“Why do you need him to be gay?”
This is how a friend (urban, liberal, male) responded when I told him I was working on a historical novel about Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed. The implication of his question was clear. If I was going to go there, if I was going to plant my rainbow flag on the Great Emancipator’s grave, I would have to account for my private agenda.
Now that I type it out, that phrase sounds an awful lot like “gay agenda” and peels away to reveal the same fear at its base—that our received notions about historical figures might crumble under too close an inspection. And yet, in many cases, the evidence is often hiding in plain sight. Queen Anne, as the recent movie The Favourite underscored, wrote passionate letters to the Duchess of Marlborough. Michelangelo composed love poems for his male models. King James addressed his beloved Duke of Buckingham as “my sweet child and wife,” and Shakespeare publicly directed his first 126 sonnets to a “Fair Youth,” theorized by some scholars to be Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton.
Lincoln may look like he played things closer to the vest, but even his contemporaries, pondering his youthful aversion to girls, his lack of female conquests, and his relatively late marriage, struggled to come up with face-saving explanations. Judge David Davis, a friend of Lincoln’s from his circuit-riding days, insisted it was only the great man’s conscience that “kept him from seduction” and “saved many—many a woman.” William Herndon, Lincoln’s biographer and law partner, spread rumors (almost certainly unfounded) that Lincoln had caught syphilis from a girl in Beardstown, and went so far as to resurrect a long-dead New Salem maiden named Ann Rutledge, who emerged under Herndon’s burnishing as the love of Abe’s life.
This was news to many of Lincoln’s friends and family—to Mary Todd Lincoln, most of all—but the Rutledge story persisted. So, too, did Joshua Speed, the handsome storekeeper who shared a small bed with Lincoln for three and a half years; who once declared that “no two men were ever more intimate”; who confessed that, if he himself hadn’t gotten married, Lincoln wouldn’t have; who promised Lincoln that he would write back the morning after his wedding night to report how it had gone; and who, for reasons unclear, never had children. Even conservative biographers had to acknowledge Speed’s primacy in Lincoln’s heart, and Carl Sandburg, tiptoeing as far out on the limb as a hagiographer could in the twenties, suggested that the Lincoln-Speed relationship had “a streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets.”
It took the late C.A. Tripp, a Kinsey Institute sex researcher, to front the question in 2005 with The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. The book was roundly savaged at the time and would probably have been more coherent had he lived to revise it, but its collection of raw evidence was, if not dispositive, deeply revealing. Here in one place was the full gamut of Lincoln’s bedmates, from Billy Greene in New Salem (he and Lincoln, according to one neighbor, “had an awful hankerin’, one for t’other”) to, late in life, David Derickson, the bodyguard who supposedly shared Lincoln’s bed while the first lady was away. Here, too, was the humorous doggerel that a twenty-year-old Lincoln wrote about two boys who, having tried “the girlies,” decide to wed each other. It is, as far as we know, the first suggestion of same-sex marriage in U.S. history, and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that, having made it into the first edition of Herndon’s biography, it was dropped from subsequent editions.
“Dropped” is a good way of describing how the historical establishment initially dealt with Tripp’s contentions. We were told in stern tones that lots of bachelors shared beds in those days (though rarely for so long) and that Lincoln couldn’t have been gay because he fathered children (so did Oscar Wilde). It’s inevitable, I guess, that a unitary establishment should struggle with the binary, and in the case of the white, male, heterosexual historians who have predominantly shaped our narratives, the notion that a man can be both a father of children and a lover of men has been as hard to accept as the idea that Thomas Jefferson could be an apostle of liberty and an impregnator of slaves.
Maybe the strangest counterargument made to Tripp’s claims was that it was pointless even to raise the subject because, in the end, Lincoln’s sex life doesn’t matter. And if that were true—Lordy, if that were true—then my book could have been written 150 years ago, and we could avoid all discussion of Lincoln’s heterosexual life, right up to and including his wife and children.
In recent years, a younger cohort of historians have begun actively grappling with the question of Lincoln’s sexuality. That development is welcome, but as a novelist, I found myself caring less about individual sex acts than the deeper mystery of where Lincoln’s heart lay. The nominal claimant would, of course, be Mary Todd, who, when she first met Lincoln, was an attractive, vivacious, and intelligent young woman, unusually well-educated for her time, with an abiding love for politics and enough prescience to guess that Lincoln, an uneducated, debt-ridden lawyer on nobody’s short list to become president, would one day reward her efforts.
Yet, if Lincoln was enamored of Mary, it didn’t stop him from terminating their engagement or from being, over the course of their marriage, a distant husband—often literally distant, traveling the Eighth Judicial Circuit for ten weeks at a time, communing with fellow lawyers in cramped inns.
As with Queen Anne and King James, the best place to find Lincoln’s bared heart is in letters—the letters, specifically, that he wrote to Joshua Speed in 1842. Read them yourself and you will find two men who are frankly terrified by the prospect of marriage—in particular, the wedding night—and who are coaching and coaxing each other into normative heterosexual lifestyles. You will also find a tenderness rare in Lincoln’s correspondence: “I do not feel my own sorrows more keenly than I do yours … You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting—that I will never cease, while I know how to do anything.”
And how does he close his letters? With “Yours forever,” a salutation he bestowed on no other mortal, least of all his wife.
The book I ended up writing, Courting Mr. Lincoln, takes no definitive stand on its subject’s sexuality, but neither does it shy away from the question. It lives in the land of the spoken and unspoken, which is the realm where Lincoln himself almost certainly dwelt. When all is said and done, do I need Abraham Lincoln to be gay? No. I just need him to be something more complicated than he’s been allowed to be. I would argue we all need that.
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer who lives in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is Courting Mr. Lincoln.