Drilling Lincoln

04.1.2005 | Michael Dorr | Cultural Affairs | 2 Comments

 “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.”
—Abraham Lincoln

At roughly 10:13 p.m. on April 14, 1865, celebrated actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth placed a derringer six inches from the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head, as the president leaned forward, laughing heartily at the final farcical moments of the popular play Our American Cousin. Booth pulled the trigger, sending a bullet into the president’s brain, and seconds later leapt from the presidential box onto the stage below with the cry “Sic simper tyrannus!” In one momentous instant Booth became one of the many who have tried to appropriate the man for a particular agenda; in this case, in an effort to portray the “just” Southern Cause as unjustly assailed by a despot deserving of a death as sudden and merciless as Caligula’s.

Earlier that month, Lincoln had dreamed of his own assassination, but even in his most daunting nightmares he could never have portended how often his posthumous self would be slain to suit the sundry, paltry needs of historians, politicians, psychiatrists, activists, and other partisans (old and new).

Lincoln has been treated as a ruthless leader who “handled and moved man remotely as we do pieces upon a chessboard” and as a hapless president controlled by events; as a conservative concerned foremost with sparing the Union and as a radical willing to reinvent the foundation of our country in order to save it; as a reluctant emancipator and as a bold liberator; as a staunch defender of the Constitution and as its fair-weather friend; as an atheist and a Christian; as a public servant committed to the rule of law and as a politician willing to disregard the Supreme Court when convenient; as the one responsible for freeing the slaves (in theory) in September 1862 and for condemning (in gruesome reality) thirty-eight Sioux to hang in December of that year; as a happy husband and as a miserable spouse; as a selfless martyr and as a self-serving masquerader.

And now, in The intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (Free Press, 2005) psychologist and sex researcher C. A. Tripp has exhumed our sixteenth president once again to — despite his disclaimers — “out” him as “predominantly homosexual.” The assertion, if objectively pursued and provable, would be valuable in enriching our understanding of our most unorthodox chief executive, though it could never attain the status of being invaluable since Lincoln’s sexuality is but a part of the man, incapable of trumping the totality of his humanity. Tripp died two weeks after completing his manuscript, but it is doubtful if successive drafts would have made this an enduring contribution. Its flaws are not merely ones of organization, style, and inaccuracy (though those abound), but are systematic and ultimately terminal to his intent.
The intimate World of Abraham Lincoln
is both a product of appallingly poor scholarship and a brilliant example of the damning ascendant current in historiography, whereby sources are selected and sewn together to arrive at preordained results that distort history instead of delivering it with its integrity intact to a new generation.

This revisionist approach permits any historical figure to be condemned or redeemed anew, any event to be contextualized into meaninglessness. Consider a later, less revered president: Richard Nixon. In recent reappraisals, Tricky Dick has been extolled as a far-seeing progressive on the domestic front and his troll-like sidekick Kissenger praised as an astute statesman on the world stage rather than as inept power-crazed war criminals.  Recall that it was Kissenger who quipped, “The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer.” Yet, rather than burying Nixon quietly and salting the earth, he received a triumphant state funeral where, in an Orwellian scene, he was exalted as a statesman of Churchillian greatness.

Is history being served or forced to service our peccadilloes?

Now, in this recent work on Lincoln, we are asked to accept, on the slimmest gossamer of “evidence,” that earlier than most, “he began enjoying masturbation … before he was able to ejaculate”; that his friend Joshua Speed and others slid their penises between Abe’s rugged thighs (the same thighs now enlarged and glorified at the Lincoln Memorial); that Ann Rutledge was Lincoln’s historical “beard”; that Republican insider Colonel John Cook “knew Lincoln’s tastes in young men” and procured them for him (including the dashing Elmer Ellsworth, the first casualty of the Civil War, who “greatly ‘turned on’” the president); that Lincoln’s behavior was never publicly perceived for what Tripp claims it was because the terms “homosexual” and “gay” had yet to be invented (though buggery and sodomy were well known); that Abe was both flagrant and prudent in his liaisons; that Lincoln merely tolerated Mary Todd (depicted in Tripp’s one-note portrayal as a thieving, ranting harridan) as the mother of his children instead of feeling a complex array of emotions evident in even the most dysfunctional of relationships; that his homosexual leanings informed in significant (though unspecified) ways his views of religion, morality, ethics, and politics; that these supposed revelations compel a radical reappraisal of the man and his presidency.

Ah, Abe! Booth’s bullet was hardly more brutal, more diminishing, than Tripp’s bludgeoning attempt at drilling his own agenda from your historical carcass.


 “You can’t build temples out of rotten wood.”
—Eugene O’Neill

Like most historian-advocates guilty of this deplorable approach, C. A. Tripp and his complicit publisher want it both ways. They announce with one breath that “new details are revealed” and with the other, that the information has been widely known (and therefore legitimized) since the earliest Lincoln biographies by William Herndon and Ida B. Tarbell; that the work is not simply a monograph of sensational speculation, but a reputable, revelatory full-fledged study that “reaches far beyond a brief about Lincoln’s sexuality” and attempts “to make sense of the whole man, as never before.”

It isn’t and it doesn’t.

Tripp equivocates by boldly tossing the gauntlet down and then denuding his assertions with such red-flag qualifiers as “perhaps,” “maybe,” “presumably,” “probably,” “apparently,” “evidently,” “almost certainly,” “no doubt,” “one can be sure,” “it is clear,” “undoubtedly,” “likely,” “may well have,” “highly probable,” etc. History at its best is not built from such porous mortar, such weak beams. But that is merely the beginning of Tripp’s academic and authorial bungling.

He applauds Herndon — when the earlier biographer’s findings align with Tripp’s desires — but then accuses him of “heterosexual bias” when they contradict Tripp’s threadbare thesis. Why the self-serving “discrimination”? We’ll never know; Tripp is beyond our questions.

Time and again, he insists on monochromatic, monolithic interpretations of evidence open to varied, nuanced readings.

According to the author, Joshua Speed’s effusive expressions of marital bliss must conceal some terrible sexual secret (impotence! homosexuality!) rather than the possibility that he was guilty of nothing more scandalous than purple prose (a heinous enough offense). Oddly, Herndon’s own married life, which he described as “an eternal stream of happiness,” doesn’t cause Tripp to decry him as homosexual (to do so would undermine Tripp’s claims of Herndon’s “heterosexual bias”). So why does Speed’s prose cause the legitimacy of his marriage to be suspect, whereas Herndon’s declaration spares him from any such claim? Why does Tripp title his chapter on Speed “Yours Forever” but fail to point out that Lincoln used this valedictory in letters addressed to at least six other non-lovers and only signed it in four out of the twenty-one extant letters he wrote to Speed? We’ll never know; Tripp is beyond our questions.

Likewise, when a Lincoln associate remarks that, following Ann Rutledge’s death, “Lincoln bore up under very well until some days afterwards,” Tripp seizes on this nugget to support his contention that Lincoln felt no serious love for her or loss at her death. “A delay of ‘some days’ before real sadness set in? Hardly the instant response of a brokenhearted lover.” Must all such expressions be instant to be valid? Is Tripp, a psychologist, so myopic not to realize that, unlike a train schedule, grief manifests in myriad displays at the most unsuspected moments and rarely follows a uniform predictable course? We’ll never know; Tripp is beyond our questions.

Tripp reads Lincoln’s letter about his faltering, failed courtship of Mary Owen as an instance of the president-to-be’s lacerating wit, which is accurate enough, but then completely misreads the object of that eviscerating humor: Lincoln himself! It is easily the most hilarious, self-deprecating letter ever penned by an American president, in which his unflattering description of his would-be fiancée only strengthens the shocking revelation that she finds him unattractive and unsuitable. Without it, the effect of puncturing Lincoln’s vanity and self-congratulatory benevolence would be starkly reduced. Why does Tripp fail to see that Lincoln is not motivated by a Don Rickles–like cruelty nor a misogynistic indifference toward Mary Owens, but rather by a heartfelt attempt to alleviate what was an intensely mortifying experience for him by framing his own folly and humiliation within the temple of humor? We’ll never know; Tripp is beyond our questions.

In one of his most ludicrous assertions, he contrasts FDR, who “was completely heterosexual all his life” with Churchill who “had a homosexual history in his youth,” and asks, “Could such a series of blunders [as those leading to Pearl Harbor] have occurred under Lincoln or Churchill?” He then answers his own query with a resounding “Absolutely no.” Really? I am sure that the thousands slaughtered on the beaches of Anzio might beg to differ as to the wisdom of Churchill’s obstinate embrace of his pet project. (And let’s not mention the Gallipoli campaign.)

If we accept Tripp’s unsubstantiated, unprovable claim, then was Lincoln’s persistent disregard for his personal safety a blunder of epic proportions? Absolutely. Are homosexual leaders as vulnerable to misjudgments and poor decisions as their skirt-chasing counterparts? History abounds in affirmative replies to that question, but why does Tripp ignore them? Is he “blind as a bat to other possibilities” (a charge he flings unjustly at Herndon)?

Is he suffering from a homosexual bias?

We’ll never know; Tripp is beyond our questions.

But no longer beyond Lincoln’s.

If the great man encounters Tripp amid the ethereal clouds, I hope that Abe channels the better angels of his nature. Otherwise, Tripp should expect no presidential pardon for turning history into his personal punk.

And I can only hope to God that he doesn’t run into Mary Todd.

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