Tuesday, October 26, 2010
SAN DIEGO Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American president. I believe this, not just because he led the fight to abolish human slavery and to preserve the union of American states. Lincoln was also our greatest historical figure in a mythic sense. He was Christ-like in the way he was sacrificed for our sins – including the original American sin of racism.
Therefore I was interested this week as I was trolling the blogosphere (OK, the high-end blogosphere of the Atlantic monthly) and came upon a video by Andrew Sullivan.
The Atlantic blogger repeated the common belief that Abraham Lincoln was gay. It reminded me that I once asked one of this country’s most celebrated historians whether Abraham Lincoln was gay.
In 2005, I interviewed Doris Kearns Goodwin about her new book called "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." I’ve transcribed her response to my question below. If you want to listen to the entire These Days interview, play this audio file.
Interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin
Basically, Kearns Goodwin says we can never be sure if Lincoln was gay. But she says the notion that he was homosexual is based on a misunderstanding of 19th century life and manners. Do also give Sullivan’s blog video a look. He says some interesting things about the responsibility blogs have to discuss taboo subjects.
One note about the transcript: Kearns Goodwin refers to four men who were political rivals of Lincoln who ended up serving in his cabinet… William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates and Edwin Stanton.
I gotta ask you this next question. There are rumors that Abraham Lincoln was gay.
I don’t think so. The argument that he might have been gay rests on two things. One, that he slept in the same bed as his great friend Joshua Speed for three years. And second that he wrote affectionate letters to Speed, ending with “Yours forever,” or “Hope we are friends forever.” Well, as you look back in that era I can see all my guys, Seward, Stanton, Chase and Bates, they all slept in the same beds with people. It was a sense of privacy unlike what we have today.
Slept in the same beds with other men, you mean?
Yes, exactly. When they were in these boarding houses or in these taverns on the legal circuit, sometimes there’d be three lawyers to a bed because everything was so overcrowded. And they were accustomed to it in academies, in colleges. And then I was able to find letters from my other people, to other men, that were far more affectionate than Lincoln’s letters to Speed. For example when Seward was in the state senate in Albany, New York, an older state senator wrote to him. He said that ever since they had met, somehow, he had positively womanish feelings about him and couldn’t bear being away from him. And Seward wrote back saying he had a “rapturous joy” that his feelings were reciprocated. But then the following year this other state senator developed a crush on Seward’s wife, and he tried to seduce her and that finally ended the friendship.
And then when Chase and Stanton – Chase becoming Lincoln’s secretary of treasury and Stanton becoming his secretary of war – when they were young men they had both lost their wives and they had become very close friends. And at one point I found a letter where Stanton writes to Chase, “Ever since our pleasant intercourse last summer there is no one in my mind more, waking or sleeping. I dream of being with you. I want to hold your hand by the fire and tell you I love you.” And no one ever suggested those men were gay!
But “intercourse” in that sense just met conversation.
Yes. I remember when we were kids whenever “intercourse” were mentioned we’d be laughing in the school. No… it simply met “our meeting last summer.”
So this is the way men spoke to each other back in the 19th century.
That’s exactly right. And historians who have looked at male friendships, and women historians who have looked at women’s friendships at that time, argue that because women and men couldn’t have friendships the way we have today – women had to be chaperoned and you couldn’t be in a room with an unmarried man by yourself or even a married man who wasn’t your husband – men-men or women-women developed these intense friendships. And it was just much commoner back then to speak in this openly romantic, intense way. But I think it’s our preoccupation with sex now that is projected back onto that era, and it makes it seem like they were all “sleeping with” one another. And I don’t think they were.