With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Was Lincoln Gay?

What drives our great to greatness? We search, and find hope and humanity, unassuageably-remembered hunger, driving fear; but sometimes the mystery goes deeper to presiding emotions unmistakable in their power but strangely indeterminate in their form. In the present case Abe Lincoln passed from death into a demigod of national might and righteousness, and now makes him the canonic hero of liveliest sympathy and spiritual growth. And neither depiction--better still a union of the two--rings false. We examine the powerful and never inaccessible information that makes startlingly clear a great suffering; we see this in turn become the source of power which moves this parched great spirit into worldly greatness while maintaining his humanity; and are forced to conclude that he could never come to personally satisfying terms with the active homosexuality which he sacrificed to prudence and ambition on the threshold of his career. But where he faltered and brought grief to others beside himself in his private life he gloriously overcame in his public life. And this is news still without dignity, unwelcome to most sectors of our society.

Abraham Lincoln's, to me inescapable, homosexuality raises this just as Thomas Jefferson's vaunted connection to Sally Hemings comes up anew. Few now deny the central relevance of solving the problem: if that forty-one year old widower took to bed a teen-aged mulatto slave and fathered five children by her, if so emblematically reasonable and unafraid a man chose to make yet worse use of the powers of darkness which history forced upon him as he toiled for the enlightened future, then it darkly illuminates the nation's founding age. Those of us cheering Jefferson on cannot deny that the question is unblinkable, charged with enormity; and look forward to more definitive conclusions from biographers and historians of his age.

The 'outing' of Joe Alsop a few years ago--some half a dozen years after he died and a generation past his period of national influence--and the much discussed ongoing outing of individuals still in public life, raise the legitimate question of why a person's sexuality should be a matter of public enquiry, contemplation, gossip or concern before, during, or after the days of service and power. Two issues converge here; the recovery of mentalities, shaping essences, from the destructions of time: and the all-too-often trivializing, reductionist melodramatization of character, crassly broad-brushed imputation of motive associated with the crudest modes of journalism and political criticism. We have escaped from the assumptions that it is enough to know that Lee was a slaveholder or Trotsky a Jew to unlock their deepest beliefs and choices: but neither can we consign such central facts to the tactful oblivion of nervous good taste. So must it be with the towering presence of Lincoln: among the great of modernity, perhaps the man most unmistakably marked by undetermined personal sorrow.

Nor should such matters ordinarily draw our eyes--except where they might or did influence their possessors' larger world as it did in one known instance with Alsop. But if the question of a person's sexuality is to come into the public domain then surely it should be explored delicately and tentatively.

Is it necessary to out Abe? The phrase's vulgarity itself should answer. This isn't, in any real sense, an outing--but an entering, into the deeper recesses of a great man's character.

In the case of Lincoln we also have to establish the facts, which would appear to be somewhat less conjectural. For this case, any trained scholar who (like the present writer) is gay has a substantial advantage, the very same intuitive feel that mainstream analysts have for heterosexual politics.

This is a painful question for most honorable, tolerant Americans even to think of posing. Very well, pose it, nevertheless, because, despite the myriad books and articles written about Lincoln and the Civil War, not one has found room to enquire into the impact which a trait so pervasively powerful as sexuality in its most horror-attended socially suppressed form would work upon every dimension of a leader's statecraft. Lincoln's inner life, we have grounds to believe, as he confronted the explosive realities of American democracy, was an equally lethal minefield. None deny, say, that our quest to understand Dante would be crippled if we kept from ourselves that this man who craved peace was insatiably litigious, that the supreme poet of divine love frequented prostitutes. This is not belittlement: it is coming to terms with the awe-inspiring daemonic complexity of the human spirit.

Equally obvious is the reason for the agonized resistance offered to the insight--not to the intrinsic relevance of the sexuality of a master spirit, but to the anxieties that the issue evokes, once so much as posed among men of our culture dealing with homosexuality--especially perhaps homosexuality denied.

But how to make so audacious a claim upon perhaps our greatest president? Audacious, here, simply means 'not advanced for a century'; there is nothing to be surprised. Homosexuality has never been attributed to this man--even a recent splendid psychobiography by the historian Michael Burlingame, which violates every contemporary piety with a twenty-three page chapter on Lincoln's loathing of women, fails to explore the possibility. Indeed Burlingame, when asked, simply observed that the thought occurred to him from all his research that Lincoln was gay,"But there wasn't any proof." But there is.

Let us back up one. Exactly what proof do we possess of Lincoln's heterosexuality ? That he fathered children and had a wife?--now there's a fallacy demonstrated from the records of every divorce court, yet hardily, and most significantly, surviving in contemporary historiography if perhaps nowhere else. Most closeted public figures from Alexander the Great to--but current instances would be unkind--have, or have had, wives and children. We would like to propose a five-fold test for the establishment of homosexual nature, declared or undeclared, and argue that anyone fulfilling at least three of the conditions is more likely in essence gay than straight, whatever routine to which he commits himself: to argue that where these are met that the presumption of heterosexuality ought not to obtain and that of bisexuality at least should be entertained. And if it does not obtain, this may well entitle the analyst to deduce from the agonized paths, varying as these do from culture to culture, through which such a leader or ruler set out to face his polity's choices.

The first is the presence of bonded relationships with other men, over long-tested periods. Napoleon's intimacy unto death with General Duroc, for example, was the first clue for a tentative outing of the Emperor which we shall undertake elsewhere. These two extraordinary figures were seldom apart; Duroc managing the imperial household (he was long rumored to have fathered Napoleon’s heir and alleged son) and he alone was buried beside his master in the Invalides, but above all his sheer 'iron presence' (to quote Bonaparte) astonishingly pervading war and peace for his yet more amazing master.

The second is the absence of attraction to women. There are many heterosexual men who, for reason of discretion, dignity, temperament, or general constraint do not display, much less flaunt, their erotic interests: but none argue that absence of any sign of a man's being drawn to women is evidence of heterosexuality. Men who can't keep their hands off women are either {and usually) heterosexual--or else obsessed by contrary evidence--as are those who discreetly or otherwise show their adoration and/or lust. For the fact is that a gay man, however much he likes women, likes to gossip with women, likes to cook with women, isn't erotically drawn to them and over time this becomes inescapably apparent unless he makes a sustained, character-distorting effort. As Andrew Sullivan writes in Virtually Normal, he has a"longing,""a desire to unite with another: not to possess...but to be given dimension" by a man, rather than a woman. To dissimulate becomes harder and harder with the years--or as the clues accumulate to the contrary and he listens to his heart speaking to him.

A third indicator is certain kinds of bad marriage. Marriage is perhaps the oldest surviving, hardest, and most rewarding form of work, one of the incentives to work at it being sex, which also repairs difficulties; but for a gay man sex with a woman is usually a cost, a drawback, not an attraction. Numerous gay men still in marriages will tell how they avoid sex--in the hope that over time the wives' desire for it may attenuate (or the husbands will divert her to other pleasures and satisfactions). Most will say that they had little satisfaction in bed over the course of their marriage. Again there are exceptions; as we have pointed out elsewhere, Paul Nitze had an extraordinarily workable marriage--where however the wife clearly took the responsibility for sexual initiative from the beginning--that lasted fifty-five years. (See the author's Price of Achievement: Coming out in Reagan Days.) But then the incentives to that success were legion: his devoted wife was patient with his early sexual malfunction, she was enormously rich, and opened all manner of doors to his banking and political careers--all this starting in a period far less friendly than our own to homosexuality--indeed to most 'differences' well beyond the sexual--and thus providing all the more incentive to try anything to maintain the marriage.

Fourthly, the person has characteristics which fall into one or more points on their society's spectrum of temperament that is categorized as feminine--not necessarily physiological but in the process of the mind, as we see with Lincoln. Again, there are effeminate men who truly are straight, and even more so, there are 'macho' men who are gay; and downright masculine-looking men, like Abe Lincoln, who are gay. But by and large, some form of palpable effeminacy is an accurate indicator of homosexuality, especially when manifest with at least two other of our variables.

Finally, rumors: 'where there's smoke there's fire.' Usually a lot of fire. In fact, in our experience, in our culture where homosexuality is at least marginally tolerated, but never really taken for granted, most rumors are true. The rumor invariably proves just how conservative and discreet society is. Smoke, to take the metaphor literally, only comes from fire; the smoke--or rumor--doesn't curl up until there's deeper heat from which to issue.

Closeted men suffering in their marriages don't usually give out hints which gossip takes up until they start leaving more substantial evidence around. And usually they leave the evidence around because they want to, they want to be found out, so that their suffering will not be ended but at least resolved into a clearer key.

Until recently, so far as modern Western culture went, avowed homosexuality was incompatible with a public career; it remains a stigma of still-remarkable power, sometimes, in fact ever more commonly, manifests no longer in a single lightening-like destruction but as a termite-like capacity to hollow and undermine. snickers, unwarranted generalizations, an overall diminution of substance--these are weapons so much more effective in an enlightened age than hatred and vituperation because they would go to the wall against explicit malice.

Homosexual men--and we are largely speaking of men despite the rising number of women in public life--either have had to seek the seedy side for some fulfillment with the danger"of exposure always lurking"--as did Robert Bauman, the gay-bashing Maryland congressman of recent fame, who was duly overtaken and ruined by his hidden choices, or Whitaker Chambers cruising Dupont Circle a generation earlier. Or, a very special few put themselves through a powerful discipline of transcendence: that is to say, they must experience their homosexuality to its fullest depths, accept it, understand that it is incompatible with other strivings, namely for power or indeed for any form of decent authority and dignity, and put aside this central element of their élan--parallel, in a sense, to a priestly vow of celibacy. But precisely because it entails a sacrifice to power and ambition of what should only be offered up to God, it entails a dangerous deification of the object of sacrifice.

We believe that Abraham Lincoln appears to have done exactly this, reaching across a large chasm in his own nature. Of course this is a politically incorrect conclusion, especially for conservative critics of society's expanding acceptance of gay people--though hardly for those gay non-leftists who several years ago formed, all unknowingly, the national organization of 'Log Cabin Republicans.' Indeed the best empirical evidence comes from an examination of Lincoln on the first variable--a bonded relationship--and will be far more compelling to the gay reader.

First Test

In his early thirties, before either he or his love-object Joshua Speed married, they lived together in cramped circumstances over four full years; not to put too fine a point on it,"the young men slept in the same bed every night," according to a very straight and conventional source.1 Perhaps we are meant to accept this habit precisely for its openness--since it is not covered up--as necessitated by frontier privation rather than erotic preference: an inference more in the category of the anxious denial of the historian rather than the compelling illogic of the evidence--a memorable avoidance indeed, since it does not even pass the straight-face test. Subsequently, the two carried on a correspondence of immense intensity and power, which read in context leaves only the details to the imagination. And there are two reasonably specific clues to the sexual content of their relationship.

Weeks without a letter evoke immediate remonstrance whenever they are separated in the period leading up to their respective marriages--events each understandably saw as grave crises necessitating the most overwhelming reciprocal justifications. Thus Lincoln responds to Speed's anxiety that he does not love his new wife, Fanny, by insisting that, just because he says he"reasoned" himself into commitment, it isn't devalued; after all, he didn't"reason" himself out of it either. But 'reasoning' is how gay men go into marriages, as Lincoln well knew.

Again, you say you much fear that that Elysium of which you have dreamed so much, is never to be realized. Well, if it shall not...it will not be the fault of her...I now have no doubt that it is the peculiar misfortune of both you and me, to dream dreams of Elysium far exceeding all that any thing earthly can realize.

And as if the point needed further elaboration, he rubs it in that no woman could do more to realize his dreams than the one he has chosen."My old Father used to have a saying that 'If you make a bad bargain, hug it the tighter....'"

There has been an understandable reluctance on the part of historians to accept that Lincoln had a reference point for Elysium, namely the ecstasy that he and Speed had briefly but surely shared, a fire so hot and powerful that it would have fully consumed the ambitions--and indeed, given the place and time, the identities--of both in the sense of making any impulse to excel in any sphere of life a practical impossibility. And because it might devour the resources which alone could carry them beyond those so-resented limits that the world set out endlessly to impose on these remarkable, ambitious young men of the horizonless high-romantic epoch. It would immediately have compromised their ability to address great issues at a time when Lincoln at least knew that these were heaping upon the nation with unprecedented speed.

The only way out for a person of Lincoln's character was transcendence, that is to say to forge out of that inner character trait something stronger, by virtue of the very readiness of the opposites to submit to society's constraint--in this case the increasingly glaring fissure's in the Republic-- while turning its powerful conquest into the energizing source of a yet greater, but more confused and public task--the resolving of the apparently insuperable difficulties of the other great source of hope in his life, the American Republic.

Thereafter the correspondence of Lincoln and Speed is penetrated by pleasant but necessary conspiracies and Aesopian games. To plaster an acceptable life mask over the plangent passage, the all-too expressive face that Lincoln allows to be seen in the passages above, he also pens a covering letter which Speed can show his wife, since the absence of contact might itself arouse speculation. But six months later he offers a second clue, writing that"If, as you say, you have told Fanny all [sic], I should have no objection to her seeing this letter.... Let her seeing it depend upon whether she has ever known any thing of my affair; and if she has not, do not let her."

What may we assume 'all' includes? Would the lonely young log-splitter have had no chance in thirty-four years to figure out what men could do with one another? Where better for one's fantasies to incubate and elaborate, than on such a wide-open frontier--and under a four-year common blanket!? Kinsey himself makes the point that the rural community has been an excellent place for homosexuality to breed: boys deal only with other boys, masculine virtues are extolled. Homosexuality"is found among ranchmen, cattle men, prospectors, lumbermen, and farming groups in general--among groups that are virile, physically active. These are men who have faced the rigors of nature in the wild. They live on realities and on a minimum of theory. Such a background breeds the attitude that sex is sex, irrespective of the nature of the partner...."2 Again we must assume that, as in all lands and times, with some variation of rates of instruction and speed of apprehension (and range of alternatives), the two men could figure out what to do and surely experienced each other fully, just as boys of yesterday and today do in America's small towns, big cities--or even rural and religious campuses, where (for example) this author found all such skills almost pervasive while growing up.

Second Test

On the second variable we have the abundant tone-setting evidence mustered by Burlingame, the first six words of whose chapter on Lincoln's relationship with the female sex are"Abraham Lincoln did not like women."3 Not tone-setting only, but door-closing; for a man of Lincoln's goodwill and geniality never to overcome feelings of threat and fear indicates forces that sprang from very deep wells indeed. Lincoln not only made clear his preference for the company of men, he made clear his ...discomfort amid women. He avoided them at parties and struck them as awkward; in revenge, he humiliated them. None of this stemmed from bashfulness: his contemporary N.W. Brandon said,"it seemed as if he cared but little for them."4

For a man of his humanity not even to be touched by fifty percent of humanity is exceptional. It went far beyond his late acculturation as a young man; indeed one new study of Lincoln concludes that Mary Todd virtually forced Lincoln into marrying her after a night in bed--which led to her first accouchement less than nine months later. This is not the behavior of a man too eager by half, but of one too disturbed by half--yet recognizing the absolute need for a wife not just to get ahead in politics but to be a man of substance on the terms of the culture in which he longed for preeminence. And the unattractive but well-born neurotic and determined Mary Todd knew the only way to get him.

Even his positive attitude toward women's rights comes so early as to raise challenges--along with that toward rape. He believed in women's suffrage, endorsing it, incredibly, as early as his 1836 campaign, and abhorred the double standard. In the context of the time, those are more the marks of a gay man than a simple progressive. A straight man saw women in a romantic, , enclosing or possessing way; while putting them up on a stage of equality was to let them out of one's own controlled space. His attitude as President toward rape--he was notoriously devoid of sentiment in enforcing sentences here--simply showed that he wanted women to enter into the only sphere of human beingness, rather than submitting to the role of possessions and erotic elixirs of men--or of heterosexual power seekers.

Third Test

As for the third test, with all that has been written about the wretched marriage Lincoln endured (or, in part, created) with Mary Todd, one is tempted to say, 'the prosecution rests.' Of course there was the much more promising match with Ann Rutledge, but there is no reason to conclude that, in the event, it would have differed much--and every reason to be suspect of the manner in which that relationship has (conveniently) been placed on a higher altar.

Overall, Lincoln moved toward marriage--that is, in his romantic dealings--in a way that was"marked by a strange passivity," J.O Burlingame says. But in any event he couldn't have the sexual outlet for his stress and emotion that are given to most men, not with Mary Todd Lincoln in any event, whose neurosis began to show itself early enough. Of course Lincoln carried much baggage from society, and mother in this regard--especially from her death, that women are untrustworthy and unreliable. He could overcome this mistrust enough to court a few women and to wed one, but that marriage turned out badly. Emotionally scarred as he was in childhood, Lincoln lacked the capacity to trust women and relate easily to them.

Thus the case for transcendence suggests that when he took the decision to marry it was the United States rather than Mary Todd that he espoused and that the image of the Republic blossoming from Ann Rutledge's bosom carries the resonance of a burial: both were symbolic and ever more deeply poignant.

Fourth Test

The fourth variable, the 'feminine' side of Lincoln asserts itself not in his appearance--though gay men are seldom surprised by the appearances of new 'converts to the cause,' who come in sizes and shapes the heterosexual does not envisage. It was rather in Lincoln's temperament, and abundantly so that we find inklings thereof, namely the feminine warp of a very well-toned and tough-woven man. Lincoln got his greatest pleasure from pardoning deserters in the war, bringing joy to their families and friends,"the gentle side of power," Bruce Miroff calls it in Icons of Democracy. And others also note the feminine side--his law partner for one. A nineteenth century politician felt that Lincoln failed to meet the test that"'men should be masculine and women feminine."5 William Carlos Williams envisaged Lincoln as a woman. Doctors (like Williams) can be very subtle as to how misery compensates itself.

Even more important than--but related to--the feminine side that homosexuality is often so primitively taken to represent in a gay man is the distance and distancing it effects--and thus the necessary transcendence from politics-as-usual. Nowhere would this be more evident than from pain. Lincoln's suffering--most poignantly over his own fate and over the death of his son, and most powerfully--for here he can make a difference, not simply endure--over the fate of the Republic--is exceedingly well-chronicled in his greatest speeches. Surely the body 'half-slave and half-free' was Lincoln's before it was his country's: surely it was he whose wounds must be bound up with the courage which is the healer's first requisite, with compassion, with fellow-feeling.

Fifth Test

Finally, are we entitled to out Abe if there were no rumors of homosexuality? Our fifth test, that of contemporary comment, is of little help in cultures whose homosexuality is or was mostly suppressed; not gossiped about because not even noticed or noticed and denied. (A very likely homosexual Vice President was the beneficiary of this complex a decade before Lincoln.) Thus a gay student of mine from an authoritarian and socially backward country commented that he could get away with his substantial homosexual practice, even in a high governmental post (indeed, at the ministry itself), because"no one would have a clue what to notice." And, after Springfield, we believe that Lincoln did not practice his gayness so the gossip wouldn't have arisen, according to our corollary, in any event. (And in the increasingly genteel and materially respectable Illinois of mid-century and later, there was a good deal of willed forgetting of raw days and deeds on the so-recent frontier.) But we don't need a fifth test for Lincoln, having evidence, truly, from four scores.

There is even the possibility that a gay temperament may drive its young possessors into public life--so that if they must hide their worlds within them at least they may, in compensation, act upon the universe without; the paradox of Gary Hart suggests that such can work for heterosexuals as well. We must separately consider the issue of what a gay person raised to serious office feels and intuits in his apartness. Having achieved some degree of power and with it the ability to reward allies, punish enemies, formulate agendas, the homosexual like any other potentate must stand back and ask, to what larger end? He is now the loneliest man in the world, precisely because the power he has achieved at whatever cost fails utterly to give him the fulfillment he seeks; power has set him yet further apart, internalized self-enquiry and self-tasking yet further. He cannot present himself as he sees himself, or will his followers to a completely accepting partnership of vision and effort. Sometimes the distance thus entailed provides the very mystique of the great man--in Lincoln's case the fascination lies in the very paradox of the unapproachable man profoundly concerned to get along with his fellows. But to follow Freud, the whole work of men and nations is to get others to accept their own view of themselves--he does not so much touch on what they wish to be invisible--and also to have a sufficiently honest self- understanding, set in a sufficiently ethical context, that it can stand of itself.

But Lincoln must have asked those questions and brought his potentially endless self-tasking into a terrifyingly close-horizoned one for the challenged nation. The ultimate view he found for himself was entirely consistent with that he had of the developing crisis of the Republic, which he both articulated existentially and--when it confronted his presidency-elect with secession--denied practically. The necessary sacrifice and compromises he then had to make to keep the Union together--even to postpone the quest for the fulfillment of freedom for God's potentially longest and most painful time if necessary--was surely a policy hammered out on the same anvil as his sexual persona after Springfield. And the troubled victory his policies were able to achieve in the body politic during the immediate aftermath of his martyrdom were about as pure and fulfilling of republican hope and idealism as that same compromise of the body private.

The important question, which we can only ponder, is how much such passionate individuation of Abe Lincoln helped him distance himself from the problems of the Republic and to find a clearer alignment with the problems, the better to see them in the large, the better, ultimately, to overcome them. If he had been in a committed relationship with a man, in the public context of Californian mores late in the 20th century, as compared with Mary Todd's husband, how different would his view of life have been? Perhaps, in the circumstances, should we praise the Lord for nineteenth century oppression, since--with its vast blind deflection--it arguably helped produce Lincoln's genius in office. But that is a separate point; his humanity was hammered out from his sexuality.

Is it necessary to out Abe? The phrase's vulgarity itself should answer. This isn't, in any real sense, an outing--but an entering, into the deeper recesses of a great man's character. But suppression was never allowed over any other dimension of his personality, so why start at the most important, if not blindly to deny a painful but apparent truth?

Does this merely obey gay community agenda to retrofit a fellow spirited president upon the Republic's startled history? No one should doubt the heterosexuality of most of our presidents--including some of our most beloved ones, like the sexually robust cousins Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. The question, rather, is whether it is true, whether matters become clearer, more economical, more predictable if we assume it, the test we apply to all important historical hypotheses. The evidence at this point does not include a White House smoking gun--for we believe that Lincoln sacrificed the spirit (and the flesh) to the word in his thirties, something not merely consistent with, but shaping to, our hypothesis--except for his young adulthood, when the evidence is very specific indeed: he slept with his dearest friend for four full years.

His transcendence--so very different from the sort of tawdry suppression of which we see too much these days--is surely a central ingredient of his tragic and noble character, so closely related to the national tragedy. His character was so riven between reason and passion, he was so acquainted with sorrow, that the hard-won strengths that held him steadfast but unbrutalized through terrible times carne to him no more inevitably than did political success to his own career or survival to the Union. The furnace in which greatness and generous victory governs over enemies still always held to be brothers, was his own fiery searing heart. But make no mistake, Abe Lincoln was gay, and the more evidence is accumulated--or exhumed free of denial--the more we believe the conclusion will be confirmed.


1.Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (1982), p. 284.

2. Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), p. 457.

3. Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (1995), p. 123.

4. Ibid, p. 124.

5. Bruce Miroff, Icons of Democracy (1993), p. 84.