LGBTQ Heroes: Abraham Lincoln

The gay man who became president of the United States.

LGBTQ Heroes: Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was an American statesman and lawyer who served as the 16th president of the United States from 1861 until his assassination in 1865.

Lincoln led the US through the American Civil War – the country’s greatest moral, constitutional, and political crisis. He succeeded in preserving the Union, abolishing slavery, bolstering the federal government, and modernising the economy.

Although Lincoln was married and had children, there is a fair bit of speculation about his sexuality.

In his 1926 biography of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg alluded to the early relationship of Lincoln and his friend Joshua Speed as having “a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets”. “Streak of lavender” was period typical slang for an effeminate man, and connoted homosexuality. In the biography, Sandburg didn’t elaborate any further on this allusion to Lincoln’s sexuality.

In his writing, playwright Larry Kramer explored Lincoln’s connection with Joshua Speed, concluding that it was a sexual relationship.

In 2005, C. A. Tripp’s book, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, was posthumously published. Tripp was a sex researcher, a protégé of Alfred Kinsey.

In 2009, Charles Morris critically analysed the academic and popular responses to Tripp’s book, arguing that much of the negative response by the “Lincoln Establishment” reveals as much rhetorical and political partisanship as that of Tripp’s defenders. In an earlier 2007 essay, Morris argues that in the wake of Larry Kramer’s “outing” of Lincoln, the Lincoln Establishment engaged in “mnemonicide”, or the assassination of a threatening counter-memory.

Lincoln wrote a poem that described a marriage-like relation between two men, which included the lines:

For Reuben and Charles have married two girls,
But Billy has married a boy.
The girls he had tried on every side,
But none he could get to agree;
All was in vain, he went home again,
And since that he’s married to Natty.

This poem was included in the first edition of the 1889 biography of Lincoln by his friend and colleague William Herndon. It was expurgated from subsequent editions until 1942, when the editor Paul Angle restored it.

Tripp states that Lincoln’s awareness of homosexuality and openness in penning this “bawdy poem” “was unique for the time period.”

Who was Joshua Speed?

Lincoln met Joshua Speed in Springfield, Illinois, in 1837. At that time, Lincoln was a successful attorney and member of Illinois’ House of Representatives.

They lived together for four years, during which time they occupied the same bed during the night and developed a friendship that would last until their deaths.

According to some sources, William Herndon and a fourth man also slept in the same room as Lincoln and Speed.

Historians such as David Herbert Donald point out that it was not unusual at that time for two men to share a bed due to myriad circumstances, without anything sexual being implied, for a night or two when nothing else was available.

A tabulation of historical sources shows that Lincoln slept in the same bed with at least 11 boys and men during his youth and adulthood.

That was no secret. There are no known instances in which Lincoln tried to suppress knowledge or discussion of such arrangements, and in some conversations, raised the subject himself.

Tripp discusses three men at length and possible sustained relationships: Joshua Speed, William Greene, and Charles Derickson.

Who was Charles Derickson?

Captain Derickson of the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry was Lincoln’s bodyguard and companion between September 1862 and April 1863.

They shared a bed during the absences of Lincoln’s wife, until Derickson was promoted in 1863.

Tripp recounts that, whatever the level of intimacy of the relationship, it was the subject of gossip. Elizabeth Woodbury Fox, the wife of Lincoln’s naval aide, wrote in her diary for November 16, 1862, “Tish says, ‘Oh, there is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the president, drives with him, and when Mrs. L. is not home, sleeps with him.’ What stuff!”

This sleeping arrangement was also mentioned by a fellow officer in Derickson’s regiment, Thomas Chamberlin, in the book History of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Second Regiment, Bucktail Brigade.

Is there conclusive evidence about Lincoln’s sexuality?

There doesn’t appear to be any solid documentary evidence that confirms that Lincoln had sexual relationships with men, but there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence suggests that it was likely.

It’s difficult to look at historical figures and situations without imposing a modern sensibility. Obviously, it was a different time then, and things were done differently.

At the very least, if you’re a successful lawyer and a politician, it seems unlikely that you would share your bed with the same man for four years unless you enjoyed it.