Friday, April 4, 2008

Lincoln's Sexuality: Why Does the Tripp Thesis Matter?

Shortly after I launched, I received a very intriguing email. “I assisted the late C. A. Tripp with his preparation of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, and thus occupy a controversial and tiny banlieu of Lincoln studies,” wrote Lewis Gannett.

He certainly had my attention.

Just a few months earlier, I spoke to a group about Lincoln's poetry. At the end of my talk, I fielded a number of questions, many of which fell far beyond the scope of my paper. I will never forget the last question. An older gentleman standing in the back of the room, who I must say had been waiting patiently, suddenly asked, “So, do you think Lincoln was a homosexual?”

I know I heard someone gasp, but I assure you, it wasn’t me. I expected the question. Actually, I would have been disappointed had the topic not come up.

The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln had just recently hit bookstores. News outlets such as CNN, The New York Times, and the Boston Globe covered the story; the Discovery Channel even weighed in.

But it was more than that.

People were talking about the Tripp thesis. I’m not simply talking about historians, though they certainly offered their perspective. I'm referring to everyday people. People who were not particularly interested in Lincoln’s life were now, suddenly, eager to join the conversation. Friends of mine, who normally wanted to talk about sitcoms or sports, were now asking me about Lincoln. Graduate students, who generally cringed anytime anyone mentioned anything to do with American history, now wanted to know more about this book. And yes, even local history enthusiasts wanted to know more about the most controversial thesis in the field of Lincoln studies.

“You want to know if I think Lincoln was a homosexual?” I asked the man in the back of the room.

He nodded. That's what he wanted to know.

“Really, what does it matter?” I replied. “Do the details of Lincoln’s love life help us understand how he guided a nation through its most tragic hour?”

Was I dodging the question? Was I trying to sweep a potentially embarrassing topic under the rug?

No, I was simply being honest. I can’t say with absolute certainty whether or not Lincoln was attracted to other men. But again, I come back to the same question. What does it matter? In other words, if we had absolute proof that Lincoln was indeed asexual, bisexual, heterosexual, or homosexual, what would that mean? Ultimately, why is it significant?

With these questions still fresh in my mind, I unexpectedly received Mr. Gannett’s email. Over the course of our correspondence, I posed the question to him. I found his response extremely intriguing.

Both Mr. Gannett and I see no reason why you, the reader, should be left out of this intriguing conversation.

Without further ado, I am proud to present the first “Guest Post” on!

After reading the following piece, Mr. Gannett and I invite you to join the conversation on the Lincoln Studies Discussion Board.

Abraham Lincoln: What Difference Does It Make If He Was “Gay”?

By: Lewis Gannett

If Abraham Lincoln found his primary sexual and romantic fulfillment with men, as Charley Shively, C. A. Tripp, and others have argued, does that matter?

In the grand sense of Lincoln’s historical achievements, no. Lincoln did not abolish slavery because he was “gay” (it must be pointed out that the word “gay,” with its social and political meanings as currently understood, didn’t exist in Lincoln’s time, and is used here only for the sake of simplicity). Lincoln did not win the Civil War because he physically loved men; to make that kind of claim is ludicrous. Of the few historical figures who, like Lincoln, have come to be seen as truly, everlastingly great, none did so on account of a particular sexuality—heterosexual, homosexual, or what have you. If Winston Churchill found his primary sexual and romantic fulfillment with women, which no one has bothered to argue, does that affect his place in history? No.

So, why might it matter that Lincoln had sexual relations with men?

Three main reasons, interrelated, come to mind.

First, anything pertaining to the life of our greatest president should be part of the historical record and available for study. This does not of course mean that Lincoln’s sexuality should be of consuming interest to everyone: people are free to decide what provokes a sense of curiosity. But the converse is also true. If some people are indeed curious about the 16th president’s love life—and it is evident that many are—then they should be able to learn about it. This is the most fundamental reason that Lincoln’s sexuality matters.

Second, the teaching of American history has until recently ignored altogether the role of homosexuals in the nation’s past. A reality since colonial times, same-sex love remained invisible for centuries, something that most students at all educational levels never encountered in their studies. This has changed, in some ways remarkably. But much of the change has been cosmetic. I found in the course of researching my master’s thesis that although current college-level American history textbooks vary enormously in terms of lesbian and gay coverage, not one identifies by name more than a handful of homosexual individuals. Yes, many textbooks have expanded the visibility of homosexuality, but it’s largely a faceless visibility. In this context the question of Abraham Lincoln matters quite a lot indeed.

But perhaps, to some, reason # 2 merely begs the question. Why should people care if America’s homosexual history is visible? The answer is simple: Hiding the past is never a good idea, especially if it involves hiding oppression. Take, for example, the evolution of the teaching of African-American history. Bizarre as it may now seem, until almost 1960 mainstream American historians bought the idea that under slavery, “Sambo was happy,” and even as recently as 1998, faculty at a North Carolina community college were claiming that “most slaves were happy in captivity” (a media firestorm led to the cancellation of the course in question). It goes without saying that black students deserve to know the truth about their past. This equally applies to lesbian and gay students, but with a twist. They deserve to know, just for starters, that they have a past—one that includes, by the way, villains as well as heroes. Few of the textbooks I examined mention that key ringleaders of the Second Red Scare were gay men. Although ostensibly a search for subversive Communists, this 1950s witch hunt targeted a far larger number of homosexuals. Does it “matter” that Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Roy Cohn were gay? I would argue that it matters on the general grounds that many Americans are unaware that homosexuals held senior government positions prior to the last couple of decades. But the fact that these three men fomented a panic that destroyed the lives of thousands of fellow gays, matters in a more particular and urgent sense. This is simply to say that the issue of Lincoln’s sexuality is but one facet of a complex historical puzzle. All of it matters for many different reasons, some of them in painful—but nonetheless instructive—ways.

Third, the “What difference does it make?” attitude about Lincoln’s sexuality carries with it the concession that Lincoln may in fact have had sex affairs with men. Implicit in the argument is, “Even if he did—so what?” Two of the more acute critics of C. A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln quite explicitly take this position: Richard Brookhiser in The New York Times Book Review and Christine Stansell in The New Republic. Brookhiser is the biographer of significant figures in early American history. Stansell, a professor at Princeton, specializes in 19th-century gender studies.

Both critics acknowledge that aspects of Lincoln’s life as described by Tripp are suggestive of homosexuality. Brookhiser goes so far as to concede, “On the evidence before us, Lincoln loved men, at least some of whom loved him back.” Stansell, referring to a notable Lincoln bedmate, writes, “Still, it’s what gets you through the night. If Captain Derickson helped the grieving father and the burdened president, we should only be grateful.” Both critics also end their reviews with a resounding, “So what?” Brookhiser refers to Lincoln’s achievements as president and concludes: “This is the Lincoln that matters. The rest is biography.” Stansell says of Lincoln sleeping with Derickson and other items in Tripp’s dossier: “[A]nd finally, it doesn’t matter much.”

It is startling that Brookhiser, a biographer, can so baldly state, “The rest is biography,” implying that it doesn’t really matter. At any rate, those who subscribe to the “So what?” school of thought can take heart from the positions of these distinguished historians. But there is something a bit odd going on here. To the extent that Tripp is right about Lincoln—and as Brookhiser and Stansell suggest, he is perhaps more than a little right—is the extent to which scholars have been not just wrong about Lincoln, but spectacularly wrong. How could that have happened?

Abraham Lincoln is the most-studied figure in American history. A vast and talented army of scholars tends to our memory of him, has done so for a very long time. How is it that a central fact of Lincoln’s life seems to have eluded the myriad of experts devoted to explaining that life? This is not a trivial issue. It raises serious questions about American historiography.

In fact, a number of scholars have looked at evidence relating to Lincoln’s sex life, found leads suggestive of same-sex affairs, hinted at those leads in their writings, but then seem to have said to themselves, “Hmm, I really don’t want to go there.” As Tripp points out in Intimate World, we have indications that the Lincolnists Ida Tarbell, Carl Sandburg, and Margaret Leech all came to that conclusion. It’s worth noting that these writers published many decades ago—Leech most recently, in 1941. What happened to their tentative lines of inquiry? They disappeared from Lincoln scholarship. Why?

One concludes that there has been, if not a cover up, exactly, then at least a willingness to look the other way. Those who espouse the “So what?” point of view do not acknowledge this problem; Brookhiser and Stansell don’t even seem to know that it exists. I can’t blame nonacademics for feeling indifferent about a “gay Lincoln.” During the furor following the publication of Tripp’s book it was a running joke among friends of mine that lots of people, including lesbians and gays, especially young ones, were groaning, “Oh, God—who cares?” So be it. But professional historians are another story. They have an obligation to pursue evidence no matter where it leads. In the case of Lincoln’s sexuality that hasn’t happened. The “So what?” reaction among scholars such as Brookhiser and Stansell is an amusing, and disturbing, testament to that fact. In essence they are saying, “Who cares if the history profession bungled its interpretation of Lincoln’s personal life?” To that I would say: Anyone who cares about history should care.

Lewis Gannett assisted the late C. A. Tripp with the preparation of his book, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (Free Press, 2005). Gannett’s article, “‘Overwhelming Evidence’ of a Lincoln-Ann Rutledge Romance?: Reexamining Rutledge Family Reminiscences,” appeared in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (Winter, 2005). He is a graduate of Harvard University, pursued postgraduate studies in political science at MIT, and recently received a master’s degree in history from the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Lincoln Studies Discussion Board: Join the Conversation!