the Republican Party, was a gay man.

But his book has not stopped the debate. During the 10 years of his research, Mr. Tripp shared his findings with other scholars. Many, including the Harvard professor emeritus David Herbert Donald, who is considered the definitive biographer of Lincoln, disagreed with him. Last year, in his book "We Are Lincoln Men," Mr. Donald mentioned Mr. Tripp's research and disputed his findings.

Mr. Tripp was the author of "The Homosexual Matrix," a 1975 book that disputed the Freudian notion of homosexuality as a personality disorder. In this new book, he says that early biographers of Lincoln, including Carl Sandburg, sensed Lincoln's homosexuality. In the preface to the original multi-volume edition of his acclaimed 1926 biography, Sandburg wrote: "Month by month in stacks and bundles of fact and legend, I found invisible companionships that surprised me. Perhaps a few of these presences lurk and murmur in this book."

Sandburg also wrote that Lincoln and Joshua Speed had "streaks of lavender, spots soft as May violets." Mr. Tripp said that references to Lincoln's possible homosexuality were cut in the 1954 abridged version of the biography. Mr. Tripp maintains that other writers, including Ida Tarbell and Margaret Leech, also found evidence of Lincoln's homosexuality but shied away from defining it as such or omitted crucial details.

Mr. Tripp cites Lincoln's extreme privacy and accounts by those who knew him well. "He was not very fond of girls, as he seemed to me," his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, told Lincoln's law partner William Herndon. In addition, Lincoln was terrified of marriage to Mary Todd and once broke off their relationship. They eventually had four children.

But in "We Are Lincoln Men" Mr. Donald wrote that no one at the time ever suggested that he and Speed were sexual partners. Herndon, who sometimes slept in the room with them, never mentioned a sexual relationship. In frontier times, Mr. Donald wrote, space was tight and men shared beds. And the correspondence between Lincoln and Speed was not that of lovers, he maintained. Moreover, Lincoln alluded openly to their relationship, saying, "I slept with Joshua for four years. " If they were lovers, Mr. Donald wrote, Lincoln wouldn't have spoken so freely.

In fact, if Donald says something is bogus, that's good enough for me. His biography of Lincoln is, for me, the definitive work on Lincoln. However, the evidence is so very flimsy. Who cares what Carl Sandburg or Ida Tarbell wrote years later? They didn't know Lincoln and were not writing what today's historians would call definitive biographies. Since when does a poet's overblown prose about someone he didn't know become historical evidence?

And the evidence that he was uncomfortable around women! Geesh, give me a break. Couldn't that be because he was a gangly, rather unattractive man with little experience around women. I see boys like that every day in high school. They are awkward around girls and don't have a clue as to how to approach a girl to show romantic interest. Lincoln grew up on the frontier and did not have the cultured manners that would have appealed to women of his day. If modern young men can be clueless and shy, what is the likelihood that someone like Lincoln would also have been? Does homosexuality have to be the explanation? And if he had a difficult relationship with his wife, couldn't that be because she was not the most stable of people and regularly indulged in shrewish and jealous tantrums. (In fact, she indulged in such a tantrum in front of General Grant and several of his aides and their wives a few weeks before the end of the war. Reportedly, Mrs. Grant convinced Grant to refuse Lincoln's invitation to go to the theater that fateful night because she couldn't stand the idea of spending an evening with the shrewish Mrs. Lincoln. I've often thought that if Grant had been there, he would have been accompanied by some of his aides who perhaps could have stopped Booth from killing Lincoln.)

Ann Althouse seems ready to accept the hypothesis and then wonders what use we would make of such information. For me, it would be irrelevant. It is not like Jefferson where you could conceivably talk about his hypocrisy and insensitivity if you believed that he had an affair with Sally Hemings (which I do not, but that's another story.) I don't like historic figures being appropriated and mischaracterized for people's modern agenda. Both conservatives and liberals do that and really is a fallacy.

And the historian who thinks that this theory says something about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation is an ignoramus.
Still, if Lincoln was gay, how did it affect his presidency? Ms. Baker said that his outsider status would explain his independence and his ability to take anti-Establishment positions like the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. As a homosexual, she said, "he would be on the margins of tradition."

For Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation was a military measure that he took after much deliberation. If you want to know more about what went into Lincoln's thinking about emancipation and all the efforts that he took to try to persuade the border states to accept voluntary emancipation, read Alan Guelzo's terrific book, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Couldn't Lincoln, as many men of his day, have sincere beliefs about the inhumanity of slavery without that meaning that he was gay? Read Lincoln's speeches on slavery from the 1850s and you will see his thoughts on how slavery violated the foundational ideas of this country as seen in the Declaration of Independence. It seems much simpler to accept that he believed what he said over and over that he believed than to try to find some covert homosexual motivation behind his actions.

So, I would respond to Ann Althouse that such discussions say a lot more about people today than they do about Lincoln.