The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln
by C.A. Tripp, The Free Press, 343 pages, $27
Was Abraham Lincoln a homosexual? From the breathless tones and banner headlines adopted by the national media in their coverage of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, one would expect to find that its author had unearthed a new and startling piece of incontrovertible evidence—an incriminating daguerreotype, a sexually explicit telegram, perhaps even a tell-tale stain on the Great Emancipator’s long frock coat. Instead readers will discover quickly that its thesis is supported by nothing more than a hodgepodge assembly of misinterpretations, innocuous anecdotes, dubious conclusions and outright fictions. Rather than a properly conducted historical inquiry, what emerges is an exercise in advocacy so ludicrous that one might conclude it was intended as a brilliant satire of psychology and modern academia.
Sadly, C.A. Tripp is in deadly earnest when he insists that the 16th president maintained “a plentiful homosexual response and action” throughout his adult life. The topic is familiar ground to the clinical psychologist and one-time research assistant to Alfred Kinsey. Tripp has devoted much of his career to arguing the case for homosexuality as a normal and pervasive tendency. In a manuscript completed just before his death in 2003, he applied his particular understanding of male sexuality to the vast body of data available on Lincoln. The result will provoke a sense of déjà vu in those familiar with the failings of logic, statistics and methodology in Kinsey’s own work.
The operations of psychoanalysis presuppose direct contact between examiner and patient. When the subject is viewed instead only through extant writings— their own and those of third parties—the results are problematic at best. It is a flaw intrinsic to all psychological biographies. Tripp compounds this defect with his own glaring biases, evidenced in the book’s overarching research query: How gay was Lincoln? His answer to this blatantly loaded question? On a scale from 0 to 6, Honest Abe rates a 5.
Viewing Lincoln’s every act through the prism of homosexuality, Tripp’s attempt at scholarly examination becomes little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. His work suffers not only from presentism (the application of modern-day sensibilities to actions of a previous era, such as ascribing sexual meaning to the 19th-century practice of bed-sharing by two males) but also myopia. Facts that undermine a homosexual portrait of Lincoln (Robert, Willie and Tad, to name but three) are casually dismissed, heterosexual readings of events are never entertained, and evidentiary standards of the flimsiest sort prevail. (The source for Lincoln inviting an officer to share his White House bed? The diary of a D.C. matron, who heard it from a friend, who heard it from a friend. Hardly a smoking gun.)
Were there homosexuals in the Civil War? Absolutely, though the term itself would have had little meaning at the time. Can anyone demonstrate conclusively that Lincoln was not one of them? No—no more than anyone today (absent a lifetime of continual video surveillance) could certify that about himself. History, however, is not an exercise in proving negatives.
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.