Monday, April 7, 2008

The Tripp Thesis: An Interpretation and a Challenge

I want to thank Lewis Gannett for contributing such an insightful article to last week. The piece was both well-written and well-argued, but above all, it was well-received.

I was so pleased to follow the discussion on the Lincoln Studies Discussion Board throughout the weekend. The conversation was spirited, yet it remained respectful. As some of you may know, that is something of a rarity in the world of cyberspace. I want to thank both Mr. Gannett and those who participated. And, of course, the thread is still open for anyone who would like to weigh-in.

Though controversial, the Tripp Thesis is important. It challenges us to weigh historical evidence, debate controversial conclusions, and yes, it allows us to respectfully disagree with one another. Again, I say, the Tripp Thesis is important.

Tripp has introduced scores of people to the complex field of Lincoln Studies. People who previously had no interest in Lincoln heard a broadcast or read an article that detailed Tripp’s sensational claim. Lincoln was a homosexual? That certainly wasn’t in their high school textbook!

People bought Tripp’s book and learned about the characters from Lincoln's past. Ann Rutledge, Mary Owens, Joshua F. Speed, and Elmer Ellsworth all jumped off the page, as did the many scholars who Tripp quarreled with throughout the text. I have no doubt that many people who read Tripp’s book wanted to know more. I am a supporter of almost any book, film, or song that encourages people to learn more about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War.

Moreover, I think the Tripp Thesis is important because it has a great deal to teach us. However, I encourage you to read that statement carefully. Does the Tripp Thesis have a great deal to teach us about Lincoln? Well, yes and no.

There are certainly insightful observations throughout the text. For instance, I think Tripp’s book served as my introduction to Captain David Derickson. While I don’t necessarily think Tripp’s interpretation is accurate, I also acknowledge that I can’t tell you exactly what role the captain played in Lincoln’s life. In this respect, Tripp has encouraged me to re-examine evidence and seek out new sources.

Ultimately, however, I suspect that the Tripp Thesis tells us more about modern life than either Lincoln or nineteenth century America. Does the current political climate have anything to do with the Tripp Thesis? Are the 2004 presidential election and the gay marriage amendment connected to a study about Lincoln's sexuality? None of that, by the way, is a criticism of the Tripp Thesis. In fact, I think it gives us a powerful opportunity to discuss how historiography works.

More broadly, however, I would suggest that Tripp falls into a common trap. Throughout The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, Tripp views Lincoln as a contemporary. Both his methodology and his interpretations are thoroughly products of the twentieth century. Tripp sees something sexual in two men sharing a bed. If the incident had occurred in 2000 instead of 1840, I might agree, but it was not the case. I suspect Lincoln’s sleeping habits tell us more about the scarcity of beds or the frequency of his travels on the law circuit than anything to do with his sexuality. Context is so critically important, and on this score, the Tripp Thesis falls far short. At the same time, Tripp’s book encouraged me to re-examine several books about nineteenth century life and sexuality, among the most useful, I would recommend American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era by E. Anthony Rotundo, as well as, Joseph F. Kett’s Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present (both pictured above).

I have heard people argue that the Tripp Thesis has done more harm than good because it obscures the Lincoln who lived and replaced him with someone from Tripp’s fantasies. I strongly disagree with that view. The Tripp Thesis is a wonderful illustration of everything that makes history so exciting. Yes, history is exciting because it is such a vibrant field; history is always changing. How is that possible?

Historical interpretations are never the final word. The Tripp Thesis, like any original work of history, is both an interpretation and a challenge. Tripp has presented his case, now scholars must test his conclusions. I look forward to the new generation of scholars who accept Tripp’s bold challenge.

1 comment:

Steve Garten said...

I'd like to learn more about this study. I'm running out of thesis topic ideas for my high school paper but I really want it to be about Abraham Lincoln because I'm interested in history.