This book is a work of desire, the desire of the late Kinsey Institute author C. A. Tripp to prove that the sixteenth president was primarily homosexual, or a “2” on a scale of 1 (exclusively homosexual) to 6 (exclusively heterosexual). Less a biography than a psychosexual analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s correspondence with his putative paramours, Tripp seeks to demonstrate that Lincoln, in effect, led a secret homosexual life in a period before homosexuality was a recognized sexual orientation.
After a brief review of Lincoln’s adolescence and speculation about his adolescent masturbatory experiences and sexual outlets, Tripp turns his analysis to the president’s relationships with Ann Rutledge, Mary Owens, and Mary Todd, all three of whom apparently provided cover for his true love interests, David Derickson, Elmer Ellsworth, and especially Joshua Speed. To support this contention, Tripp cites Lincoln’s off-color humor; his alleged homoerotic poem, the “First Chronicles of Ruben”; his emotional distance from the women in his life; and the alleged sexual unions with both Derickson and Speed, as well as the president’s amorous, if unrequited, pursuit of Ellsworth. Tripp relies on the Lincoln-Speed correspondence to bolster his case, and indeed, by his reading of this interesting collection, there is no doubt as to Lincoln’s preference, deserving 2 rather than a 1 only because Lincoln married Mary Todd.
Over and above Tripp’s controversial thesis, the book makes for an interesting read, particularly so with respect to Lincoln’s private life and Tripp’s reflections about the president’s personality. What one imagines is a real person with wants and needs, some fulfilled and some not. In short, Lincoln is portrayed as someone with an ego and a personality who in spite of his self-declared faults and tribulations as commander-in-chief managed to eke out moments of intense personal happiness. One senses that Lincoln’s life was not all bad as Tripp introduces us to a man who projected much warmth that was in turn reciprocated by his friends and colleagues. This essay, however, is not the typical stuff of academic biographies, and herein lies the rub: it is in fact not a work of history, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, what we have is a highly speculative “psycho” essay about Lincoln’s sexual intentions and his sexual orientation.
Proof of intentionality is difficult at best, made all the more so if intentionality is hidden behind a mask of obfuscation. Unfortunately, such is the case in this instance, a fact that Tripp readily acknowledges. Methodologically, therefore, the book has nothing to do with history; instead it relies upon the reader’s ability to accept Tripp’s leaps of faith, rank assertions, and self-declared insights as a sex researcher. One example may suffice. When describing Lincoln’s youth, Tripp quotes Alfred Kinsey on the frequency of homosexuality in rural communities (p. 30). Tripp then proceeds to assert that based upon the observation of a Lincoln family friend, at ten years old Lincoln was “a long, tall, dangling, awkward, droll-looking boy” and had his “first ejaculatory capacity predating even that” (p. 31). Lincoln was by this proposition not only more sexed up but—and according to Kinsey’s logic—more available for homosexual sexual activity as a child in the backwaters of the American landscape. While this may have been the case, the speculations of a self-proclaimed expert on the sexual behavior of males are not history but rather the assertions of a gay man who very much wanted Lincoln to be a homosexual, regardless of the sloppy historical methodology employed in support of the author’s thesis. No proof is offered in this as in other instances; one only need be an affiliate of the Kinsey Institute to know that the peculiarities of homosexual behavior, especially closeted behavior, may be transferred to dead presidents.
This book was published shortly after Tripp’s death, and the publishers inserted a very useful introduction by Jean Baker that places the work within the context of the ongoing debate over Lincoln’s sexuality. Baker’s essay is followed by Michael Burlingame’s “respectful dissent” and Alice Flennessey’s “Psychologists Perspective” assenting to the possibility of Lincoln’s bisexuality. These essays are helpful to the nonacademic and nonspecialist alike, particularly those who may simply reject Tripp’s analysis outright. The final section of the book contains two appendixes, one the entire text of the “First Chronicles of Ruben” and the second the Lincoln-Speed correspondence. I found both of these to be invaluable aids, as they allow the reader to judge personally the merits of Tripp’s thesis.
By: C. A. Tripp