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U.S. History

All the President's Men

Reviewed by Michael F. Bishop
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page BW03


By C.A. Tripp. Free Press. 343 pp. $27

For years, there have been rumblings about the sexuality of our greatest president. Almost 80 years ago, the biographer Carl Sandburg saw in Lincoln "a streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets." Now, in The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, the late sex researcher C.A. Tripp presents the most sustained argument yet that the Great Emancipator was a lover of men. In the end, however, the book reveals more about modern obsessions than it does about Lincoln. We live in a highly sexualized culture, but Lincoln did not. The modern concept of homosexuality did not exist in Lincoln's day, as Tripp concedes, but he rapidly abandons such restraint in his search for that streak of lavender.

Lincoln's ineffectual predecessor, James Buchanan, is considered by some historians to have been homosexual. But Lincoln is far more useful to those who seek validation through history.

Tripp, a psychologist and gay-rights activist, died soon after completing his manuscript. In prose that is by turns bantering and strident, he insists that Lincoln's homosexuality is clear to all those with open eyes. But the evidence he presents is not new, and there is no "smoking gun." Still, this strange, disjointed book may succeed in planting a seed of doubt in the minds of many about Lincoln's sex life.

The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln is laced with references to the work of Alfred Kinsey, Tripp's colleague in the 1940s and '50s. As Tripp relates, Kinsey discovered a correlation between the early onset of puberty in boys and a greater incidence of homosexual activity. Seizing upon a vague description of the young Lincoln as tall and gangly, Tripp concludes that Lincoln entered puberty at age nine -- four years earlier than average -- and that his sexual precocity must have taken homosexual form. Such dizzying leaps of logic are characteristic of Tripp's work.

To take another example, Tripp is struck by the fact that Lincoln, as a young state legislator, shared a bed for four years with his best friend, Joshua Speed. When Speed moved home to Kentucky in 1841 and Lincoln's engagement to Mary Todd came temporarily to an end, Lincoln suffered an emotional crisis. The two men subsequently exchanged a series of letters, some of which Lincoln ended with "Yours forever." All of this leads Tripp to conclude that Lincoln and Speed conducted a passionate homosexual affair. But 19th-century notions of privacy were vastly different from our own, and mattresses were in short supply. During two of their four years as bedmates, Lincoln and Speed shared the room with two other young men, both of them decidedly heterosexual.

As for the affectionate letter-ending flourish that Tripp trumpets as proof of his case, the historian Michael Burlingame points out in a dissenting afterword that Lincoln closed many a letter with the same tribute. The letters themselves are not exactly spicy; one of Lincoln's missives to Speed contains an impersonal account of a murder trial, hardly the stuff of romance. Tripp, however, is not deterred, arguing that "it is precisely this kind of impersonal recounting of some irrelevant bit of news that is often resorted to by distraught lovers who are contending with some strain, and who thus choose to recount details from a neutral territory as they wait out a storm that swirls about them." This makes a mockery of the historical method. Tripp could make a grocery list sound suspicious.

Tripp also suggests that Lincoln had a male lover during his presidency: Capt. David V. Derickson, the commanding officer of the Army company assigned to protect the Lincoln family while they resided at a summer retreat outside Washington. A few months after the two men met and became friends, Virginia Woodbury Fox, the wife of the assistant secretary of the Navy, wrote to a friend: "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!" A regimental history written three decades later echoed these observations, adding also that Derickson made "use of his Excellency's night-shirt!" The morning they met, Derickson accompanied Lincoln back to the White House, and they shared pleasantries along the way. Tripp depicts this initial conversation as "an almost classical seduction scene" that left Lincoln "wound up if not revved up." Such overheated speculation succeeds only in damaging Tripp's case.

Nor is this part of that case new; the Derickson story has been known for decades, though many may encounter it in Tripp's book for the first time. Tripp's insinuations are contradicted by much of the other evidence: Lincoln was the father of four and Derickson the father of nine, attesting to their abundant heterosexual activity. Moreover, after eight months, the president granted his friend a transfer at the latter's request. As Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald (who has publicly quarreled with Tripp's thesis) has observed, the "friendly, not sexual" nature of their relationship "is suggested by the ease with which their association was ended when Derickson returned" to his native Pennsylvania. The two men never saw each other again.

For all that, modern readers may well find that the thought of a president with a famously difficult marriage sharing his bed with another man makes them wonder, leaving them unable to dismiss Tripp's claims entirely. And there is no doubt that Lincoln was usually more comfortable with men than with women. "He was not very fond of girls," observed Sarah Lincoln about her late stepson. From an early age, Lincoln was an inexhaustible teller of ribald stories -- but never in mixed company. Indeed, his wit and eloquence often turned into awkward stammering in the company of available women. Tripp finds all this rather telling, but others will not; discomfort in feminine company is an affliction suffered by men of all sexual persuasions.

That brings us to Mary Todd Lincoln. Whether Lincoln's troubled marriage was evidence of his homosexuality is highly debatable; whether his marriage was troubled is not. Tripp's account of this less than perfect union is a portrait of unrelieved misery. Tripp might have leavened his criticism of Mary with some sympathy for her own suffering, but one cannot deny that Lincoln was deprived of emotional and intellectual sustenance at home. His domestic life may have been hellish, but this is hardly a fate restricted to homosexuals.

To make matters worse, Tripp is extremely selective in his use of evidence. He relies heavily upon the research of William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and biographer, who conducted countless interviews with friends and associates of Lincoln and tried to present the human side of the martyred saint. When Herndon is useful to Tripp, the latter cites him approvingly. But Tripp pays no heed to Herndon when Lincoln's old friend fails to buttress Tripp's case. After all, how could Herndon have failed to observe Lincoln's homosexuality, either through his research or personally? (He was one of the men who shared that room in Springfield with Speed and Lincoln.) Tripp explains this away by concluding that Herndon was afflicted with "heterosexual bias" stemming from his idyllic marriage. But Herndon was not silent on the subject of Lincoln's sexuality; many of Herndon's interview subjects told of Lincoln's "strong passions" for women, and one reported that only Lincoln's "Conscience Kept him from seduction." This contradictory evidence appears in Burlingame's dissent; Tripp ignores it entirely.

Still, those doubts have been planted. Much of Tripp's "evidence" can be dismissed when put in proper historical context, but not all of it. The author has failed to prove his case, but he has compiled enough suggestive material to ensure that Lincoln's sexuality will remain a matter of debate.

And therein lies the irony. Those who seek to understand Lincoln through an exploration of his physical life are doomed to disappointment. More than most major historical figures, Lincoln lived a life of the mind. He was no Jefferson, forever building pillared mansions, collecting fine wines and savoring French delicacies. Not for him flirtations with Parisian ladies or dalliances with slaves. Lincoln was neither an aesthete nor a gourmand; uninterested in art, he ate sparingly and barely tasted his food. The squalor of his early beginnings left him indifferent to his surroundings. His ascetic nature is part of his enduring mystery, and no resolution of that mystery will be found within this book's pages. Dwelling on matters of the flesh will bring us no closer to Lincoln's soul. •

Michael F. Bishop is executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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