- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005


By C. A. Tripp

Free Press, $27, 384 pages


The rumor that Abraham Lincoln had intimate relations with male friends is not a new view. Indeed older, more traditional historians such as Ida Tarbell, Margaret Leach, and even Carl Sandburg flirted with the idea, but never really pushed the matter to a racy conclusion. Now an associate of the sexologist, Alfred Kinsey, C.A. Tripp, has given readers his concerted attempt to move from a comprehensive data base on Lincoln to a compelling story.

Like his mentor Kinsey, Mr. Tripp manages to change simple prurient interest into mathematical formulae, arguing that on a scale of 1-6 on homosexual tendencies, Lincoln is a 5. Tripp’s judgments are even less clear than those of Eastern European judges at swimming meets.

Mr. Tripp insists that Lincoln reached puberty at the tender age of nine, and such premature development led him to early experimentation with masturbation and with some same-sex relations. The evidence of uncommon height and a strange gangly appearance has been previously ascribed instead to Marfan syndrome. The major supporting evidence for Lincoln’s propensity for men is the long held habit that even he fully acknowledged — that for four years he slept in the same bed with Joshua Speed, a young friend in Springfield, Ill. Sharing beds on the frontier was rather common, but four years was a bit much. Still sooner or later the close fellows became husbands of young women, and in Lincoln’s case he and Mary Todd had four sons.

Lincoln was in many ways a person very much at home with men — he was a powerful athlete and frontiersman, and a man given to a repertoire of vulgar, off-color jokes. He also slept with several other men, including a military officer while he was at the president’s summer home in Northeast D.C. Yet while Lincoln was remarkably reticent when it came to his personal life, he never covered over his relations and friendships with these men.

Mr. Tripp, best known for his work on homosexuality (a word not in use in Lincoln’s lifetime), died before this book was edited, and that absence is obvious especially at the end of the volume. For some reason there is a full chapter featuring Winston Churchill and his wartime leadership which really does not fit in.

We know that Lincoln was in many ways a mysterious personality to his contemporaries and to us. He looked at times strange, even weird, and was poorly dressed and ill-groomed. Yet as at Cooper Union, when he spoke people soon dropped their reservations and embraced this rough orator, being swept away by his incredible logic and the powerful intensity of his language.

Indeed for all his genuine affection for Joshua Speed, they had an abrupt failing out over their differing views of slavery. They may have shared a bed, and maybe more, but Lincoln’s real passion was for the Union and for human justice. In order to make Lincoln “gay”, Mr. Tripp has decided that he must show that he disliked women. He quotes with approval Lincoln’s step-mother who noted how her model boy never had much attraction to women. But mothers are often not the best judges of their sons’ delights.

Lincoln’s close colleague, Judge David Davis, maintained that the Lincoln he knew was very attracted to women, and tradition has it that Speed steered his friend toward prostitutes at the latter’s urgent request. Mr. Tripp must of course contradict the story that Lincoln was deeply in love with Ann Rutledge, a romance recorded and developed in a public lecture by Lincoln’s young law partner and biographer, William Herndon.

The tale is one that has been discredited, but has been somewhat resurrected in the last decade or so. Her death is supposed to have led him to near suicide and a deep loneliness that never left his heart. But Mr. Tripp must also turn his attention to Mary Todd, which he does with a vengeance, comparing her personality type to Hitler. The marriage had its stresses and strains, for the ambitious Lincoln spent much time on the circuit, making considerable money and establishing a reputation. But being a hen-pecked husband and a rather passive partner is not the same as being a confirmed homosexual.

The real issue though is not who admired whose thighs (as Mr. Tripp inelegantly puts it), it is whether Lincoln’s proclivities played a role in his great historical exercise of leadership. Was his alleged homosexuality linked to his constancy for the Union, to his inability to keep a string of commanders of the army in the east, to his timing on emancipation, to his policy of reconstruction of the South?

No such importance can be found. There really is also no evidence that his melancholy or his religious agnosticism were factors of his being a sexual outsider, as Mr. Tripp maintains. Perhaps he knew that he was something special; and perhaps his depression was organic or simply linked to the terrible carnage that he played an integral role in ordering. Lincoln summed up himself better than Mr. Tripp has — “I dreamt of power and glory, and all I have are blood and ashes.”

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two volume history of the American presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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