Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Men Behind the Man: Abraham Lincoln’s Gay Lovers

Back in 2010 I wrote a two part piece on this blog and another pieces all focused on Abraham Lincoln's likely same sex sexual orientation.  As noted, two pieces appeared as posts on this blog and the third appeared in the old Bilerico Project to which I was a contributor for a number of years.   The pieces elicited both positive and negative reactions.  At the time I noted that the pieces had "created quite a bit of commentary and several personal attacks in comments (which I did not approve for publication because of their nastiness). I was particularly surprised by the number of comments by authors who were incensed that I referred to Lincoln as “gay” as opposed to “bisexual.” . . . to these folks it was nothing short of heresy to recognize that someone gay can have sex with an opposite sex partner – even if it is merely only the result of trying to do “what’s expected by church and society” - and still be GAY.  I continue to believe that the issue IS relevant and it is through accurate history that minds can sometimes be opened and prejudice defeated."  Ironically, after writing my first 2010 post, a reader forwarded me a copy of the last segment of William Hanchett’s piece in the Lincoln Herald (which apparently is not available on line and the contents of which can be found summarized here).  Now, Mark Segal has republished a 2011 piece on the issue in the newly revived Bilerico Project that looks further at the men who were Lincoln's likely gay lovers.  Here are lengthy article excerpts (read the entire piece):

Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) may likely be the most studied and researched of the United States presidents. The first reference to him possibly being “homosexual” came from notable Lincoln expert Carl Sandburg in his 1926 biography, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. In describing the early relationship between Lincoln and his close friend, Joshua Fry Speed, Sandburg wrote “a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets.” This line got historians talking about an issue from which many had previously shied away.

Still, the biography was written in the early 20th century, a time when such topics were only discussed in whispers. But by including the line, Sandburg felt the relationship deserved acknowledgement. It wasn’t until 2005 when the first book was published on Lincoln’s relationships with men, C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.

Detractors of Lincoln’s possible homosexuality, such as historian David Herbert Donald, often say there is no new evidence on Lincoln. Yet historians continue to draw fresh conclusions from Lincoln’s letters. Those who attempt to refute Lincoln’s possible “homosexuality” usually focus on one particular incident — of the many — that supports the theory: his relationship with Speed.

Yet history, like everything else, is open to interpretation and influenced by new findings. Bias also motivated the retelling of historical events. The best example of bias in American history is the story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave/concubine Sally Hemings, which was not accepted as a truthful account until 1998 — and only after DNA proof. African-American citizens — not historians — led the effort to give Hemings her rightful place in history. Likewise with Lincoln, most historians have referred to isolated facts rather than the pattern of events in his life to tell his personal story. Will history once again prove historians wrong?

This poem, about a boy marrying a boy, is thought to be the first reference to gay marriage in U.S. history. A 20-year-old man in rural Indiana wrote it 182 years ago. That young man was Abraham Lincoln. . . . . The poem was included in the first major biography of Lincoln, written by his law partner, William Herndon. Revisionists omitted it in subsequent editions. It didn’t reappear in Herndon’s edition until the 1940s.

In 1837, Lincoln moved to Springfield, Ill., to practice law and enter politics. That’s where he met the two men who would be his greatest friends throughout his life. One, Joshua Fry Speed, became his bed partner for a while; the other was law partner Herndon. Beyond the revelation that Lincoln and Speed had an intimate friendship, little has been written about how diligently Speed worked for Lincoln’s legal and political career. Speed’s name popped up in many of Lincoln’s legal filings and on the Illinois Whig Party’s central committee. The two were almost inseparable. Most Lincoln historians agree this relationship was the strongest and most intimate of the president’s life. What they don’t agree on is why they slept in the same bed together for four years when they had the space and means to sleep separately, as was expected of men their age.

Both bachelors reportedly were hesitant to tie the knot, but it was a de-facto requirement to have a wife if you wanted to move in political circles — or at least create the perception of interest in marriage. Both Speed and Lincoln dreaded this “requirement,” as evidenced by Lincoln’s letters. Speed takes the marriage plunge first . . . . At this precise time, Lincoln suffered a mental breakdown. Historians have been all over the map as to what caused the breakdown, but it was so intense that friends, including Herndon, worried he would take his own life. Lincoln only recovered after Speed invited him to visit him and his new wife in Kentucky.

Lincoln’s most emotional and intimate writings were contained in his letters to Speed. From the time they lived together until shortly after Speed married and moved to Kentucky, Lincoln always signed his letters “forever yours” or “yours forever.”

In 1862, Lincoln met Capt. David Derickson, who served as his bodyguard, providing protection for the president when he commuted from the White House to his cottage at the Soldier’s Home. Lincoln spent about a quarter of his presidency at the cottage, which allowed him some escape from D.C.’s summers and from public interruptions at the White House.

Lincoln and his bodyguard became close, and historians Tripp and David Herbert Donald noted two recorded mentions that Lincoln and Derickson slept in the same bed: Derickson’s superior, Lt. Col. Thomas Chamberlain, and Tish Fox, the wife of Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox, both wrote about it. Tish wrote in her diary that Derickson was devoted to Lincoln and “when Mrs. Lincoln was away, they slept together.” . . . . The Bucktails witnessed the relationship between the president and his bodyguard, which was public enough that they knew Derickson kept him company when Mrs. Lincoln traveled, and wore his nightshirt. Historical interpretations aside, why would the president, then in his 50s, sleep with his bodyguard?

Taken individually, accounts of Lincoln with other men may not offer enough proof that he was gay. But the pattern reveals a man who, in his sexual prime, slept exclusively with another man for four years — two of those years (according to Donald) without romancing someone of the opposite sex; who wrote a poem about a boy marrying a boy; and who, as president, slept with his bodyguard.

From historical records, one can conclude that Lincoln enjoyed sleeping with men. He did so when it was acceptable in youth and poverty, and also when he was older and successful. While it is documented that Lincoln slept with several men, there is only one confirmed woman who shared his bed — Todd.

Of the men, we don’t know how many reciprocated with emotion. To find one same-sex soul mate in the culture of the 1800s seems a miracle; Lincoln may have sought others when Speed went on to have the life that was expected of men of the time. In that period, only one man in 300 did not marry. 

And Speed was apparently the love of his life. Lincoln resisted marriage as long as he could, only marrying after Speed was well-entrenched in his own marriage — a phase that coincided with Lincoln’s “mental distress.”

The debate - and denial of some - will continue.  Personally, I find it sad that many are afraid to embrace accurate history because it disturbs the neat little patterns they like in their world view.  An unrelated example is a 1960 book on the generalship of Alexander the Great written by military historian British General J.F.C. Fuller (among other things, his awards included Order of the Bath, Order of the British Empire, Distinguished Service Order) who while lauding Alexander's generalship, statesman ship and political acumen has a near conniption fit over the suggestion that Alexander was what we would now consider gay.  Like Lincoln, the love of Alexander's life was Hephastion, a male friend and lover who for a time ranked only below Alexander in Alexander's imperial regime.   One has to wonder about the reflex reaction of those who prefer to protect their prejudices rather than embrace the truth and accurate history.

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