Sunday, January 09, 2005

 

Was Lincoln Gay?

That's the thesis of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, by the late C. A. Tripp.

Based on Richard Brookhiser's review in the New York Times Magazine, I think I can comfortably skip the book.

To begin, without reading the book, I still can't imagine we have anywhere enough information to reach a conclusion. The lack of hard evidence, combined with the cultural differences of the time (people wrote differently than today, bed sharing was common, etc.) lead me to suspect that ever achieving a definitive conclusion is impossible. Brookhiser's review suggests that Tripp's book is unable to advance the argument far beyond where it's stood for over a hundred and fifty years.

I do think that Brookhiser makes a strong point: Lincoln's despondency (some have called it clinical depression) was a far more influential character trait than his sexuality. While it is entirely possible, even plausible, that sexual confusion influenced and increased his depression, Lincoln suffered not for a lack of things to be depressed about, especially in his later years. No one need assume homosexuality to justify depression when a life includes Mary Todd and a Civil War.

That all said, in the end, does it matter if Lincoln was gay? At best, sexuality was a third-order influence on Lincoln's actions of consequence. First, there were the facts of the actual events themselves, and second, the aforementioned depression. As Brookhiser points out, Lincoln is rightfully acknowledged as an incredibly complex man. A man of gloom, yes; but also a man of wit, of cheer, of contemplation, of theology, and of judgment. In seeking possible psychological motivations for Lincoln's decisions, the menu is bountiful.

What distresses me and so many others about this line of historical inquiry is that it is so often undertaken with the intent to focus *all* of our attention on a subject's sexuality. Much like many insist "the personal is political," some argue that the "sexual is political." It is certainly the case that the sexual Id is a strong, and sometimes overpowering influence in our lives. However, it is not always the case, and in fact, is rarely so. There is no need to suggest the influence of sexual desire in choices made in the grocery checkout line. There is also no need to suggest it when ordering the blockade of the Confederacy, or the emancipation of the slaves.

Yet, many insist that the *only* thing that is important is sexuality. I don't know why; perhaps it's a search for some historical validation as to why sexuality seems so important in their lives. Thus begins the spiral downward of innuendo, gossip, and ultimately outing of historical figures.

Those who pursue such a line of thought often maintain that they are merely seeking "role models." In the case of Lincoln, is there anything sadder than reading his incredible story and concluding that, for all his heroics, he'd only be complete if we could prove that he was homosexual to boot?

To use another example, take the recent movie Alexander, which generated controversy due to its portrayal of (some say emphasis on) Alexander's bisexuality. Alexander of Macedon was not afforded the moniker "Great" because he was a legendary lover, or liked looking under the loincloths of men. History knows him as Great because of his conquests on the Mediterranean stage. It is possible, and entirely proper, to ask whether among all of Alexander's personality traits his sexual desire played a motivational role in his conquests. But to ask *only* such a question, to the exclusion of all others, condemns us to ignorance of his actions of consequence.

Post-modernist historians who in their efforts emphasize such elements as sexuality, gender, and race to the isolation of other factors insist on focusing only on a single tree in a very large forest. A tree that may not give one any idea what the rest of the forest looks like. It is an effort that unfortunately uneducates rather than enlightens the student of history.


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