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Inside Politics

All the president's men

By Michele Orecklin

It's not something you see in John Ford movies, but in the 1800s it was common for men -- frontier-taming, campfire-building, heterosexual men--to share a bed.

Mattresses were an indulgence, central heating nonexistent and, for travelers, private lodging scarce. Double bunking was so common that it rarely aroused questions of one's sexual orientation.

But a book due out this week asserts that Abraham Lincoln engaged in the practice rather too often and too enthusiastically to avoid the conclusion that he was homosexual.

In "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln" (Free Press; 295 pages) sex researcher C.A. Tripp argues that the four years Lincoln slept in the same bed with his friend Joshua Speed when the two lived in Springfield, Illinois, as bachelors far surpassed what was common or necessary.

Tripp also cites accounts from Washington wags of that period who noted that the 16th President regularly shared a bed with David Derickson, one of his guards, whenever his wife Mary Todd was out of town. Tripp throws in a handful of other bunkmates, Lincoln's bawdy sense of humor and his stormy relationship with his wife to argue that the Lincoln bedroom was the site of behavior surprising from the founder of a party that wants to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. (Have the Log Cabin Republicans known this all along?)

But in assembling his data, Tripp is more persuasive in highlighting the rigidity of modern attitudes toward male friendships than in proving anything about Lincoln's sexuality. Suggestions that Lincoln was gay have existed for years. In his 1926 biography, the poet Carl Sandburg wrote that the President and Speed possessed "a streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets"--a lyrical though curious phrase that seems to suggest something unmasculine.

Lincoln was by most accounts difficult to know; he struggled with depression and appeared more comfortable around men than women. But Tripp, who worked with Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s and died in 2003 two weeks after turning in his manuscript, sniffs out sexuality in the most innocuous exchanges, such as an 1841 letter from Lincoln to Speed after the latter moved to Kentucky.

"It begins without a single personal item," Tripp recounts, "but drones on in a 1,575-word account of a local murder trial. Hard to find anything less personal than that, yet 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."

Absent anything more incriminating, however, such as accounts by someone who saw the two having sex or expressions of carnal desire from Lincoln or Speed, it's hard to view the letter as anything other than a description of a murder trial.

In another instance, Tripp uncovers an excerpt from the diary of Virginia Woodbury Fox, a Washington socialite during Lincoln's day. Writing of rumors that Lincoln and Derickson slumbered together in the White House, Fox exclaims, "What Stuff!" To Tripp, the comment denotes shock at Lincoln's behavior, but it could just as easily be construed as disgust at hearsay.

Most of Tripp's evidence is of a similar standard. He does demonstrate the fierce attachment between Lincoln and Speed, quoting letters in which Lincoln wrote of his distress over their physical separation, habitually signed with "Yours forever."

But Anthony Rotundo, author of "American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era," says that such intimate communication was not unusual for men at that time. Rotundo says it was socially acceptable for men before marriage to enjoy "romantic friendships" that involved sex only about as often as do male friendships today.

"These were not relationships people had to hide," says Rotundo. He also points out that 150 years ago, the notion that someone would identify him- or herself as homosexual had not yet developed, making it difficult to retroactively shoehorn a 19th century man into a 21st century definition.

"There was a spectrum of relationships," explains Rotundo. "You didn't have to say, 'I'm on this side or that,' as you do today."

And what if Lincoln was gay? Does it illuminate anything about his decisions as President?

Tripp admits that even if Lincoln did hide his sexuality, we cannot assume it made him sympathetic to outsiders, thus that it was a factor in his decision to free the slaves. But he argues that Lincoln is "too central a figure in history to keep obscuring basic facts of his life."

Unfortunately, Tripp's attempt to show Lincoln was gay does little to set the record straight.

With reporting by Andrea Sachs in New York.

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