The Intimate World
of Abraham Lincoln by C.A. Tripp
Simon & Schuster Free Press, 384 pages, $27.00
I am not an Abraham Lincoln expert, and someone who is might well know things that would change the following evaluation, but from what I have read in C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, the author makes a very strong case for Lincoln’s homosexuality. True, Tripp does not find the proverbial smoking gun—and if one existed, it would almost certainly have been discovered by now, so such a demand is both an unfair and an unrealistic standard—but he produces such a wealth of circumstantial evidence that any fair-minded person would have to agree that the president who saved the union by his adroit and courageous leadership during the Civil War was sexually and romantically involved with men.
Of course, this should not be news, for Carl Sandburg had noted in the most popular biography of our 16th president that “Lincoln . . . had . . . a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets,” and other Lincoln biographers, without labeling them as such, had also noted evidence of what we today would call Lincoln’s homoeroticism.
Covering both evidence uncovered by other writers who had investigated Lincoln’s (homo)sexuality as well as new material discovered by himself, Tripp found a considerable amount of evidence to support the position that Lincoln was primarily homosexual, including, among others, the following examples:
Lincoln formed such an intimate attachment with soldier David Derickson that he told him matters so personal that he may never have told them to anyone else, and Lincoln not only had Derickson sleep in his bed whenever his wife Mary Todd was away —even giving him his own nightshirt to sleep in—but as president saw to it that Derickson’s Company K was not transferred so that he could continue to enjoy the “Bucktail soldier’s” companionship.
Second, when Lincoln first left home as a youth, he immediately started sleeping with eighteen-year-old Billy Greene, who had earlier seen him rescuing a boat and had been impressed with the future president’s thighs, saying that they were “as perfect as a human being[‘s] Could be,” and, showing up nightly at the store where Lincoln both clerked and slept, shared a cot so narrow that “when one turned over the other had to do likewise,” a physical intimacy accompanied by such strong emotions that Billy’s cousin’s wife said that “Billy and Abe ‘had an awful hankerin’, one for t’other.”
Third, the teenaged Lincoln wrote a poem that centers around two men marrying each other:
For Rubin and Charles has
married two girls
But Billy has married a boy
The girlies he had tried on every Side
But none could he get to agree
All was in vain he went home again
And since that is married to Natty
So Billy and Natty agreed very well
And mama’s well pleased at the match
The egg it is laid but Natty’s afraid
The Shell is So Soft
that it never will hatch
That Lincoln wrote such a poem in the early nineteenth century while still only a teenager is in itself extremely suggestive, but what is even more striking is the extensive knowledge the poem shows by the writer at such a young age about homosexual lore. As Tripp explains, "The egg it is laid" suggests that "Abe was well aware of the term ‘jelly baby.’ Originally from Negro vernacular, the phrase soon came to be used by whites as well: slang denoting what uneducated folk imagined . . . as a ‘pregnancy’ from homosexual intercourse."
Fourth, Lincoln's first biographer, William Herndon, noted that A.Y. Ellis “come up from Springfield and taken quite a fancy to Lincoln. The two slept together and Lincoln frequently assisted him in the store.” Later Ellis even left home to join Lincoln on his first political campaign at his own expense, to which Tripp adds, “where one can be sure they continued to share the same bed at night.”
Fifth, the “first casualty of the Civil War,” Elmer Ellsworth, was a young man of exceptional good looks and even more exceptional military ability, whom Lincoln was so taken with that he used a friend, John Cook—who, evidence suggests, had previously acted as a procurer of young men for Lincoln—to surreptitiously approach Ellsworth while Lincoln was still a lawyer to—well, let’s allow Ellsworth to say it in his own words: “Mr Cook told me that Mr L. . . . especially desired him to leave no means unturned [emphasis in the original] to induce me to come to Springfield” and “still stronger ones, to . . . complete my studies with Hon Abram Lincoln.” Little wonder then that when Lincoln became president, the dashing young man, by then Lincoln’s particular pet, was given the run of the White House, where, the day after Lincoln was sworn in, he appointed him chief clerk of the War Department and less than two weeks later tried to have him appointed Inspector General of Militia for the United States. Before this could happen, however, the golden youth went on a daring raid to capture a sizable Confederate flag because, visible to Lincoln from across the Potomac, the sight of it offended the president. The impetuous raid led to Ellsworth’s being shot. After Ellsworth’s tragic death, Lincoln was so distraught that he wept publicly and uncontrollably more than once and visited Ellsworth’s body twice that same day—once alone, very late during the night—before personally arranging for the body to be moved to the White House the following day.
Finally, there is the story of Joshua Fry Speed, whose significance in Lincoln’s life is underscored by a synchronicity: Lincoln met Speed on April 15, 1837, when he was twenty-eight years old, and Lincoln died twenty-eight years later “to the day.” On that day in 1837 he had arrived in Springfield in hopes of practicing law, and Speed offered the impoverished young man a way to save money: by sharing his bed. While it was not unusual for strangers to share beds in those days, it was highly unusual to do so for four years, which is how long the sleeping arrangement lasted, which is all the more striking when one knows that Lincoln did have alternatives, for, as Jonathan Ned Katz has pointed out, William Butler and his wife “immediately” upon Lincoln’s arival offered him a bed that he wouldnot have to share. According to Speed, “no two men were ever more intimate,” and Speed was the only person to whom Lincoln signe his letters, “Yours forever,” a phrase more personal than he ever used in any other correspondence, including all the letters he ever wrote to his wife.
Tripp’s expertise as a psychologist and a sexologist does much to complement the historical evidence he amassed. For example, with regards to the Speed relationship, Tripp notes that while Lincoln did not know Speed on that first day they met, Speed had heard Lincoln speak and had been admiring him for months, which Tripp notes is significant in light of the fact that Speed did not tell Lincoln this: “Had he said anything about recognizing Lincoln, or expressed admiration for his speech, this would have immediately moved their contact toward a conventional, friendly familiarity—exactly appropriate . . . for the start of . . . an ordinary friendship … but enemy territory for any brand of rapid sexual conquest.”
An example of how Tripp’s knowledge as a sexologist illuminates Lincoln’s biography is his interpretation of the significance of the extraordinarily early puberty Lincoln had, having arrived at that watershed at age nine: “the very timing of puberty . . . [is] an extremely sensitive barometer of far-reaching sexual … consequences. . . . Most males reach puberty . . . from a year sooner to a year later than the average age of 13.7 years.” Tripp goes on to explain that early bloomers such as Lincoln “show a notably erotic mental set”—a trait borne out by Lincoln's love for sexual jokes, especially those with anal imagery—and have a much higher incidence of homosexual behavior.
While there is not room in a review of this length to critically analyze all of Tripp’s claims and interpretations—and at times he does seem to both overinterpret and to overreach in doing so—the sum of the body of evidence he amasses makes the conclusion that Lincoln was a lover of his own sex inescapable. Mark Twain once remarked with consternation about a writer who he felt had treated a person he wrote about unfairly, saying that the author offered up each sentence about the woman innocently, challenging critics to prove it contained anything harmful. But, Twain noted, this was like a person holding up the water from a lake one glass at a time so that all could see that the water was clear: a trick to try to avoid the fact that the lake was blue. After all the evidence marshaled in Tripp’s book, those who would use every maneuver possible to explain away all the evidence for Lincoln’s homosexuality are now in the position of the guileful biographer who would use every possible artifice to deny that the lake is, indeed, blue.
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David Carter is the author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, the paperback edition of which was recently published in June.
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