The Gay Emancipator?

The history behind current events.
Jan. 14 2005 5:36 PM

The Gay Emancipator?

What's wrong with The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.

The most surprising thing about The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, the new book that claims the Great Emancipator was bisexual, is how charitable the reviews have been. Even skeptical reviewers have allowed that the author—the late psychologist C.A. Tripp—may have a point and have retreated to the safer position that Lincoln's sexual orientation doesn't really matter anyway—that Tripp's project is a trivial one. The conservative journalist Richard Brookhiser, for example, wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "On the evidence before us, Lincoln loved men, at least some of whom loved him back," but then added emphatically that Lincoln the wartime leader "is the Lincoln that matters. The rest is biography." Gore Vidal (whose reputation as an essayist, it should be noted, far outstrips his contributions as a historian) wrote in Vanity Fair online that some of Tripp's "evidence," although admittedly "circumstantial," is nonetheless "incontrovertible except perhaps to the eye of faith, which, as we all know, is most selective and ingenious when it comes to the ignoring of evidence."

Alas, both notions—that Lincoln's sexual orientation is unimportant; and that Tripp's book raises powerful circumstantial evidence to support his claims—are wrong. On the one hand, if it could indeed be shown that Lincoln was "predominantly homosexual," as Tripp puts it (after all, Lincoln was married and had four children), this would be significant. No, it wouldn't directly alter our understanding of his political opinions or actions as president. But it would give us a fuller sense of the private man and thus in indirect ways might revise our understanding of his psychology. Tripp, however, doesn't even begin to make a persuasive case in this tendentious, sloppy, and wholly unpersuasive farrago. In more than 300 pages, he gives us no convincing reason to believe his central claim.

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Tripp's major pieces of "evidence" are familiar: that Lincoln shared a bed for four years in his youth with his good friend Joshua Speed, and occasionally in 1862 with David V. Derickson, a member of his bodyguard detail. But as many historians have noted, same-sex bed sharing was common at the time and hardly proof of homosexual activities or feelings. As the Princeton historian Christine Stansell notes in her excellent review of The Intimate World, "Travelers piled in with each other at inns; siblings routinely shared beds; women friends often slept with each other as readily on an overnight visit as they took their tea together in the kitchen—and sometimes displaced husbands to do so. Civil War soldiers 'spooned' for comfort and warmth." And in the cases of both Speed and Derickson, there are more compelling reasons than homosexuality to explain why Lincoln slept with them.

To bolster the case for his preferred interpretation, Tripp willfully reads fact after fact to support his conclusions and to ignore or explain away other possibilities. So, for instance, Tripp insists that the anxiety that Lincoln and Speed expressed to each other about their wedding nights proves they had a sexual relationship, when such worries were hardly unusual in the days before widespread premarital intercourse. Likewise, Tripp finds what he calls a "smoking gun" in the way Lincoln signed one letter to Speed: "Yours Forever." But in an honest afterword to the book, historian Michael Burlingame reminds readers that David Donald found cases of Lincoln using the same closing in letters to at least a half-dozen other friends. One could go on. Tripp produces not circumstantial evidence but facts that resemble evidence only if one starts with a closed mind.

The Free Press and the book's editor, the highly regarded Bruce Nichols, are to be commended for including Burlingame's essay, which concludes: "Since it is virtually impossible to prove a negative, Dr. Tripp's thesis cannot be rejected outright. But given the paucity of hard evidence adduced by him, and given the abundance of contrary evidence … a reasonable conclusion … would be that it is possible but highly unlikely that Abraham Lincoln was 'predominantly homosexual.' " I'd put it less delicately: Lincoln may have been predominantly homosexual, but there's no reason to believe so based on this book.

Why, then, have reviewers been so excessively charitable? It's possible that they don't want to align themselves with a position that could seem naive or, worse, anti-gay. Plenty of Lincoln scholars have stuffily refused even to entertain the possibility of Lincoln's bisexuality, either out of an ingrained homophobia or a misguided reverence that borders on idolatry. Perhaps hoping to silence critics, Tripp warns that, "Patriotic motives have proved ever ready to obscure the raw parts [of Lincoln's personality], in effect threatening to turn the real Lincoln into yet another cardboard character."

It's also possible that people are hedging their bets because no one wants to be proven wrong. Again, Tripp reminds his readers that the possibility of Eleanor Roosevelt's bisexuality, which now enjoys some credibility, was once written off by scholars. Likewise, in a supportive afterword, historian Michael Chesson notes a similar change in scholarly opinion about Thomas Jefferson's affair with his slave Sally Hemings. In both cases, experts who breezily dismissed allegations of what their societies considered sexual deviance were shown to have been blinkered by cultural prejudices.

In Eleanor Roosevelt's case, her lesbian leanings were long denied. Then, several years ago, her letters to and from the journalist Lenora Hickok were released. Those notes were so passionate and, at times, suggestive of physical intimacy that a sexual relationship between the women, if it couldn't be proved, also couldn't be ruled out. "I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them and that feeling of that soft spot just north-east of your mouth against my lips. I wonder what we'll do when we meet—what we'll say," Hickok wrote to ER in 1933, concluding the note, "Good night, dear one. I want to put my arms around you and kiss you on the corner of your mouth. And in a little more than a week now—I shall!" (For all his talk of "smoking guns," Tripp produces nothing remotely like this letter.) Not every Roosevelt scholar believes this relationship was sexual, but many, including her most comprehensive biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, consider it likely.

Even more embarrassing to some scholars was the emergence of a consensus that Jefferson probably did father one or more children with Hemings. This claim circulated way back in Jefferson's day, and some of Hemings' descendants learned as a matter of course that Jefferson was an ancestor. But Jefferson scholarship for years was controlled largely by a Southern, white, male aristocracy—led by such men as Dumas Malone and Virginius Dabney—for whom the very thought of interracial sex was anathema. These scholars dismissed the idea, sometimes sneeringly, as slander. In 1974, however, Fawn Brodie's psychohistory Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History revived the argument, though it met with a chilly reception. Then, in 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which demolished the arguments of the Jefferson boosters and began to shift scholarly opinion. The next year the journal Nature ran an article by scientists who had conducted DNA tests that suggested strongly that Jefferson was the father of Madison Hemings' male offspring—leading important Jefferson authorities such as Joseph Ellis to change their minds. Today, it's probably safe to say, most informed historians believe that Jefferson did father children with Hemings.

It would be a fallacy, however, to assume that Tripp has turned in a paradigm-shifting work like Gordon-Reed's. The books couldn't be more different. Gordon-Reed is careful in her methods, rigorous in her logic, and tentative in her conclusions (she never asserts that the Jefferson-Hemings affair definitely happened, just that it shouldn't be reflexively discounted). Tripp is random in his methods, sloppy in his logic, and overly certain in his inferences. It's a shame: After all, most historians today are liberal and tolerant enough to happily accept his claims of Lincoln's bisexuality—if only someone were to offer some real evidence to prove it.