Commentary on Abraham Lincoln's sexuality has existed for some time but re-entered the public light in 2005 with the posthumous publication of C.A. Tripp's book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.
In his biography of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg in 1926 made an allusion to the early relationship of Lincoln and his friend Joshua Fry Speed as having "a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets." "Streak of lavender" was slang in the 1930s for a "sissy" or an effeminate man; later "lavender" connoted homosexuality. Sandburg did not state that either was homosexual or that the relationship was sexual in nature.
C. A. Tripp, who died in 2003, was a sex researcher and protégé of Alfred Kinsey. He began writing The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln with Philip Nobile until a falling out between them. The New York Times quoted Mr. Nobile saying "Tripp's book is a fraud". Nobile wrote a critical review of Tripp's book in the Weekly Standard, in which he accused the Tripp book of plagiarizing his own work, of relying heavily on Charles Shiveley without proper attribution, and of distortion. Tripp's book includes an afterword by historian and Lincoln biographer Michael Burlingame titled "A Respectful Dissent", in which he states:
Since it is virtually impossible to prove a negative, Dr. Tripp's thesis cannot be rejected outright. But given the paucity of hard information adduced by him, and given the abundance of contrary evidence indicating that Lincoln was drawn romantically and sexually to some women, a reasonable conclusion, it seems to me, would be that it is possible but highly unlikely that Abraham Lincoln was "predominantly homosexual
In a second afterword to the book titled “An Enthusiastic Endorsement”, historian Michael B. Chesson makes the argument for the historical significance of the work:
Tripp, for all his research, sophistication, and insight, has not proved his case conclusively. … But any open-minded reader who has reached this point may well have a reasonable doubt about the nature of Lincoln’s sexuality. The “Tall Sucker” was a very strange man, one of the strangest in American history, and certainly the oddest to reach a position of national prominence, let alone the presidency. If Lincoln was a homosexual, or primarily so inclined, then suddenly our image of this mysterious man gains some clarity. Not everything falls into place. But many things do, including some important, even essential, elements of who Lincoln was, why he acted in the way he did, and a possible reason for his sadness, loneliness, and secretive nature.
In 1999, author and gay activist Larry Kramer claimed that he had uncovered new primary sources which shed fresh light on Lincoln's sexuality. The sources included a hitherto unknown Joshua Speed diary and letters in which Speed writes explicitly about his relationship with Lincoln. These items were supposedly discovered hidden beneath the floorboards of the old store where the two men lived, and are now are said to reside in a private collection in Davenport, Iowa. Kramer has yet to publish any of this material for critical evaluation, and historian Gabor Boritt, referring to Kramer's documents, wrote, "Almost certainly this is a hoax ... . C. A. Tripp also has expressed skepticism over Kramer’s discovery, writing, “Seeing is believing, should that diary ever show up; the passages claimed for it have not the slightest Lincolnian ring.” Time magazine also addressed the book as part of a prominent cover article by Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. However Shenk dismissed Tripp's conclusions, stating that arguments on Lincoln's homosexuality were "based on a tortured misreading of conventional 19th century sleeping arrangements.
Critics of the hypothesis that Lincoln was homosexually inclined note that Lincoln married and had four children. Scholars such as Douglas Wilson claim that Lincoln as a young man displayed heterosexual behavior, including telling stories to his friends of his interactions with women, however, these were expected behaviors at the time for men, regardless of their sexuality.
I will tell you a Joke about Jewel and MaryTripp notes that Lincoln's awareness of homosexuality and openness in penning this "bawdy poem" was unique for the time period. Donald, however, notes that Lincoln would have needed to look no further than the Bible to realize "that men did sometimes have sex with each other", and historian William Lee Miller, among others, has acknowledged that Lincoln was reading the Bible well before his twentieth birthday.
It is neither a Joke nor a Story
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
But Betsy she said you Cursed bald head
My Suitor you never Can be
Beside your low crotch proclaims you a botch
And that never Can serve for me
Lincoln's stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, commented that he "never took much interest in the girls". However some accounts of Lincoln's contemporaries suggest a strong but controlled passion for women. Lincoln was devastated over the 1835 death of Ann Rutledge. While some historians have questioned whether there was in fact a romantic relationship between her and Lincoln, historian John Y. Simon reviewed the historiography of the subject and concluded, "Available evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Lincoln so loved Ann that her death plunged him into severe depression. More than a century and a half after her death, when significant new evidence cannot be expected, she should take her proper place in Lincoln biography. An anonymous poem about suicide published locally exactly three years after her death is widely attributed to Lincoln. His courting of Mary Owens was diffident. After she had rejected his 1837 handwritten, dutiful marriage proposal, Lincoln wrote to a friend in 1838: "I knew she was oversize, but now she appeared a fair match for Falstaff.
At the start of the twenty-first century it may even be difficult to imagine a man, especially a bachelor, offering another a place in his bed without some conscious fear or desire that the proposition will be understood as a come-on.
In the nineteenth century, Speed was probably not conscious of any such erotic possibility. His immediate, casual offer, and his later report of it, suggests that men's bed sharing was not then often explicitly understood as conducive to forbidden sexual experiments.
Katz does indicate that such sleeping arrangements "did provide an important site (probably the major site) of erotic opportunity." Katz notes that referring to present day concepts of "homo, hetero, and bi distort our present understanding of Lincoln and Speed's experiences and that rather than there being "an unchanging essence of homosexuality and heterosexuality" people throughout history "continually reconfigure their affectionate and erotic feelings and acts. He suggests that the Lincoln-Speed relationship fell within the 19th century category of "intense, even romantic man to man friendships" with erotic overtones that may have been "a world apart in that era's consciousness from the sensual universe of mutual masturbation and the legal universe of 'sodomy,' 'buggery,' and 'the crime against nature.'
Certainly, correspondence of the period, such as that between Thomas Jefferson Withers and James Hammond, provides clear evidence of a sexual dimension to some same-sex bed sharing. The fact that Lincoln was open about the fact that they had shared a bed is seen by some historians as an indication that their relationship was not romantic. None of Lincoln's enemies hinted at any homosexual implication.
Joshua Speed married Fanny Hennings February 15, 1842, and the two men seem to have consulted each other about married life. Despite having some political differences over slavery, they corresponded for the rest of their lives and Lincoln appointed Joshua's brother, James Speed, to his cabinet as Attorney General.
Jean H. Baker, historian and biographer of Mary Todd Lincoln, describes the relationship between Lincoln and his wife as “bound together by three strong bonds – sex, parenting and politics.” In addition to the anti-Mary Todd bias of many historians engendered by William Herndon’s (Lincoln's law partner and early biographer) personal hatred of Mrs. Lincoln, Baker discounts the criticism of the marriage as both a basic misunderstanding of the changing nature of marriage and courtship in the mid-19th Century and attempts to judge the Lincoln marriage by modern standards.
Baker notes that “most observers of the Lincoln marriage have been impressed with their sexuality.” Some “male historians” claim that the Lincolns’ sex life ended either in 1853 after their son Tad’s difficult birth or in 1856 when they moved into a bigger house have no actual evidence for their speculations. In fact, there are “almost no gynecological conditions resulting from childbirth” other than a prolapsed uterus (which would have produced other noticeable effects on Mrs. Lincoln) that would have prevented intercourse, and in the 1850s “many middle-class couples slept in separate bedrooms”.
Far from abstaining from sex, Baker suggests that in fact the Lincolns were part of a new development in America that saw the birth rate declining from seven births to a family in 1800 to around 4 per family by 1850. As Americans separated sexuality from child bearing, forms of birth control such as coitus interruptus, long-term breast feeding, and crude forms of condoms and womb veils, available through mail order, were available and used. The spacing of the Lincoln children (Robert in 1843, Eddie in 1846, Willie in 1850, and Tad in 1853) is consistent with some type of planning and would have required “an intimacy about sexual relations that for aspiring couples meant shared companionate power over reproduction.”
The subject of Lincoln's sexuality was referenced in an episode of the cartoon American Dad, in the episode "Lincoln Lover". In this episode Stan, the father of the Smith family, wrote a play intending to show the greatness of Lincoln's legacy, but accidentally produced gay overtones when addressing the subject of Lincoln and his 'special friend.'
Electric Six's song 'Gay Bar' was launched with a pop video showing Abraham Lincoln look-alikes in stovepipe hats (and sometimes little else). In an interview with RES, one of the band members stated that the video was partly inspired by rumors about Lincoln's sexuality.
Lincoln's sexuality was debated in a telephone conversation between a conservative talk-show host and Kevin Walker (portrayed by Matthew Rhys) in episode 2x02 of the ABC show Brothers & Sisters.
During the third episode of the MTV series Clone High, a teenage clone of Lincoln kisses a clone of Mahatma Gandhi on the lips; a recap narration at the beginning of the following episode later states that "...He's not gay or anything. Abe actually likes Cleo, a girl; that was just a hilarious plot twist."
In "Guess Who's Coming to State Dinner?" the ninth episode of the second season of The Venture Bros. When ghost Lincoln possesses Dean's body, he is confused by the sudden of rush of hormones and tries to make out with Hank. This is a possible reference to the sexuality of Abraham Lincoln.