Michael Hamar

Abraham Lincoln - Was He Gay? Part 2

Filed By Michael Hamar | September 12, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Abraham Lincoln, anti-gay bigotry, C. W. Tripp, gays in history, history of homosexuality, Joshua Speed, life in the closet, same-sex love

Last week I did a post here at The Bilerico Project that created Lincoln and Speed.jpgquite a bit of commentary and several personal attacks in comments that I did not approve for publication because of their nastiness.

I was particularly surprised by the number of comments by authors who were incensed that I referred to Lincoln as "gay" as opposed to "bisexual." My own experiences as a closeted gay man who married were likewise disparaged and I was accused of "gaywashing" history. Apparently, to some, the fact that one has had sex with someone of the opposite sex - regardless of what thoughts and fantasies were going through one's mind during the process - makes one bisexual no matter what. Indeed, to these folks it was nothing short of heresy to recognize that someone gay can have sex with an opposite sex partner - even if it is merely only the result of trying to do "what's expected by church and society" - and still be gay.

I continue to believe that the issue is relevant and it is through accurate history that minds can sometimes be opened and prejudice defeated.

Since writing the post, a reader forwarded me a copy of the last segment of William Hanchett's piece in the Lincoln Herald (which apparently is not available on line, but I can e-mail a copy to anyone who wants a copy). Hanchett has been described as one of the foremost authorities on the Lincoln assassination and in this article he challenges those who have had a knee jerk reaction to suggestions that Lincoln was homosexual as follows:

The thesis C. A. Tripp presents in The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln requires either that it be refuted or that Lincoln biography and American history be revised. So far it has been denounced but not refuted.... they have shown no interest in testing Lincoln's character and biography against the Tripp thesis. As editor Lewis Gannett put it, "If Tripp is right, they are wrong in a very big way,"

Hanchett then proceeds to review some of the evidence himself and makes the case that, indeed, Lincoln could well have been a homosexual in his sexual orientation. He also dismantles some of the myths and stories often cited to prove Lincoln's interest in women. He also looks deeply at the secret memorandums of Lincoln's one time law partner, William Herndon and Herndon's motivations to protect Lincoln's memory - as well as the political considerations that argued for keeping Lincoln a heterosexual for posterity. Here are some highlights:

In 1887 Williarn Herndon wrote a correspondent that "I know a good deal about Lincoln - more than I dare state in a book."' Near the beginning of his great collaboration with Jesse Weik, he told his young associate that there were things about Lincoln he could not tell him, "especially in ink." In another letter to Weik, Herndon observed that though Lincoln was informal and familiar, he kept people at a distance.... When someone asked him if he thought Lincoln would have wanted his life to be investigated, he responded with an emphatic No, Lincoln, he explained, was "a hidden man and wished to keep his own secrets." Herndon thus recognized his investigations into Lincoln's personal history were trespasses on the sacred ground of his friend's privacy.

Whatever he thought of the ultimate disposition of his material, he knew that the secret of Lincoln's sex life was safe with him. He would withhold knowledge of it indefinitely or forever rather than release it prematurely. In Lincoln's interests, he would not only suppress evidence by confining it to his secret Memo books, he might even invent history. It is conceivable that that is what he was doing when he seized upon a few fragments of information about Lincoln's friendship with Ann Rutledge and turned them into a love story whose tragic ending darkened the rest of Lincoln's life.... For most of the years of his mature life, marriage would provide adequate cover, as it did for many other men hiding the same secret.

It may even have occurred to Herndon that in giving Lincoln a heterosexual past, he was also protecting the achievements of his presidency. For if Lincoln's enemies - unreconstructed rebels, diehard Copperheads, opponents of the centralization of power in Washington - sensed in some post-Reconstruction era that their causes not lost after all, they might sooner or later seek to undo the accomplishments of his presidency, what better way to turn back the clock than by discrediting the president responsible for the wartime revolutions in American government and society, and how better discredit him than by exposing his personal immorality? A major rewriting of history would necessarily follow, and the image of a gay Lincoln transformed from a national icon to a national embarrassment would be helpless to do anything about it.

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Gay history and biography is a really difficult undertaking. Until very recently most of its potential subjects went to great efforts to obscure any documentary trail. People attempting to investigate from the perspective of the present are more often than not limited to speculation. It is hard to ever confirm one speculation has having more authority than another.

I don't think whether he was or wasn't is the point. I think it's important to get society to the point where people accept the possibility. It is actually plausible for great people who do great things to be attracted to the same sex.

I find this second post quite disingenuous. Your first post did not incite the kind of comments you claim here.

Perhaps those were the comments you deleted - and I'm surprised that you did that, given that contributors are not supposed to delete comments on their own, to the best of my knowledge. Be that as it may, the comments on your last blog were generally probing but not overly hostile. I didn't see any evidence of what you claim here:

"Apparently, to some, the fact that one has had sex with someone of the opposite sex - regardless of what thoughts and fantasies were going through one's mind during the process - makes one bisexual no matter what. Indeed, to these folks it was nothing short of heresy to recognize that someone gay can have sex with an opposite sex partner - even if it is merely only the result of trying to do "what's expected by church and society" - and still be gay."

I don't think Rob, who raised the issue of bisexuality, was saying that "the fact that one has had sex with someone of the opposite sex... makes one bisexual no matter what." He was pointing out the possibility of bisexuality, and your only response was to point to your own experience. Your experience does not provide the sum total of definitive proof of anything, and people can read Rob's comment to see that he had a point.

Even putting aside the issue of whether or not Lincoln was gay, it's fair to ask if we're imposing our own sexual categories upon Lincoln, when it's well known that physical intimacy between men meant something quite different in the nineteenth than in the twenty-first century. And I would even add that "bisexuality" may in fact also be one of those categories.

Even putting aside the matter of sexuality, this blog does not do a very good job of actually engaging historical evidence. In this one, you've simply quoted Hanchett at length. I'm troubled by the fact that you appear to not have actually read Hanchett the first time but relied on a Gay City News piece, and one other article. This time, you've read him and quoting him at length.

As a blogger, you're permitted to simply present an idea for perusal without writing a major thesis with footnotes. But if you do so, be prepared for questions that probe the veracity and depth of your thesis.

And let's not disingenuously claim that people were claiming heresy when they weren't.

More to the point, the evidence presented shows that Abraham Lincoln may well have had a romantic and sexual relationship with Joshua Speed. The evidence does not show that his marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln *and* his previous courtships of Ann Rutledge and of Mary Owens were purely social covers.

The logical conclusion is therefore not that Lincoln was a closeted gay man, but that he was a closeted gay or bisexual man. Ruling out the possibility of him being bi in the absence of any credible evidence showing that his known relationships with women were shams is entirely irrational.

Bisexual erasure is not cool.

Paige Listerud | September 13, 2010 6:35 PM

Bisexual erasure is not cool. At the same time, could we all pleeeaaase move this conversation out of the framework of identity politics?

If you went back in a time machine and asked Lincoln himself whether he was gay or bisexual (assuming he'd be willing to speak on it), Lincoln wouldn't know what the hell you were asking him.

"Gay" at the time only existed as either a synonym for "happy" or a slang term for something lascivious and disreputable: as in "a gay house," which is 19th century slang for a brothel. As for "bisexual," that term was coined to describe plants that had both male and female parts in 1824; only in 1914 did it come to mean sexual attraction to both genders (two genders considered the only possible number).

Asking Lincoln if he was bisexual in, say 1860, would be asking him if he were an hermaphrodite (intersex). Would any historian out there be willing to make a case for that identification regarding President Lincoln?

Researching into the past and uncovering hidden queer history is essential to our understanding. And even making a claim that a prominent historical figure is "gay," or sexually attracted to their own gender, is to set oneself up for contestation--not just legitimately from one's academic colleagues, but also from those with an ideological axe to grind.

My only axe to grind is to try and perceive sexual behavior from the historically appropriate cultural perspective that people in that period would have perceived that sexual behavior. If you can find personal letters detailing more explicit behavior and self-expression, congrats! You've made your academic career!

As far as Lincoln, his marriage, and his courtship with women goes, as we know from the personal expressions of Johnny Weir, a guy can like having sex with women and with men, but really have more romantic attachment to one gender over all others.

How did Lincoln really feel, emotionally AND sexually--toward anyone he was sleeping with? That would be the historical find of the century, because right now each side engages in too much speculation.

So where does that leave us?
1) Lincoln was only or predominantly attracted to men; his courtships with women and marriage to Mary Todd were covers for social and political purposes.
2) Lincoln's sexuality was more open, but his romantic attachment felt its strongest expression with men.
3) Lincoln was fairly equal in his attractions and affections across the gender spectrum but the demands of a heteropatriarchal culture and a political life pushed him toward opposite sex courtships and an opposite sex marriage.
4) Whatever Lincoln's sexual behavior with men, only his attraction and affections toward women dominated. His marriage to Mary Todd may have suffered, not from lack of sexual or romantic interest, but from both spouses being predisposed to depression (Mary) or manic depression (Abe). Or their marriage suffered under the burdens of leading a country during the Civil War--in which he lost two of his sons and eventually his own life.

Right now, under Tripp's research, I'm willing to concede the unlikelihood of 4 and 3, but not two. But that's my own speculation because I have no historical evidence to support it.

Sorry if the above seems like such a Gordian Knot--but it is what it is.

Joe-Allen Doty | September 13, 2010 1:31 AM

It is very well documented that Lincoln was not very comfortable around women.

And when his best friend, Joshua Speed, with whom he shared a bed for four years got married, he got very depressed.

There was a Ken Burns type documentary mini-series on the life of Abraham Lincoln which had actors reading the writings of those who personally knew him.

In POX:GENIUS, MADNESS AND THE MYSTERIES OF SYPHILIS, Deborah Hayden presents evidence that Lincoln was infected , and attributes at least some of his depression to the disease as well as the mercury pills he took to treat it. Could that be what Herndon referred to as secrets to be hidden from public knowledge? Mary Todd Lincoln's increasingly bizarre behavior after her husband's death is also attributed to syphilitic causes. A poxed President who made his wife sick wouldn't be an admirable figure. This doesn't make Tripp's assertions less worth considering, but was Herndon ever less guarded and ambiguous?

Personally, I don't care if he was gay or bi as long as he was was into cock ;) But then, I'm not from the US.

I'm trans and gay, and I often run into the same struggle over historical data, that you describe here, Michael. We have so little history we can cling to, that we fight like hell for the crumbs. The whole definition of "invert" is up for discussion: were they gays, or transsexuals, or, for that matter, bi?
We'll never know.
Does it matter?
Yes, because one reason why we have so little definite information is because "our ancestors" were so suppressed that they destroyed evidence. The lack of knowledge is a result of our suppression.
And No. If we'll never know, then wouldn't it be better and just share what we have? Maybe we could come to an agreement. 1/3 of the celebreties in question is gay, 1/3 bi, 1/3 trans by default. Or, we assume that they were all of it, and get to choose.
Does it really matter that much if Lincoln had to hide an important part of himself because he was gay or bi or trans?

Being an Illinoisian myself, I'm trying to figure out where Lincoln would have hung out while here. He was a high powered lawyer so, surely he wouldn't have spent the weekends in Springfield. Like most gay lawyers in Illinois, he would have had a place to go in Lakeview or the Loop for the weekends, and would likely have been buying me drinks at Hydrate.

Well, a boy can dream, can't he?

Abrahasm Lincoln -- Isn't He Dead?

We will never know what Mr. Lincoln was thinking when he had sex with women. He's dead.

My opinion exactly! ... Maybe we can argue about he had sex with this man and/or this woman, but we have no info whatsoever about what type of sex he found most satisfying. If we want to measure his pupil dilations or the blodd pressure in his penis while showing him pictures of nude men and women, we are about 150 years too late.

It's mildly interesting speculation ... but ultimately it hardly matters now, and we'll never know for sure ... and moreover, people on both sides of the discussion have "hidden" agendas that are totally obvious.

Paige Listerud | September 13, 2010 8:24 PM

I like how you call him Abrahasm Lincoln. Is that, like, Abraham + orgasm?

If we can't refute Tripp's thesis about the sexual interests of a man who has been dead since April 15, 1865, we have to revise all the history books? Sorry, that's illogical, irrational, and silly.

Here's a thesis for you: Martians aren't green, they're grey. Please refute among yourselves.

William Hanchett's name should be Hatchet.

I don't see any connection to being gay. You can't bridge the gaps with assumptions. I think the real secret that couldn't be written about Lincoln was that he loved dolls. That's all the proof I need. Someone told me he was seen one day with tiny shoes.

Homosexuality is a vey complex issue. It would be very difficult to prove. However, if you examine the mental status of significant people in his life (his wife, for instance) one could clearly deduce that a woman that had everything she wanted might not have been so depressed or bipolar.

I never knew Lincoln was trans.

This is the most preposteous set of comments I have ever read on this blog and that is saying something.

Also why is Yasmin Nair always so angry and furious at gay men? It feels like bigotry and is very disheartening to read the bileous rage in her every comment and exchange on this blog.

I never knew Lincoln was trans.

This is the most preposteous set of comments I have ever read on this blog and that is saying something.

Also why is Yasmin Nair always so angry and furious at gay men? It feels like bigotry and is very disheartening to read the bileous rage in her every comment and exchange on this blog.

I like this piece, except I don't think we should be examining whether he was 'bi' or 'gay' ... just the fact that he was possibly
gay is the interesting point of the history exercises. Now the fact that he had four sons over a 10 year span ... says to me that he was at least bi-capable. What he thought of his 'orientation' we don't know.
I believe back in that time society wrote off whatever you did before you were married, no matter what it was. Don't know their cultural mores on adultery.
And to @hmmm you must not have read many threads if you think this is a particularly 'preposterous.' Mostly I see them stay calmer here and on good as you.. But come to the BLEND and read some of those... especially the trans ones after Autumn has really gotten wound up!

Michael, in your first article you identified the enemies of gay civil rights as "the far right." I'm not sure who that includes, but know that our true enemies are the social conservatives on the religious right. Any evidence pointing to Lincoln's homosexuality would definitely be a downer for them.

But also know that many in the modern conservative movement-- specifically young paleoconservatives and libertarians-- blame so-cons and mainstream Republicans just as much as Dems for increasing the power of the federal government.

And they despise Lincoln. Not only do they blame him for gross violations of the Constitution, they also blame him for expanding and centralizing the power of the federal government to its current state.

These aren't my personal views. I'm a hopeless centrist. I'm just putting this info on the table.

um...ok, I'm late to this sooo....

as a backwoods redneck hick who's slept in homes built during the 1800's...

Yes, during winter EVERYONE who's alive try's thier best to have a 'bedmate'. Bedmates are often family or 'best friends'. This fact is due to things like insulation and central heat being science fiction in those days.
People only slept alone in bed in summer but only if there was another bed to sleep in. Ceiling fans were invented around late in the 1850's but only the rich had those things! Air Conditioning may have been invented in the 1880's but once again, only the rich had them.

Thats one set of factoid. Another is the puritanical mores of the time. It was not only ok for two men to sleep together, but normal to do so if the wife was having her period. (amazing what ya learn living down south)

uh... My grandparents? When ever they went anyplace my grandparents always took my greatuncle and greataunt. My grandfather would sleep with my greatuncle and my grandmother would sleep with my greataunt. Totally normal.

Not saying A.L. wasn't, just saying that part of that time was a differnt sociatial values.

Now, if you want to talk, lets talk about the Wright Brothers. Quakers who slept with each other and acted like an old married couple and discribed in French newspapers as "a dapper gay couple"... just sayin