Abraham Lincoln was such a pivotal figure in American history that he’s inspired a field of scholarship devoted to him alone. Serious historians with advanced degrees have spent their whole professional lives poring over the most minute details of Lincoln’s life.
Few of us would fare well under that level of scrutiny, and every few years a new theory arrives that supposedly explains this or that unresolved question about the man who was arguably America’s greatest president.
Scholars have debated whether Lincoln suffered from a host of physical ailments, whether or not he was clinically depressed, and — perhaps most intriguingly to some — if Abraham Lincoln was gay.
Was Abraham Lincoln Gay? Surface Impressions
On the surface, nothing about Lincoln’s public life suggested anything but a heterosexual orientation. As a young man he courted women and eventually married Mary Todd, who bore him four children.
Lincoln told racy jokes about sex with women, he privately boasted about his success with the ladies before marriage, and he was known to flirt with Washington socialites from time to time. Even in the salacious yellow press of his day, none of Lincoln’s many enemies hinted he might be less than totally straight.
Appearances can deceive, however. During Abraham Lincoln’s lifetime, America was going through one of its periodic bouts of extreme Puritanism, with a general expectation that ladies will be chaste and gentlemen will not stray from their sides.
Men who were suspected of what the law described as “sodomy” or “unnatural acts” lost their careers and their standing in the community. An accusation of this sort could even lead to serious prison time, so it’s no surprise that the historical record from the 19th century is sparse in openly gay public figures.
A Streak of Lavender
In 1837, the 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln arrived in Springfield, Illinois, to found a law practice. Almost immediately, he struck up a friendship with a 23-year-old shopkeeper named Joshua Speed. There may have been an element of calculation to this friendship since Joshua’s father was a prominent judge, but the two clearly hit it off. Lincoln rented an apartment with Speed, where the two slept in the same bed. Sources from the time, including the two men themselves, describe them as inseparable.
Lincoln and Speed were close enough to still raise eyebrows today. Speed’s father died in 1840, and shortly afterward, Joshua announced plans to return to the family plantation in Kentucky. The news seems to have stricken Lincoln. On January 1, 1841, he broke off his engagement with Mary Todd and made plans to follow Speed to Kentucky.
Speed left without him, but Lincoln followed a few months later, in July. In 1926, writer Carl Sandburg published a biography of Lincoln in which he described the relationship between the two men as having, “a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets.”
Eventually, Joshua Speed would marry a woman named Fanny Henning. The marriage lasted 40 years, until Joshua’s death in 1882, and produced no children.
His Relationship With David Derickson
From 1862 to 1863, President Lincoln was accompanied by a bodyguard from the Pennsylvania Bucktail Brigade named Captain David Derickson. Unlike Joshua Speed, Derickson was a prodigious father, marrying twice and siring ten children. Like Speed, however, Derickson became a close friend of the president and also shared his bed while Mary Todd was away from Washington. According to an 1895 regimental history written by one of Derickson’s fellow officers:
“Captain Derickson, in particular, advanced so far in the President’s confidence and esteem that, in Mrs. Lincoln’s absence, he frequently spent the night at his cottage, sleeping in the same bed with him, and — it is said — making use of His Excellency’s night-shirt!”
Another source, the well-connected wife of Lincoln’s naval adjutant, wrote in her diary: “Tish says, ‘there is a Bucktail Soldier here devoted to the President, drives with him, & when Mrs L. is not home, sleeps with him.’ What stuff!”
Derickson’s association with Lincoln ended with his promotion and transfer in 1863.
If Abraham Lincoln had wanted to leave conflicting evidence behind for historians, he could hardly have done a better job — even Lincoln’s stepmother Sarah thought he didn’t like girls. He also wrote this bit of comic verse, which turns on – of all things – gay marriage:
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.
Abraham Lincoln’s Sexuality In Context
In the 21st century, it’s really tempting to read a lot into the private life of Abraham Lincoln. For many years, a kind of gay-revisionist history has been written, in which this or that historical figure is held up to intense scholarly scrutiny and declared by one activist historian or another to have been gay, transgendered, or bisexual.
Some of this is totally fair: The true history of non-heterosexual lifestyles in Western societies is distorted by the draconian punishments that used to be inflicted on gender nonconformists. It’s inevitable that virtually all of the prominent homosexuals of the Victorian Age would go to extreme lengths to keep their affairs as private as possible, and this makes honest scholarship on the subject challenging at best.
The difficulty inherent in finding evidence for private sexual proclivities, which were virtually always either sublimated or acted out in secret, is compounded by what amounts to a cultural boundary. The past is like another country where customs and narratives we take for granted hardly exist, or they are so different as to be almost unrecognizable.
Take, for example, Lincoln’s habit of sharing his bed with other men. Today, an invitation from one man to another to live and sleep together would almost inevitably be assumed to be homosexual in nature.
In frontier-era Illinois, however, nobody gave a second thought to two young bachelors sleeping together. It’s obvious to us today that such a sleeping arrangement would lend itself to sexual relations, but shared sleeping was perfectly unremarkable in that time and place.
Sharing a bed with a dashing young soldier, however, is a somewhat different matter when you’re the President of the United States, and you can presumably sleep however you want. While Lincoln’s arrangements with Joshua Speed are understandable, his arrangement with Captain Derickson is harder to hand-wave away.
In the same way, Lincoln’s writings and personal conduct present a mixed picture.
He courted three women before getting married. The first died, the second he apparently dumped because she was fat (according to Lincoln: “I knew she was oversize, but now she appeared a fair match for Falstaff”), and the third, Mary Todd, he only married after practically leaving her at the altar a year earlier to follow his male companion to Kentucky.
Lincoln wrote about women in a cool, detached tone, as if he were a biologist describing a not-particularly interesting species he’d discovered, but he often wrote about men he’d known in a warm, engaging tone that modern readers would take as a sign of great affection.
It has to be noted, however, that Lincoln wrote like this even about men he personally and politically detested. On at least one occasion, he even described Stephen Douglass – who was not just a political rival, but also a former suitor of Mary Todd – as a personal friend.
So was Abraham Lincoln gay? The man himself died over 150 years ago, and the last people in the world to have personally known him have been gone for at least a century. All we have now is the public record, some correspondence, and a few diaries to describe the man himself.
It’s unlikely anything new will be discovered that will shed light on Lincoln’s private life. From the mixed records we do have, an indistinct picture can be drawn that paints the 16th president as anything from a deeply closeted homosexual to an enthusiastic heterosexual.
Compounded with the difficulty in transplanting one set of cultural mores into another, long-lost society, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure what Captain Derickson was doing in the president’s bed, or why Lincoln left Mary Todd, only to return and eventually marry her. Sexual orientation, as it’s presently understood, is something that goes on in the very private space inside people’s heads, and what went on in the head of Abraham Lincoln is something about which modern people can only speculate.