Michael Hamar

Historians' Changing View of President Lincoln's Sexuality

Filed By Michael Hamar | September 04, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Abraham Lincoln, censorship of history, gays in history, homophobic behavior, John Stauffer, Joshua Speed, same-sex love, William Hanchett

In 2005, the late C.W. Tripp posited that Abraham Lincoln was secretly a homosexual in his book, "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln." Not surprisingly, many historians and those on the far right were aghast - as if somehow being same-sex attracted makes one incapable of being a great leader and a Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speedwartime president. Never mind the many figures from history that were what we would nowadays call gay: Alexander the Great, Roman Emperor Hadrian, Michelangelo, Leonardo Di Vinci to name just a few.

Some might question why 145 years after Lincoln's death the issue even matters. In my view, it is an very important question given the far right's never ceasing efforts to depict LGBT individuals as sick, perverted, mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addicts and many other derogatory things. That a major figure like Lincoln was one of us - albeit perhaps more or less in the closet - turns the agenda of our enemies upside down.

It also will cause no small amount of angst amongst far right Republicans if their party's principal founder on the national level loved another man and slept with him for years. Indeed, if Joshua Speed (pictured at right, above) was in fact the "love of his life" for Lincoln, many anti-gay stereotypes are destroyed or at least seriously undermined.

Both Change.org and Gay City News have stories on this still debated topic and the growing number of top flight historians who are beginning to admit that Lincoln was likely gay.

Living out and proud changes many minds in our favor on a daily basis. And while younger generations are rapidly changing their attitudes about and levels of acceptance of LGBT citizens, by bringing out the real stories of gay figures from the past, may further accelerate the the ultimate defeat of anti-bigots. Plus, it's down right fun to imagine the conniption fits among the Bible beaters. Here are highlights, first from Gay City News:

...[T]he LGBT press has been ignoring an infinitely more significant development under way with vastly more important implications for the Republican Party: the increasing acceptance by historians that the loving heart of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator and the first GOP president, found its natural amorous passions overwhelmingly directed toward those of his own sex.

This shifting consensus about Lincoln's sexual orientation is certainly the most stunning and effective rebuke to the Republican Party's scapegoating of same-sex love for electoral purposes, which came to fever pitch during the 2004 race that [Ken] Mehlman spearheaded for George W. Bush.

"We are getting closer to the day that a majority of younger, less homophobic historians will at long last accept the evidence of Lincoln's same-sex component," John Stauffer, chair of Harvard University's Department of American Civilization, told Gay City News, adding, " We're already seeing the beginnings of a trend that will amount to a major paradigm shift."

Stauffer is one of the nation's leading experts on the Civil War era, and in his latest -- and best-selling -- book, "Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln," he supports the thesis that Joshua Speed was, as he put it, "Lincoln's soulmate and the love of his life."

And in the latest issue of the scholarly journal Reviews of American History, Stauffer hammers home this point, writing, "In light of what we know about romantic friendship at the time, coupled with the facts surrounding Speed's and Lincoln's friendship, there is no reason to suppose they weren't physically intimate at some point during their four years of sleeping together in the same small bed, long after Lincoln could afford a bed of his own. To ignore this, as most scholars do, is to pretend that same-sex carnal relationships were abnormal. It thus presumes a dislike or fear about such relationships, reflecting a presentist and homophobic perspective."
A majority of Lincoln scholars dumped on Tripp's book when it was published five years ago, but the "paradigm shift" on Lincoln of which Stauffer speaks is not only being led by younger historians like himself (Stauffer received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1999, began teaching at Harvard that year, and was tenured in 2004).

In a lengthy article entitled "Abraham Lincoln and the Tripp Thesis" in a recent issue of one of the oldest scholarly journals devoted to the iconic president, the Lincoln Herald, a senior Lincoln historian and author of numerous Lincoln books, the octogenarian William Hanchett, professor of history emeritus at the University of California/ San Diego, "challenges historians to either refute the Tripp thesis or to rewrite Lincoln's biography. Hanchett believes that Tripp is correct at least in the broad outline of his work and finds it frustrating that most historians, rather than confronting this pioneering study, choose to ignore it," as the Lincoln Herald's editors put it in introducing Hanchett's revealing, carefully footnoted essay on Lincoln's same-sex affinities.

Hanchett in particular breaks new ground when he deconstructs what we know of the much-ignored secret Memo books kept by Lincoln's law partner William Herndonas he spent a quarter century intensively researching his massive "Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life," published in 1889. The UC/ San Diego scholar details how he believes that the otherwise thorough Tripp missed the evidence there that backs up Hanchett's view that "Lincoln's secret" was homosexuality.
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 1926 tome titled "The Prairie Years," 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 elsewhere: "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 with his wife.

Speed himself acknowledged, "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.
"Why [have] scholars [been] so willfully blind to the host of historical evidence that Lincoln had a strong homosexual component?," Harvard's Stauffer wrote to this reporter in an email, explaining, "The answer stems from the intense homophobia throughout 20th century America, which has profoundly shaped Lincoln scholarship. Every scholar needs to read previous scholarship on Lincoln; and even comparatively open-minded scholars, after reading the mass of Lincoln scholarship, can easily be persuaded into perpetuating the blindness about Lincoln's relationship with Speed."

Stauffer, however, underscored in his email, "These explanations don't account for the fact that most scholars today can agree that other well-known and beloved figures, such as Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, had strong homosexual tendencies but deny that Lincoln did, despite similar evidence. The reason for this paradox, and perhaps the central reason why scholars have been willfully blind to the evidence on Lincoln, is because most view him as the 'redeemer president'-- essentially 'America's Christ' -- and don't want America's Christ having strong homosexual tendencies."

Change.org follows a similar analysis and also adds these salient points that underscore why having the truth about Lincoln ultimately told is important:

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most revered figures in American history. Students around the country are required to memorize his Gettysburg Address. His debates are seen as some of the penultimate political rhetoric in U.S. electoral history. His mug is on the penny, the five-dollar bill, and on Mt. Rushmore. Scores of Republicans proudly boast that they're "the party of Lincoln." And his Emancipation Proclamation makes up one of the foundational documents in the U.S. civil rights narrative.

Stauffer's comments in the piece are pretty interesting, if not for the fact that they suggest that within historian circles, folks who dismiss claims about Lincoln's homosexuality might be doing so because of internalized, or not so internalized, homophobia.

Today, we're making a big deal out of people like GOP strategist Ken Mehlman coming out of the closet, or conservative straight allies like Ted Olson, Margaret Hoover, Steve Schmidt, and Christine Todd Whitman, who willingly point their name down to support marriage equality. But what if it turns out that one of America's foremost historical figures, and someone dubbed one of the greatest Presidents our country has ever seen, "had a streak of lavender?"

(Picture courtesy of Gay City News)

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Thanks... read the Change and had seen most of the other piece.
Want to see this picked up by MSM. ... may be a long wait. Have sent to Countdown and TRMS...

This is great that younger historians are seeing "the streak of lavender" in Lincoln.

There was a professor at the University of Massachusetts in the 80s that published several papers about Lincoln and Washington.

Hysteric/homophobic historians - MOVE OVER - the Lincoln Truth Train is coming down the track!

I don't think it matters whether he was or wasn't. But it's interesting that some insist that he couldn't have been and refuse to consider the possibility in the face of the evidence.

I'm just going to link to Greta Christina's post on the issue of outing of celebrities and bi invisibility http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2010/03/closeted-politicians-and-bi-invisibility.html

This link takes you to reviews by 7 historians who were very unkind to Tripp's thesis about Lincoln: http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.1099/article_detail.asp


"Not surprisingly, many historians and those on the far right were aghast - as if somehow being same-sex attracted makes one incapable of being a great leader and a wartime president."

Name one professional historian who was "aghast" or expressed the view that "being same-sex attracted makes on incapable of being a great leader and a wartime president." Who are you talking about? If there are "many" you should be able to name one.

"Not surprisingly, many historians and those on the far right were aghast - as if somehow being same-sex attracted makes one incapable of being a great leader and a wartime president."

Well, I ignored what the christianists had to say. However - even though I profess to not having read the book and not being able to readily point to any sources for the following - I recall even the criticism from the left saying that the evidence in the book was, at best, incredibly thin.

Stuart Wilber | September 5, 2010 1:12 PM

I respectfully disagree with Dr. Weiss - I think Lincoln's sexuality does matter and that the truth about famous people being gay or lesbian or bi or transgender is important to a young person growing up, especially in a heterosexual family. I remember as a child wondering if I were the 'only one'. Reading about Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman and even Gertrude Stein, reassured that the feelings I had toward people of the same sex were shared by famous figures. I can of course speak only to my experience, but I imagine that reading about Sappho, The Bloomsbury Group, the cross dressing women who fought in our Civil War and Christine Jorgensen resonate in a similar way with others struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. We each of us need heroes especially as children and growing up in the isolation and often terrifying aloness of my generation made the truth about these historical figures important and made me feel ‘chosen’ instead of ‘abnormal’.
I also remember a lecture in High School in the 50’s by a local Whitman ‘expert’ that totally ignored Whitman’s sexual orientation and tried to reinterpret ‘Leaves of Grass’ as a paean to heterosexual expression and watching my English teacher, whom I now realize was gay, roll his eyes at this deliberate attempt at covering up Whitman’s sexuality.
History is often re-written by those in power in an attempt to reinforce their beliefs or ignore their mistakes and misdeeds. And brave academics like Tripp risked and still risk their reputations and careers by pointing out the truths about famous people who happened to be Queer. In a perfect world, the truth about the sexuality of famous people shouldn’t matter, but ours is a world in which most of our LGBT children are taught that being Queer makes one less than whole – the truth about our heroes may help refute that premise. At least it did for me.

Another case of gaywashing in an historical context which honestly is happening all of the time. I would point out that Lincoln was married and a father and so if he also had relationships with men we could say that he was behaviorally bi. You say that Alexandros of Macedon could be described as gay.... really??? why consider that along with his male lovers he had females and fathered children... I would also describe that being behaviorally bi.
Secondly when people call Lincoln gay they are simply taking things way out of historical context consider that the historical idea of an identity that we sociologically call gay can be traced to the early 20th century. There certainly was an awareness of homosexual behavior at that time but the concept of it as an identity is more recent.
It also should be noted that a lot of the evidence used in these arguments are being looked at in a modern context and not in their historical context.
If two guys move into the house next door and share a bed now in 2010 we think gay/bi. If two guys share a cabin with one bed and sleep in it together in the 1840s and 1850s, we say that was pretty normal for most folks especially in the winter. I understand that there is some evidence but the insistence that it A) be padded by things out of context and B)means that we should apply an modern identity of gay to that person is just academically dishonest. And to take cases of known bi behavior and some arguable evidence of bi behavior and assign a modern gay identity is not only intellectually dishonest and is also dishonest within the modern LGBT community because gaywashing is constantly being applied to bisexual and trans behaving people in history.

Well isn't that the same thing that holier than thou Christians are doing with the Bible when beating gay people over the head with the scriptures? They take verses out of context and apply them to a today mentality situation of homosexual love when in Bible days the word "Homosexual" wasn't even around yet. Plus they don't research those scriptures in the original languages for the meaning in that day. They don't even look at church history in the 11th to the 13th century when the church honored Holy Unions between two women, two men or a man and a woman.

When bisexuals are willing to claim bisexuals such as Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, Richard Cohen, George Rekers and all the homophobic bisexual "ex-gays", they can have Lincoln.

I am somewhat surprised by comments that would insist that since Lincoln was married and fathered children he was bi or "behaviorally bi." With all due respect, I was married for 24 years and fathered 3 children and I can assure you that I am GAY and always was.

Yes, I pretended to be something else for years and tried to be what was societally expected, yet that NEVER altered my true underlying sexual orientation. Just amongst my local friends I can name many others who did the same - and all will tell you that they were always gay, not bi.

I believe that the so called "gay washing" some have cited is something fabricated by those who do not want to admit that gays can be closeted, married and father children and nonetheless be gay, not bi.

Ok so how is you projecting your personal experience into it helping? So you are telling me that because you were a closeted gay guy that means that any given historical figure who had or even may have had male lovers was gay even if he also had female lovers,a wife and/or children.
I happen to be a bi guy who is married and has children. It actually does happen.
What I am saying is that it is not intellectually sound to call such an historical figure gay as you have done. We can at the most either say that we can verify bisexual behavior in some historical figures, such as Alexandros of Macedon or Oscar Wilde and that we can say that some people suspect a bisexual behavioral history for some people such at Abraham Lincoln and Elenore Roosevelt.
Some yes we can say that they would definitely be able to say that they would be considered gay in the world of today. Leonardo Da Vinci yes.
But your arguments that these people who are known to have had opposite sex relationships were what we would call gay simply because they also had same sex lovers or are simply suspected of having same sex lovers requires that we decide to dismiss the existence of their opposite sex relationships as a cover or a lie. You simply can't know this in most instances and certainly in the ones that you described. You response that you were in the closet and that you were hiding behind a false relationship is simply a bit of irrelevant personal information. You cannot reasonably project that information into an historical situation about the life of another person and expect anyone to accept that as a valid argument.
The drop in the bucket theory that anyone who ever has a same-sex attraction or relationship must be gay and that any and all opposite sex relationships are just a lie or cover is a pretty silly view that has been thrown aside by many people.
You have fun with that but no matter how many time you click your heels and wish you can't change good historical research and interpretation practices especially by projecting your own issues into the situation.

Hey, there is a Wall Thread put up on fb today by EQUALITY AMERICA: Can You Be GAY and be a Republican?

Lots of fun comments: I like KIKI"S" Sure but why would you want to be?"

I put up comment, wonder how many would stay in Republican party if they really believe the above? and linked to this article.

Too bad we don't have a Glenn Beck to spew this out for us on MSM?

I love this, that Lincoln was queer (can we settle on that? Does anyone have proof that he wasn't attracted to women?). Now lets see if that ever makes it into the classroom. Isn't that the lesson here, that if an LGBT person makes it big and is remembered by history, the most they can expect is to be thrown back in the closet?

Lindoro Almaviva | September 7, 2010 10:54 PM

In a lengthy article entitled "Abraham Lincoln and the Tripp Thesis" (...) the octogenarian William Hanchett, professor of history emeritus at the University of California/ San Diego, "challenges historians to either refute the Tripp thesis or to rewrite Lincoln's biography.

This would have been such a great moment to either direct us to the article if it is available on the web or give us a citation of the source so we can look it up and see if it is available for purchase.

Can someone pleas tell us what is the name of the publication? A google search fails to bring up anything.

Lewis Gannett | September 20, 2010 11:48 AM

William Hanchett's article appeared in four parts in The Lincoln Herald, a venerable and respected scholarly publication that most good research libraries carry.

Parts I & II: The Lincoln Herald, Vol. 110, No. 3 (Fall 2008), pp. 156-204.

Part III: Vol. 111, No. 3, (Summer 2009), pp.72-93.

Part IV: Vol. 112, No. 1, (Spring 2010), pp.4-21.

The most succinct part is Part IV. It nicely sums up.

Lincoln is gay?? Is this the only way queers can prove their value by OUTING everyone and anyone for any excuse we can come up with?

There is no way to prove that Lincoln was gay and there is nothing to GAIN by trying to make him gay. We have to be good and valuable persons on our own merrits.

Come on people, this is equivilent to naming an ICBM the Peace Keeper. "gay IS good" We don't have to make up something about someone who died a hundred years ago to prove it.