The Magazine

Honest, Abe?

From the January 17, 2005 issue: A dishonest book claims Lincoln as the first log cabin Republican.

Jan 17, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 17 • By PHILIP NOBILE
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The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln

by C.A. Tripp

Free Press, 384 pp., $27

THE NOTION that Abraham Lincoln had homosexual experiences is hardly new. All the way back in 1924, Carl Sandburg's bestselling biography winked at Lincoln's "streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets." And more explicit versions of the idea have appeared in the years since--as signaled by "Log Cabin Republicans," the name chosen by gay members of the GOP for their advocacy group.

But the attempt to use this "Gay Lincoln Theory," making the sixteenth president an icon for modern homosexuals, is now poised to make its biggest push--led by the late C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, a book published this month by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.

The topic of Lincoln's sexuality keeps reappearing because the available evidence is so tantalizing: a jokey poem he wrote in his youth about a boy marrying a boy, a four-year sleeping arrangement with adored friend Joshua Speed, a marriage sometimes said to be reluctant and less than amorous, a lifelong preference for male company, a documented claim that he shared a bed in the summer White House with his soldier-bodyguard in 1862, and a number of other suggestive items.

C.A. Tripp, who died in 2003, was a well-known sex researcher, a protégé of Alfred Kinsey and the author of a 1975 volume, The Homosexual Matrix. After a decade of pondering Lincoln's relations with men, he pronounces in his posthumously published new book on Lincoln's masturbation habits, seduction style, sex positions, and orgasms. Confidently naming five male lovers of the president, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln declares the conclusion absolute and obvious that this married father of four was "predominately homosexual."

The argument is "irrefutable," Gore Vidal blurbs on the book's cover. And, in fact, Tripp's work is as good as the case gets for Lincoln's walk on the Wilde side.

Unfortunately, that is merely a way of saying the Gay Lincoln Theory fails any historical test. "Useful history" is always a dubious kind of scholarship. But in its attempt to be useful for gays today, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln reaches far beyond the merely dubious. The book is a hoax and a fraud: a historical hoax, because the inaccurate parts are all shaded toward a predetermined conclusion, and a literary fraud, because significant portions of the accurate parts are plagiarized--from me, as it happens.

Tripp and I intended to be coauthors of the book, laboring together on the project from 1995 to 2000--when our partnership, already fissured by dueling manuscripts, came to a bitter end. We quarreled constantly over evidence: I said the Gay Lincoln Theory was intriguing but impossible to prove; he said it was stone-cold fact.

More advocate than historian, Tripp massaged favorable indicators (Lincoln's early puberty), buried negative ones (Lincoln's flirtations with women), and papered over holes in his story with inventions (Lincoln's law partner and biographer William Herndon never noticed the homosexuality because he was an extreme heterosexual and thus afflicted with "heterosexual bias").

I quit the project first in 1999, when Tripp refused to include citations to Charles Shively, a former University of Massachusetts historian and Tripp's main guide to the gay Lincoln. "Darwin didn't do it," he said to me, referring to Darwin's initial failure to cite precursors in The Origin of Species. Although Tripp profusely copied ideas and references from Shively's flamboyantly rendered Lincoln chapter in Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers, he brushed off proper mention because he thought Shively's reputation for being "too gay-lib" would dissuade readers.

After Tripp relented, I rejoined the book on one condition: We would write separate chapters, and a Lincoln expert would decide which one went in the book. In January 2000, when the time came to send out our competing versions of chapter one--about Lincoln's prized bodyguard--Tripp refused to let Dr. Tom Schwartz, secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association and his choice for referee, do the expected peer review. Realizing that Tripp would never give up his homosexual bias or observe the customary standards of historiography, I resisted his offer to sign a new agreement. Sadly, we never spoke again.