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 Gay Abe 

December 16, 2004 
Was Abraham Lincoln ... gay? Was Honest Abe living a lie, denying who he was? Was his marriage to Mary Todd, which produced four sons, Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.a sham?

A new book by the late C.A. Tripp, a leading homosexual theorist who died last year, raises these questions. I haven’t read it yet, but a report in the New York Times suggests that Tripp’s answer to all three is yes.

The strongest evidence that Lincoln was homosexual is pretty wispy: As a young man, he often shared a bed with his friend Joshua Speed. The strongest evidence to the contrary is Lincoln’s own statement: “I slept with Joshua for four years.” This has long been a well-known fact.

As Lincoln’s great biographer David Herbert Donald remarks, he wouldn’t have spoken so freely if he’d been homosexual. He didn’t even have to worry about creating suspicions. In an age of scarcity, thrift, and humble accommodations, it was common for men to share beds.

Anyone who has endured an Illinois winter can understand that. In those days an itinerant lawyer couldn’t rent a well-heated luxury suite for the night at the Holiday Inn. He might have to settle for another guy’s body heat.

If Lincoln could also endure a long marriage to the plump, ill-tempered Mary Todd, we may also suspect that he had a normal male appetite for the opposite sex. He’d also courted other women, and his biography by his law partner William Herndon launched the famous though disputed legend that his true love was Ann Rutledge, who died young.

The Times article, by Dinitia Smith, notes that though Billy Herndon sometimes slept in the same room with Lincoln and Speed, he “never mentioned a sexual relationship” between them; nor did anyone else suggest one. Do tell! In those days, and long afterward, nobody would have said such a thing unless he wanted to be sued or shot — supposing he could find someone crazy enough to publish it. Miss Smith must be very young if she thinks the absence of testimony of Lincoln’s homosexuality proves anything, one way or the other.

[Breaker quote: Did sodomy help end slavery?]Tripp’s strongest “evidence” seems to be a close relation between President Lincoln and one of his bodyguards, whom, according to some rumors, he also shared a bed with (in a cottage retreat, not the White House) when Mary was away. The book’s introduction by Jean H. Baker argues that Lincoln’s homosexuality would explain his tempestuous married life with Mary and “some of her agonies and anxieties over their relationship.”

But here Mary herself gives the strongest negative evidence. She was, for lack of a more vehement word, impossible. In fact, you can hardly believe it possible for anyone to be so impossible. (Herndon and many of Lincoln’s other friends hated her.) She was insanely jealous, and could make utterly mortifying scenes when Lincoln showed even formal courtesy to another woman. But she never made such scenes over men. I think we may assume that Mary was the best authority on the nature of her husband’s desires.

Of course, in the absence of positive evidence, we can only speculate. But why should we? There is no positive evidence about whether Lincoln was homosexual or, for that matter, about whether Mary was lesbian. We can construe any detail about him — his strong sense of privacy, for example — as “proof” of his concealed attraction for other men.

Why does it matter? Here is where things get seriously goofy. Miss Smith writes, “Ms. Baker said that his outsider status would explain his independence and his ability to take anti-Establishment positions like the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. As a homosexual, she said, ‘he would be on the margins of tradition ... willing to be independent, to do what is right.’”

Ah, yes, of course. Homosexuality does have a way of sharpening the conscience, does it not? That would explain a lot of our history. But alas, Lincoln was cut down before he could also issue an anti-Establishment proclamation of gay rights.

Maybe, in some obscure way, Lincoln ultimately brought this on himself by releasing the genies of power that have ... No, I just can’t do it. I can’t finish that sentence in a way that makes even the most strained pseudo-Hegelian metaphysical sense.

Even Lincoln, for all his sins, doesn’t deserve this treatment. These people are, to put it in nonclinical terms, plumb loco.

Joseph Sobran

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