Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) may likely be the most studied and researched of the United States presidents. The first reference to him possibly being “homosexual” came from notable Lincoln expert Carl Sandburg in his 1926 biography, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. In describing the early relationship between Lincoln and his close friend, Joshua Fry Speed, Sandburg wrote “a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets.” This line got historians talking about an issue from which many had previously shied away.
Still, the biography was written in the early 20th century, a time when such topics were only discussed in whispers. But by including the line, Sandburg felt the relationship deserved acknowledgement. It wasn’t until 2005 when the first book was published on Lincoln’s relationships with men, C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.
Detractors of Lincoln’s possible homosexuality, such as historian David Herbert Donald, often say there is no new evidence on Lincoln. Yet historians continue to draw fresh conclusions from Lincoln’s letters. Those who attempt to refute Lincoln’s possible “homosexuality” usually focus on one particular incident — of the many — that supports the theory: his relationship with Speed.
Yet history, like everything else, is open to interpretation and influenced by new findings. Bias also motivated the retelling of historical events. The best example of bias in American history is the story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave/concubine Sally Hemings, which was not accepted as a truthful account until 1998 — and only after DNA proof. African-American citizens — not historians — led the effort to give Hemings her rightful place in history. Likewise with Lincoln, most historians have referred to isolated facts rather than the pattern of events in his life to tell his personal story. Will history once again prove historians wrong?