It took the late C.A. Tripp, a Kinsey Institute sex researcher, to front the question in 2005 with The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. The book was roundly savaged at the time and would probably have been more coherent had he lived to revise it, but its collection of raw evidence was, if not dispositive, deeply revealing. Here in one place was the full gamut of Lincoln’s bedmates, from Billy Greene in New Salem (he and Lincoln, according to one neighbor, “had an awful hankerin’, one for t’other”) to, late in life, David Derickson, the bodyguard who supposedly shared Lincoln’s bed while the first lady was away. Here, too, was the humorous doggerel that a twenty-year-old Lincoln wrote about two boys who, having tried “the girlies,” decide to wed each other. It is, as far as we know, the first suggestion of same-sex marriage in U.S. history, and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that, having made it into the first edition of Herndon’s biography, it was dropped from subsequent editions.
“Dropped” is a good way of describing how the historical establishment initially dealt with Tripp’s contentions. We were told in stern tones that lots of bachelors shared beds in those days (though rarely for so long) and that Lincoln couldn’t have been gay because he fathered children (so did Oscar Wilde). It’s inevitable, I guess, that a unitary establishment should struggle with the binary, and in the case of the white, male, heterosexual historians who have predominantly shaped our narratives, the notion that a man can be both a father of children and a lover of men has been as hard to accept as the idea that Thomas Jefferson could be an apostle of liberty and an impregnator of slaves.
Maybe the strangest counterargument made to Tripp’s claims was that it was pointless even to raise the subject because, in the end, Lincoln’s sex life doesn’t matter. And if that were true—Lordy, if that were true—then my book could have been written 150 years ago, and we could avoid all discussion of Lincoln’s heterosexual life, right up to and including his wife and children.