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Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005 09:51 pm

Gay Abe?

Lincoln reads to his son Tad, 1864
Photo by Matthew Brady

It would be difficult to describe all the factual errors and failures in historical judgment in C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln¬†in a short review. But I will try.

I did not know Tripp, though I had heard about his work over the years. From all accounts, he was a generous man with a sincere interest in Lincoln. After Tripp’s death, his literary executor, who was preparing the manuscript for publication, asked me to review it with an eye to writing an introduction. I was a logical choice because my book Lincoln’s Quest for Union (1982; revised, 2001) was the first to explore seriously the general topic of Lincoln’s intimate life. When I read Tripp’s book, however, I was appalled and politely declined to be associated with the project. I assumed that it would go nowhere, along with all the other thousands of books by Lincoln buffs, and frankly forgot about it. Then it all burst forth from a leading publisher last month, along with a major story in the New York Times, packaged between an astonishing introduction by Jean Baker and mostly praiseworthy afterthoughts by Michael Burlingame and Michael B. Chesson, not to mention fawning blurbs from Gore Vidal and Thomas Schwartz, among others. One has no choice but to comment.

Tripp argues that Lincoln was an active homosexual who was mostly frustrated in his relationships with women. He had a heterosexual side and, of course, fathered four children, but the core of his world of desire was homosexual. If true, such a conclusion changes rather remarkably one’s view of his childhood and youth, his relationship with his wife, aspects of his personality such as his humor, and even the meaning of his spirituality — or so Tripp argues.

Tripp leads off with a chapter about Lincoln’s relationship with Capt. David V. Derickson. This handsome and appealing man, born in 1818, was in Company K, which served as the President’s Guard when he was staying at the Soldier’s Home just outside Washington. Tripp argues that whenever Mrs. Lincoln was away, Derickson slept in the same bed with Lincoln, who lent Derickson his own nightshirt for these occasions.

The central source for the story is a cryptic reference in the diary of Virginia Woodbury Fox, wife of the assistant secretary of the Navy, dated Nov. 16, 1862: “Tish says, ‘there is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs. L. is not home, sleeps with him.’ What stuff!” The “Tish” who related the story to Fox was Letitia McKean, a Washington socialite, who in turn heard the rumor from someone else who is unknown. Tripp then claims an independent source for the story in a later history of the 150th Regiment, Derickson’s own, by Lt. Col. Thomas Chamberlin. Tripp also notes that Ida Tarbell, in her popular Lincoln biography of 1895, describes the Derickson-Lincoln relationship. Tarbell stresses that Lincoln’s son Tad loved the 150th regiment and they him. Tad wore a little regimental uniform with a lieutenant’s commission on his shoulders and often drilled with the men and rode his own pony with them in review. Tarbell’s account, in turn, draws on Derickson’s 1888 description of his relationship with Lincoln, published in the Meadville, Pa., Tribune-Republican.

The heart of this evidence is the diary reference by Virginia Woodbury Fox. Though contemporary, the source of the information is unknown and secondhand (at least). This is the worst kind of hearsay. On the face of it, no historian would credit such a story unless it was corroborated by at least one other truly independent source. But Tripp also misses an important detail in the Fox quote, namely that Fox herself doesn’t believe the story. “What stuff,” the phrase she concludes with and which Tripp struts out proudly as the title of his first chapter, is half of the common 19th-century expression “stuff and nonsense,” which draws on the colloquial meaning of “stuff” as “humbug” (as explained in the Oxford English Dictionary). Tripp is off to a bad start.

He then claims that the account by Chamberlin in the regimental history is indeed the independent source he needs to validate the Fox diary entry. In the text Tripp says that Chamberlin wrote his book in 1895 (page 2), but his bibliography in fact has the correct date of publication, which was 1905. The difference matters, for what was published in 1895 was Tarbell’s biography that had described Lincoln’s friendship with Derickson and which quoted from Derickson’s account in 1888. Tarbell’s book obviously brought the whole matter of Derickson’s friendship with Lincoln back to Chamberlin’s mind; he may also have consulted Fox’s diary in the Library of Congress or even himself remembered the rumor of the common male bedding from more than 40 years previously, or he made it all up. Chamberlin does add the interesting detail of Lincoln’s giving Derickson his nightshirt to wear, though I have to say that hardly strikes me as anything more than an example of Lincoln’s wonderful informality in all matters.

It is not irrelevant that Thomas Chamberlin was widowed, married again, and in all fathered nine children; that no one else in Lincoln’s entourage noticed anything untoward in their relationship; and that Derickson’s own 1888 account, which is charming, speaks of nothing but a close friendship with his boss who clearly liked and admired him.

The more familiar male friendship Lincoln had, since I first described it in such detail in 1982, was with Joshua Fry Speed. I can only refer the reader to my book for the details, but suffice it to say there is no question that Lincoln’s relationship with Speed was a close and intimate one that can reasonably be called homoerotic but that there is no evidence at all that it was homosexual. That cannot be excluded as a possibility, nor should it be, and I have pondered all sides of this question for many years. Lincoln and Speed did sleep in the same bed for three-and-a-half years, and I argue that it was the separation from Speed in late December 1840 that created a panic in Lincoln and precipitated his calling off his engagement to Mary Todd on what he later named the “fatal first” of January 1841. My argument convinced people such as David Donald, the late Roy Basler, and many others but has led to impassioned disagreements between me and Douglas Wilson and Michael Burlingame, who find the cause for Lincoln’s turn from Mary in his fondness for another woman, and Mary’s protective biographer, Jean Baker, who lends agency for the breakup to Mary herself. These disagreements, however, are between serious historians with differing interpretations of real evidence.

What is not valid is to argue that there was a consummated sexual relationship between Lincoln and Speed. Besides the utter lack of evidence, not even secondhand gossip dismissed by its purveyor, as with Derickson, there is the social context to consider. Men often slept together in Lincoln’s world and in that age. It was not remarkable, even though I do think Speed was a special case and his emotional importance for Lincoln was far greater than for that of the sweaty lawyers who piled into a common bed on the circuit to fight off the prairie cold. We also must consider the telling psychological picture we have of Lincoln, who hardly presented as homosexual. It matters when a friendship is sexualized, whatever the gender of the participants. The tensions that sometimes tormented Lincoln came in part from his repressions and in no small measure contributed to his greatness.

If Tripp’s evidence is flimsy to nonexistent, his historical arguments are often dazzling in their vacuity. Take his chapter about Lincoln’s childhood. Tripp quotes from one source, David Turnham, who told Herndon in 1865 — nearly six decades after the fact — that he remembered Lincoln at 9 as a “long, tall, dangling, awkward, droll-looking boy.” From this Tripp, not unreasonably but without any corroborating evidence, concludes that Lincoln experienced puberty early, as much as four years ahead of the norm in America at the time. That is all he knows from the historical record, and it is a bit on the suspicious side. Tripp then builds an argument about Lincoln’s early sexual experience based entirely on the findings of Alfred Kinsey, who was convinced that those boys who mature early are more likely to masturbate and find early pleasure in ejaculation. From Kinsey’s interviews with mid–20th-century men in Indiana, which may well in general tell us much of value about many boys but tell us nothing for sure about Lincoln, Tripp has our hero masturbating often and with great pleasure. And the more often he mentions it, the more Tripp believes his own story, so that by pages 188 and 189, he writes: “But since Lincoln had already arrived on his own at the powerful pleasure of orgasm, loved it, and found that the sky did not fall . . .”

The point of this quote is in fact for Tripp to lead into an argument about Lincoln’s skeptical attitude toward religion. Tripp’s argument is that Lincoln, reveling in all his self-induced ejaculatory pleasures and filled with homosexual desire, must have found the Bible and its censure of masturbation and any kind of homosexuality a horrid text. That leads Tripp into a decidedly unenlightening discussion of the Second Inaugural Address.

It is not surprising that Tripp turns upside down the story of the Lincoln marriage, making Mary the victim of Lincoln’s sexual confusions and hardly the tortured soul she is normally painted; nor that he completely debunks Lincoln’s love for Ann Rutledge that John Y. Simon first and then Douglas Wilson have recently shown to be completely true; nor that he finds in Lincoln’s humor telling signs of homosexual longings. Enough!

David Donald once described the urgent need of many Americans — including scholars — to “get right” with Lincoln. C.A. Tripp has now gotten Lincoln dead right with the sexologists. I am reminded of a story. In 1976 I organized a large conference on Lincoln at Sangamon State, where I taught from 1972-1986. The distinguished and brilliant but somewhat haughty Don Fehrenbacher spoke to a huge crowd of nearly 1,000 people in the old cafeteria on “Lincoln and the Constitution.” Afterward, an eager student asked: “Professor Fehrenbacher, what would Lincoln have thought about busing?” Fehrenbacher paused for a long while, looked down his nose at the student with disdain, and answered: “He would have asked, ‘What’s a bus?’ ”

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