Feb. 12 is the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. To mark the occasion, Slate is recycling select articles about the 16th president of the United States from our archives. Reprinted below is a 2005 "History Lesson" by David Greenberg on Lincoln's sexuality.
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.
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.