There is a new book just published that purports to prove that the nation's 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was gay. I admit I have not read the book but I did read the Time magazine review that basically trashed the research and I went by the book store and read parts of it and the attached letters from Lincoln to a friend of his. (The letters showed nothing).
Some great Americans like Washington, Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh are safely fixed on pedestals and therefore anything that would attempt to revise this fixed image will probably fail.
One pop historian wrote some years ago about how Washington padded his expense account while fighting for the nation's freedom. One historian wrote about Lindbergh leading big pro-German rallies in New York prior to Pearl Harbor.
One editor at Ebony magazine wrote a book the other year questioning Lincoln's commitment to freeing slaves and tried to convince us that it was expediency and not concern for slaves that motivated him.
There is nothing wrong with all this looking at history and famous people from different angles. It is fun to read. Years ago, a North Carolina professor by the name of Alley wrote a book trying to convince us that Lincoln was the illegitimate son of the great South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. The irony of this was that Calhoun, secretary of state, U.S. senator, vice president, was the champion of states' rights over the strong federal government and Lincoln was the man who held the nation together, showing once and for all that we are one nation and not individual states that can come and go as they please.
Professor Alley shows pictures of both Lincoln's and Calhoun's long faces and similar eyes. He says that Lincoln's mother was a barkeep in the Pendleton District of South Carolina near where the present Clemson University is. Calhoun was a frequent visitor to this tavern. Professor Alley's theory is that Calhoun had a tryst with Lincoln's mother and then paid Lincoln's father to marry her and get her out of there.
Alley says that Lincoln's father was a simple man who was not literate and he says that such a fine brain as Lincoln could not have sprung from his father, but from a great thinker and man of letters like Calhoun. Hmm, pretty flimsy evidence to hang such serious speculation. The same appears to be true of this latest broadside against Lincoln.
Here, apparently, is the "evidence" I gather. When Lincoln was a young lawyer he shared a bed with a clerk in his town over an extended period. Other historians counter that mattresses were very scarce in that time and it was not unusual for two women or two men traveling to share beds. The pro-gay author argues that the length of this sharing was quite unusual. When Lincoln was president and Mrs. Lincoln was away on trips, Lincoln invited the captain of his guard protecting the president to spend the night in his bed. This is gleaned from brief letters of the time. There is apparently one other line in some letter of someone who said Lincoln had "great legs."
In my lifetime, zillions of hours have been spent trying to prove how many people were involved in killing President Kennedy. They shot bullets into gelatin, listened to sound from the moment of the killing, slowed down film frame by frame. After all this exhaustive physical evidence, one side says Lee Harvey Oswald, a ne'er-do-well loner, acted alone, and the other side says there was a great conspiracy. Ultimately this means no definitive evidence proves either side.
In this Lincoln book there is no physical evidence, no letters between Lincoln and anyone that shows anything. Like I said, the letters back and forth to the clerk-friend were very chatty about friends. There are no eyewitness accounts, no Lincoln or Mrs. Lincoln diaries. You wonder why someone would spend a lot of time writing this book based on speculations that have been flying around for many decades. It sells some books (I didn't buy it) and it is grist for talking.
The overriding issue is: Who cares? I certainly don't care about Lincoln's personal life. And if I did care, I certainly would like some real evidence rather than drawing room gossip.
Lincoln is certainly a fascinating person. He had great wit and was apparently great fun to be around. At the same time he had deep valleys of depression. Lincoln was deeply religious, but could let loose with some ribald stories. He was a very humble man (you don't find any Lincoln autobiography) and at the same time had a strong enough ego to know he could be a great president and enough ego to run for re-election in the face of stinging criticism.
One thing is clear about Lincoln and it is one of his greatest traits. He really did not have malice toward anyone. He spoke of the Southerners fighting in the Civil War in nice terms rather than name-calling. He intended to have a short and non-bitter Reconstruction (something brushed aside after his death).
In terms of the vastness of the presidency today (as evidenced by the grandness of Thursday's inauguration), Lincoln had such a smaller entourage. He had two secretaries. If you wanted to see him you made an appointment and he worked you in if he could. When he wanted to hear reports on how the war was going he and one or two others would walk over across from the White House late at night and sit around the telegraph office and read the reports coming in from the fields. This is one reason I don't think you can take one era and compare it to the greatly different times of today as the latest "historian" had tried to do.
Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor for the News Daily and Daily Herald and can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Extension 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .