Posted: June 28, 2005
C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln ignited a firestorm of debate when it was published, posthumously, in 2004. Tripp, a psychologist and sex researcher, claimed in the book to offer a "full examination of Lincoln's inner life and relationships," concluding that Lincoln was "predominantly homosexual" and that his homosexuality informed his beliefs on slavery, morality, and religion. The Claremont Review of Books invited Prof. Allen C. Guelzo to select a distinguished group of scholars and Lincoln experts to address the book and its claims. The result is the following critical symposium.
Allen C. Guelzo
When C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln was published (by Free Press last December posthumously, since Tripp died of AIDS in 2003), anyone with a good set of cultural ears might have heard a faint moan coming from the special historical workshop housing the students, scholars, and biographers of Abraham Lincoln. It was not the conspiratorial moan Tripp had predicted, as if he had liberated some great secret which was striding across the land, committing truth. It was more like the moan of the weary, who have seen this kind of thing before, time and again. The moan is not even about Tripp or his book, so much as it is about how much time they'll have to waste, fielding questions from those, whether lovers or haters of Abraham Lincoln, who believe this is the one simple explanation of everything about him. As Edward Steers says (in the first of the thumbnail critiques of Tripp's book which follow), this kind of noisy announcement of the one, true key to the "secret" of Abraham Lincoln—succeeding Lincoln-and-Marfan's-Syndrome, Lincoln-and-Freemasonry, Lincoln-and-Swedenborgianism—has happened before, and will doubtless happen again as long as someone has an agenda he feels the need to hitch to Abraham Lincoln.
The argument of the book is plain enough to capture in a few sentences. Recollections by and of the young Lincoln point to homoerotic attractions and attractiveness, leading him to beds shared with several young men, including (in later years) one of the officers charged with protecting his life. Lincoln's marriage to Mary Todd was a misery, not because Mary was a "hellcat," but because Lincoln was violating his own homosexual nature. Lincoln's marvelous resiliency, humility, and charity were lessons he learned from experiencing the intolerance of a homophobic culture. But the experience exacted a toll, a toll paid in guilt and a sense of alienation from others, both of which show up in his reticence about his private life and in his religious ideas. Lincoln was not only "predominantly homosexual," but his homosexuality is (in the words of Jean Baker, who wrote an afterword to The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln) the key to "his independence and his ability to take anti-Establishment positions like the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation."
If this is not preposterous, then the word should be declared extinct. The whole proposition ought to collapse under the weight of one question: if Lincoln was a homosexual, why haven't we heard of this before? Surely Lincoln was so public a figure, and homosexuality so leprous an accusation in Victorian America, that not even P.T. Barnum, the Cardiff Giant, and the Feejee Mermaid could have distracted attention from a president who committed sodomy with the captain of his guard.
But this perfectly commonsensical objection has the weight of three gigantic considerations leaning against it. One is rooted, stubbornly and perversely, in the very origins of the American experience itself. None of the 17th-century adventurers who made the appalling transit of the north Atlantic to the New World did so because they were happy, contented, and at peace with the world. They were a general sampling of Europe's unwanted riff-raff—precisely the sort who had every reason to look on the world darkly, as a place full of vast evil powers (the slavers, the shanghiers, the landlords, the pope) who had suppressed the truth in unrighteousness. This is what Richard Hofstadter delighted in calling "the paranoid style," and its devotees are as varied as the detectives of the Popish Plot and the hawkers of conspiracy magazines on Dealey Plaza. Tripp, brandishing his secret sexual decoding key and confounding the great plot to deceive and mislead Americans about Lincoln, is simply twitching to the same beat.
Our persistent sense that the truth is always being hidden behind veils was fed by the Romantics, nurtured by Marxist theories of false-consciousness and hegemony, and gorged upon in this generation by postmodernists whose stock-in-trade is uncovering hidden traces of oppression in literary and social "texts." When no "narrative" can be trusted, there should be no surprise that the "subaltern" and the anti-narrative become the default explanations; and when the striking of postmodern poses becomes fashionable in popular historical writing, it's no wonder that Lincoln should be explained in terms of what he did in the closet rather than what he did as president. In the postmodern climate, nothing is what it appears to be, and so postmodernism contributes its mite to making a homosexual Lincoln plausible.
But the heritage of paranoia and the influence of the postmoderns only partly explain why Lincoln's historical reputation has proven so susceptible to these rituals of re-negotiation, and why Tripp's book on Lincoln and homosexuality broke with such sensational fanfare. That, pretty plainly, is a function of our cultural obsession with sexuality. Where we once defined the self in terms of the soul, we now define it in terms of copulation, and derive "identity" from sexuality. This has now become particularly true for homosexuality, which attempts to ground homosexual practice in a person's root nature. This, as it is designed to do, renders prosecution unfair and makes the denial of civil equality to homosexual unions invidious.
But as Richard Taruskin once remarked (in a review of several books on Tchaikovsky), in the 19th century, homosexuality did not "essentialize" a person, "did not typecast, or stereotype, or render one's nature darkly and irrevocably Other." Homosexuality was regarded as a vice, and particularly an upper-class one, but it was no more revealing about one's behavior or emotional life than any other form of libertinage. That makes it even more unlikely that a strait-laced, teetotaling, bourgeois male like Lincoln would have found anything even passably interesting in 19th-century homosexuality. And it underscores how completely the idea that sexuality is the key to Lincoln's "intimate world" is a product of Tripp's culture, not to mention Tripp's own personal and professional inclinations, rather than Lincoln's.
As Lucas Morel asks: is Lincoln's sexuality important? Is it really the simple answer? Do we really need to get "intimate" with Lincoln?
Edward Steers, Jr.
Abraham Lincoln has been a favorite subject from every side of history. By turns, he has been both hero and villain. As hero, Lincoln has been sanctified as the Savior of the Union, the Great Emancipator, the Man of the People. And in the role of villain (especially for neo-Confederates who despise him for preserving the Union), he has been dismissed as illegitimate by birth, boorish in behavior, a despot who savaged the Constitution while waging a brutal war of destruction, a closet racist who was forced into issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Americans of almost every persuasion have wanted to pin their tail to Abraham Lincoln's donkey.
So instead of offering something entirely unique, C.A. Tripp has really only joined a long line of tail-pinners, the only novelty being that his argument centers on Lincoln's recorded behavior with other men—behavior that today might raise suspicions of homosexuality, or bisexuality—that included sleeping with various men in the same bed, showing a special affection for certain "young" men, and ending his letters to certain men with "yours forever."
And like the tail-pinners, there is just enough verisimilitude in Tripp's evidence to keep the head of his argument from sinking under the weight of its own flummery. There is, for example, sufficient evidence to believe that Lincoln's marriage to Mary Todd had difficult moments. That Lincoln was attracted to young, handsome Elmer Ellsworth and aided his career at every turn is true. That Lincoln slept for four years in the same bed with his best friend Joshua Speed is true. That he invited a young Captain of his guard, David Derickson, to share his bed at the Soldiers' Home when Mary Lincoln was away is also true. Those are the facts.
Of course, this has to stand beside the heterosexual love affairs Lincoln had (Ann Rutledge, Mary Owens, Matilda Edwards, Sarah Rickard, and Mary Todd), the numerous witnesses who claimed he had "a strong passion for women," the half-dozen other men Lincoln wrote "yours forever" to, and Lincoln's openness in discussing his affection for certain young men he took under his wing—an openness that belies his being a "closet" homosexual. Only by some highly selective fact-picking can Tripp force Lincoln into the mold of his argument—which is precisely the same process that makes all the other tail-pinners look like participants at a childrens' party rather than serious historians. It is possible, by Tripp's method of carefully selecting Lincoln's words and behavior, to portray him as an avowed racist who cared nothing for blacks, or a ruthless president who disdained the Constitution and civil liberties, and so on. Rather than follow the data wherever it may lead him, Tripp follows some of the data to where he wants it to lead him.
Joan L. Flinspach
The scientific method starts with a hypothesis and then tests the theory to see if it's true. By contrast, the historical method is to conduct research first and from that research arrive at an interpretation of the data. And the fact that C.A. Tripp was a social scientist rather than a historian may lie at the root of his bizarre effort to remake Lincoln in the image of a Tchaikovsky or an Oscar Wilde. Tripp has applied the scientific method to history—presenting a theory or hypothesis first and then through research trying to prove it—and ends up cross-applying his scientific training to a field that demands a methodology that is completely foreign to him.
This may be one reason why Tripp is so erratic in dealing with his sources. He cites David Donald's Lincoln as an authority on one point and a dupe on another. He finds William H. Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, a reliable source for his argument on Lincoln's relationship with Billy Greene and praises Herndon, saying that he was "more evenhanded than many of her [Mary Todd Lincoln's] critics, and more generous than she deserved." Yet during his discussion of Ann Rutledge, Tripp concludes that Lincoln's relationship with her took "shape in Herndon's lively imagination." By doing this Tripp creates a level of mistrust for the reader and weakens his own argument.
I know that many historians have chosen to criticize Tripp's book from a factual, or on a point-by-point, basis. My criticism, however, is methodological—not only is Tripp's conclusion flawed, but his entire approach to the question is an example of the man who has only one tool, a hammer, and so makes every problem into a nail. Indeed, how can a reader agree with Tripp's premise when his method for forming that premise and his technique for evaluating it do not hold water?
John Y. Simon
In 1837, Abraham Lincoln, newly arrived in Springfield, Illinois, looking for a place to sleep, accepted an invitation from Joshua Fry Speed to share a bed over his store. Lincoln and Speed slept together for nearly four years. The question is, did Lincoln simply follow common practice in a society short of beds or was something more significant involved?
Lincoln was no stranger to sharing beds. He probably slept with his stepbrother John D. Johnston in Thomas Lincoln's Indiana cabin before striking out for New Salem, where the penniless youngster shared beds with several young men seeking to establish themselves. After his marriage in 1842, Lincoln rode the circuit with other attorneys, traveling to inadequate county seat boarding houses where bed sharing was inevitable. Even as president, escaping Washington heat in the Soldiers' Home, Lincoln invited Captain David D. Derickson into his bed.
As a disciple of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, Dr. C. A.Tripp is hot to describe such nocturnal practices as homosexual. But were they? During the four years that Lincoln and Speed shared a bed in Springfield, William H. Herndon, Lincoln's future law partner, shared another bed in the same room. Later, as Lincoln's biographer, Herndon was dedicated to discovering and disclosing truthful information, however embarrassing or inappropriate by Victorian standards. He never doubted that Lincoln was fully heterosexual.
Nor, it seems, did Speed. Both were interested in women, including prostitutes, and while sleeping together, each courted a woman he later married. After Speed returned to Kentucky, Lincoln's letters disclose emotional ties and shared concerns but nothing else that Tripp sought to uncover.
Lucas E. Morel
Part of C.A. Tripp's argument is based on Lincoln's religious beliefs. He sees Lincoln's early skepticism towards Christianity as the result of his early puberty. Lincoln experienced fewer sexual inhibitions and hence was less beholden than most boys to conventional sexual mores, and with them, conventional Biblical teachings not only about good and bad sexual practices but about "the Bible as the word of God." Tripp believes Lincoln remained a lifelong skeptic towards the Christian God, and argues that the Second Inaugural Address "amounts to a masochistic exercise of sorts," resulting from the "constant blocks, hindrances, and extreme frustrations that Lincoln sustained through the war years." How else to explain Honest Abe's "venture into a borrowed religious guilt and its image of that unforgiving God"?
Tripp argues that the "poetic benevolence" of the Second Inaugural Address's concluding paragraph ("With malice toward none, with charity for all…") has distracted scholars from examining Lincoln's "strange detour into heavy religious guilt." But here Tripp simply has not done his homework, as a review of the scholarship available to him would show. In these works he would have found enough to reconsider his intimation that the Second Inaugural is an exercise in sexual self-humiliation derived from the self-inflicted wounds of a nation at war with itself.
The Second Inaugural does represent an exercise in humility, but one involving the culpability of both North and South for slavery. True fruit in keeping with national repentance over slavery would need to take two forms: for the North, no triumphal revenge taken against their defeated Southern brethren for the evil of slavery, inasmuch as both North and South reaped its profits; for the South, admission that slavery was an evil that came "in the providence of God" but now receives (with the North) its due retribution through "this mighty scourge of war." But that's where the guilt ends. The retribution has been paid; the scores are now settled, and it was time to bear "malice toward none" and extend "charity for all."
Tripp thought that knowing Lincoln meant getting intimate with his sexuality. But if Tripp's examination of Lincoln's religious life is any indication, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln proves that getting to know Lincoln's legacy as a statesman does not require getting intimate with him—at least not with his sex life.
Daniel W. Stowell
Several years ago, I joined the staff of the Lincoln Legal Papers in Springfield, Illinois. In doing so, I became a part of what C. A. Tripp derisively calls "the wide swath of Lincoln land," where apparently "silence is sacred" on taboo subjects such as the alleged homosexual components of Lincoln's life. This is an odd accusation, since I have found in this same company of scholars almost everything except silence. They have questioned Lincoln's honesty; his commitment to emancipation; his suppression of civil liberties; his assumption of unconstitutional authority; his treatment of his father, his wife, and his children; his concern about the plight of enslaved African-Americans; and many other attributes and actions, large and small. Many of their answers have hardly been flattering to Lincoln or to his status as an American icon.
In contrast to many of the scholars he condemns, Tripp ignores and misreads evidence and ultimately impoverishes the scholarly and public dialogue on Lincoln's life and legacy. His evidence for a homosexual relationship between Lincoln and William Greene, for instance, is based not on Greene's reminiscences (as told to William Herndon 30 years later), but on Tripp's inference that Greene was saying "much more" than Herndon understood. When there isn't enough inference to feed his argument, Tripp is happy to make do with total silence as proof. The absence, not the survival, of correspondence between Elmer Ellsworth and Lincoln proves that "the bidding came roundabout" through John Cook, Lincoln's "procurer." Tripp insists that Lincoln also had a homosexual relationship with fellow attorney Henry Clay Whitney, based on Whitney's statement that Lincoln "wooed me to close intimacy and familiarity." Tripp makes no effort to parse this statement; the word intimacy alone is enough to prove the existence of a homosexual relationship, even though Tripp later admits that "for whatever reason," Whitney "was careful not to reveal too much about it." The first question any Lincoln scholar would have asked Tripp is the one Tripp ought to have asked himself: is it possible that Whitney may not have revealed more because there was no more to reveal?
Insofar as Tripp's book helps disabuse the reading public of the "legend of Lincoln's happy marriage," it serves a valuable function. But insofar as it leads people to think that Lincoln was gay it does a disservice to history, for the evidence adduced fails to support the argument. The cases of Joshua Speed and David Derickson, which Tripp dwells on at greatest length and that provide the strongest evidence for his thesis that Lincoln was "primarily homosexual," are far from conclusive. Lincoln's letters to Speed in the 1840s, which Tripp cites as strong evidence, in fact lack a homoerotic tone. Lincoln's use of "yours forever" in letters to Speed, a phrase that Tripp finds significant, also appears in his letters to many others. In 1864, Lincoln told Titian J. Coffey that "I slept with Joshua [Speed] for four years." If Lincoln and Speed were (to use 19th-century parlance) sodomites, it seems unlikely that Lincoln would have spoken so openly to Coffey. He also acknowledged that he had slept with Charles Maltby over a long period, telling a journalist in 1863: "I know Maltby, for I slept with him six months."
Similarly, Speed informed a friend that "he and Lincoln slept together about four years." That friend also recalled that Speed said to Lincoln when they first met that he (Speed) had "been sleeping in the same bed for some time" with his partner James Bell. "He is gone now, and if you wish, you can take his place." It is doubtful that Speed would have been so open about that sleeping arrangement if he and Lincoln (or he and Bell) had been homosexual lovers.
If anything, all the real evidence we have points in precisely the opposite direction. Lincoln's law partner William Herndon alleged that from 1837 to 1842, Lincoln and Joshua Speed, "a lady's man," were "quite familiar—to go no further[—]with the women." On at least one occasion Lincoln shared Speed's taste in fancy women—in fact, the very same woman. Speed recollected that around 1839 or 1840, he "was keeping a pretty woman" in Springfield, and Lincoln, "desirous to have a little," asked his bunkmate, "do you know where I can get some." Speed replied, "Yes I do, & if you will wait a moment or so I'll send you to the place with a note. You cant get it without a note or by my appearance." If Speed was homosexual and impotent with women, as Tripp argues, why did he keep this "pretty woman" in Springfield? If Lincoln was having sex with Speed, why would he ask him where he could "get some"?
Moreover, there is abundant credible evidence—ignored or dismissed by Tripp—that Lincoln was sexually and romantically attracted to women, four of whom he proposed to (Ann Rutledge, Mary Owens, Mary Todd, and Sarah Rickard). He was "a Man of strong passions for woman," according to his good friend David Davis. Herndon also recollected that Lincoln was "a man of terribly strong passions for women" and "could scarcely keep his hands off them." Tripp's dismissal of the testimony of more than two dozen informants in the case of Ann Rutledge contrasts sharply with his willingness to accept extremely scanty evidence to prove that Lincoln had homosexual relations with William G. Greene, Abner Y. Ellis, Horace White, Henry C. Whitney, and Elmer Ellsworth. Those highly conjectural cases do not pass the test that Tripp says he used to establish the validity of a claim: namely, at least two independent sources.
Given the paucity of hard evidence adduced by Tripp, and given the abundance of contrary evidence indicating that Lincoln was drawn romantically and sexually to some women, it is highly unlikely that Abraham Lincoln was "predominantly homosexual."