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Was Abe Lincoln Gay?

If the loving heart of the Great Emancipator found its natural amorous passions overwhelmingly directed toward those of his own sex, it would certainly be a stunning rebuke to the Republican Party’s scapegoating of same-sex love for electoral purposes. And a forthcoming book by the late Dr. C.A. Tripp — The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, to be published in the new year by Free Press — makes a powerful case that Lincoln was a lover of men.

Tripp, who worked closely in the 1940s and 1950s with the groundbreaking sexologist Alfred Kinsey, was a clinical psychologist, university professor and author of the 1975 best-seller The Homosexual Matrix, which helped transcend outdated Freudian clichés and establish that a same-sex affectional and sexual orientation is a normal and natural occurrence.

In his book on Lincoln, Tripp draws on his years with Kinsey, who, he wrote, "confronted the problem of classifying mixed sex patterns by devising his 0-to-6 scale, which allows the ranking of any homosexual component in a person’s life from none to entirely homosexual. By this measure Lincoln qualifies as a classical 5 — predominantly homosexual, but incidentally heterosexual."

Tripp also found, based on multiple historical accounts, that Lincoln attained puberty unusually early, by the age of 9 or 10 — early sexualization being a prime Kinsey indicator for same-sex proclivities. Even Lincoln’s stepmother admitted in a post-assassination interview that young Abe "never took much interest in the girls." And Tripp buttresses his findings that Lincoln was a same-sex lover with important new historical contributions.

Others, preceding Tripp, have proclaimed in print that Lincoln was gay. The first, some four decades ago, was the pioneer Los Angeles gay activist Jim Kepner, editor of ONE, the early gay magazine (the ONE Institute National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California [http://www.oneinstitute.org/] is the largest collection of gay historical material in the world). Kepner focused on Lincoln’s long-acknowledged intimate friendship with Joshua Speed — with whom Lincoln slept in the same bed for four years when both men were in their 20s — as did later writers, like the historian of gay America Jonathan Ned Katz and University of Massachusetts professor Charles Shively. Gore Vidal has said in interviews that, in researching his historical novel on Lincoln, he began to suspect that the 16th president was a same-sexer. But all this has been little noticed or circulated outside the gay community.

In 1990, the American Historical Association presented a panel on "Gay American Presidents? — Washington, Buchanan, Lincoln, Garfield." Tripp was in the audience, and was seized with the desire to explore Lincoln’s sexuality and emotional complexity with the same brand of scrupulous methodology he’d learned from Kinsey. Tripp devoted the next decade to this research, and created an electronic database and index cross-referencing for more than 600 books of Lincolnalia, a historical tool now available at the Lincoln Institute in Springfield, Illinois.

One of the few traditional Lincolnists to describe (however obliquely) the lifelong Lincoln-Speed relationship as homosexual was the Illinois poet Carl Sandburg, in his masterful, six-volume Lincoln biography. In the tome titled The Prairie Years (1926), Sandburg wrote that both Lincoln and Speed had "a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets." "I do not feel my own sorrows more keenly than I do yours," Lincoln wrote Speed in one letter. And again, "You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting." In a detailed retelling of the Lincoln-Speed love story — including the "lust at first sight" encounter between the two young men, when Lincoln readily accepted Speed’s eager invitation to share his narrow bed — Tripp notes that Speed was the only human being to whom the president ever signed his letters with the unusually tender (for Lincoln) "yours forever" — a salutation Lincoln never even used to his wife. Speed himself acknowledged that "No two men were ever so intimate." And Tripp credibly describes Lincoln’s near nervous breakdown following Speed’s decision to end their four-year affair by returning to his native Kentucky.

In the preface to his massive biography, Sandburg wrote that "month by month in stacks and bundles of facts and legend, I found invisible companionships that surprised me. Perhaps a few of these presences lurk and murmur in this book." Tripp’s book is remarkable and precedent-shattering because, for the first time, he restores names and faces (more than just Speed’s) to a number of those previously invisible homosexual companions and love objects of the most venerated of America’s presidents, among them, Henry C. Whitney; the young Billy Greene, a Salem contemporary of Lincoln’s and another bedmate (who admired Lincoln’s thighs); Nat Grigsby; and A.Y. Ellis.

One of them was the handsome David Derickson, by nine years the president’s junior, captain of Lincoln’s bodyguard Company K, the unit assigned to ensure Lincoln’s protection in September 1862. Citing a variety of sources — including an autobiographical essay by Captain (later Major) Derickson, Lincoln’s letters, contemporary diaries and historical accounts written while many of the witnesses to the Derickson-Lincoln relationship were still living — Tripp describes in great detail how Derickson was the object of "the kinds of gentle and concentrated high-focus attention from Lincoln that [Lincoln’s law colleague] Henry C. Whitney, from having himself once been on the receiving end, well described: ‘[It was] as if he wooed me to close intimacy and friendship, a kind of courtship, as indeed it was.’"

Lincoln’s seduction of Derickson was more than successful. Tripp discovered a forgotten volume of Union Army history, an account of The Pennsylvania Volunteers, Second Regiment, Bucktail Brigade, published in 1895 by Derickson’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Chamberlin, who was historian of the Bucktail Survivors Association, and in which he recounted:

"Captain Derickson, in particular, advanced so far in the President’s confidence and esteem that in Mrs. Lincoln’s absence he frequently spent the night at his cottage [at the summer White House], sleeping in the same bed with him, and — it is said — making use of his Excellency’s night-shirt! Thus began an intimacy that continued unbroken until the following spring, when Captain Derickson was appointed provost marshal of the Nineteenth Pennsylvania District, with headquarters in Meadville."

The Derickson-Lincoln affair was common gossip in Washington’s high society, as Tripp notes with a citation from the diary of the wife of Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox: "Tish says, Oh, there is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the president, drives with him, and when Mrs. L is not home, sleeps with him. What stuff!"

Lincoln was very fond of witty, and quite often ribald, stories, a great many of them having anal references. When a friend once suggested that he should collect his stories and publish them in book form, Lincoln replied that he could not, for "such a book would Stink like a thousand privies."

Another Tripp rediscovery is a smutty, humorous poem written by Lincoln when he was a teenager — in which the future president describes a marriage between two boys! Here (with some of the spelling corrected for easier reading) is Lincoln’s gay-marriage poem:

I will tell you a Joke about Jewel and Mary

It is neither a Joke nor a Story

For Rubin and Charles has married two girls

But Billy has married a boy

The girlies he had tried on every Side

But none could he get to agree

All was in vain he went home again

And since that is married to Natty

So Billy and Natty agreed very well

And mama’s well pleased at the match

The egg it is laid but Natty’s afraid

The Shell is So Soft that it never will hatch

But Betsy she said you Cursed bald head

My Suitor you never Can be

Beside your low crotch [slang for big penis] proclaims you a botch

And that never Can serve for me

Tripp notes that the stanza beginning "The egg it is laid" suggests that "Abe was well aware of the term ‘jelly baby.’ Originally from Negro vernacular, the phrase soon came to be used by whites as well: slang denoting what uneducated folk imagined . . . as a ‘pregnancy’ from homosexual intercourse . . . As a poem, Lincoln’s rhyme of course is a mere trifle, except that it is perhaps the most explicit literary reference to actual homosexual relations in 19th-century America — more explicit certainly than anything Walt Whitman ever wrote about the ‘Love of comrades.’"

There is a great deal more to this book, which — as Lincoln scholar Jean Baker notes in her admiring preface — "is not a work of sexual or biological reductionism, but rather a significant effort to understand a complicated man." Among the many invaluable contributions is the chapter revealing that Lincoln’s supposed tragic "romance" with Ann Rutledge — often hyped by Hollywood retelling — was a myth invented after Lincoln’s death (this chapter is for the most part due to the research of Tripp’s faithful collaborator on the Lincoln project, the writer Lewis Gannett, who edited the book for publication). Many of Tripp’s findings come from finely argued circumstantial deductions — which will no doubt be seized upon by what Vidal has called the "scholar squirrels" of the considerable Lincoln industry, who have a lot of skin in the game. But it will take more than their usual regurgitations of the cliché about the absence of central heating back in those days to explain Lincoln’s consistent, yearslong choice of male bed partners, a same-sex affinity that he acted on even as president.

Tripp completed The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln just two weeks before his own death. It is a tragedy that tawdry squabbles between the aging and irascible executor of Tripp’s estate and his publisher prevented the book’s publication before this year’s elections (it is now due out, after yet another postponement, in March). That is why, when — after assiduous and clandestine effort — we managed to obtain a copy of the book’s uncorrected proofs, we decided to break with book-chat conventions and, without authorization, make some of Tripp’s findings public here before November 2.

In a year in which those who claim Lincoln as their political progenitor are trying to introduce a ban on recognition of same-sex love into the Constitution that Lincoln loved so much and defended so well (and also into the constitutions of 11 states through referendums), it seemed to me that the voters had an overriding right to know how, in doing so, the Republicans and their Christian-right allies are wounding the martyr-president squarely in his heart of hearts.

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.


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