Was Lincoln gay? Historic common sense

With the new Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln,” the debate about the late president’s sexuality is once again on the front burner. Let’s be clear: The detractors’ points are simply illogical. Any serious Lincoln scholar or historian agrees that Joshua Speed was Lincoln’s most intimate friend. That word, “intimate,” is continually used, from the very first researched biography. That book was written by Lincoln’s only other close friend, his law partner William Herndon, and published in 1889. It’s been sanitized in many new additions, but many subsequent biographies stem from that work and the letters of Lincoln and his contemporaries.

What it comes down to is the question, Was one of America’s most revered presidents a gay man? The idea of this enrages those who are not comfortable with the LGBT community. They claim that we want to have Lincoln in our fold to claim some form of gay patriotism. The point is, we already have such a figure; his name was Baron Friedrich von Steuben, and without him there would be no United States of America for Lincoln to save. (My previous research on von Steuben can be found at www.epgn.com.)

David Herbert Donald, the most esteemed of modern Lincoln biographers, opposed the theory of Lincoln’s possible homosexuality with the following points:

1. No one saw Lincoln and Speed being intimate, even though others spent the night in their home in other bedrooms But when, even today, when you stay at a friend’s house, do you ever see others being intimate? And this was the 1800s.

2. Poor men often slept with other men in those days to keep warm or to split a bed when others were not available. But, in Donald’s own words, there were other beds in the house; Herndon himself slept there on occasion. They were not poor and they were not young. Yet for four years they slept together.

3. They slept with each other to keep warm on cold nights. If they could afford a house, they could afford the blankets that were sold in Speed’s own dry-goods store downstairs. And they slept together on warm summer nights too.

A cautionary note to LGBT activists: We do not need to fake or fictionalize this issue to muddy the waters. The facts speak well for themselves. Grandstanding or coming up with suspicious material only derails historic research. As for Tony Kushner’s screenplay for the Lincoln film, it is a disappointment, and the public reasons he gives for ignoring the issue ring hollow.

Lincoln’s psychological background might very well be a part of his push for the 13th amendment. All historians look for Lincoln’s motivation. There’s even a recent best-seller devoted to it: “Lincoln’s Melancholy.” Kushner should’ve read Lincoln’s discussions with Frederick Douglass. Slaves were imprisoned, and so was Lincoln. As to not sleeping with men at that point in his life, Kushner fails to present the historic knowledge that Capt. David Derickson and Speed himself spent a night with the president at his cottage, about 3 miles from the White House.

In 1800s language, the letters between Lincoln and Speed are curious for their bluntness. There is no need to debate the content; each letter Lincoln sent Speed is signed “Affection” or “Always yours,” uncommon among men in the 1800s, especially married men. And the clincher: The only other person with whom Lincoln uses that language is Mary, his wife. Not even Herndon.

And the smoking-gun proof, which is what those in doubt keep asking for. Maybe someday a letter or diary might appear (after all, we are still finding new evidence of Cleopatra’s life some 2,000 years later). But, in Lincoln’s case, we are not using the same historic yardstick. Historical fact comes from material of that day, from the people of that time period. All the information on Lincoln’s intimate friendship comes from his own hand and from those who knew them. For there to be so much material on the two means their closeness was common knowledge at the time. This is where some historians fail or show their bias. We have more proof of a relationship between Lincoln and Speed than we do of the relationship between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion. If we look at the nervous breakdown Lincoln suffered after Speed left him to marry, you’d see a similarity between the emperor Hadrian and the death of his Antinous.

Let’s not use words like gay, homosexuality or even bisexuality for Lincoln. All we can say with clarity is that for four years he slept with a man when he did not have to. They worked together, Lincoln in Speed’s store, and Speed is often cited in Lincoln’s law cases and helped him in the Wig party. They shared each other’s lives in their fullest.

Facts and common sense … versus a blind bias.

View Segal’s previous Lincoln work at www.epgn.com/view/full_story/16191975/article-Lincoln–A-life-in-the-closet.

Mark Segal, PGN publisher, is the nation’s most-award-winning commentator in LGBT media. He can be reached at [email protected].