Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.
Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Come on down the rabbit hole with us as we seek the answers – we always start with Lincoln and the Cottage, but we often end up in unexpected places.
For this episode, we’re answering a question we’ve gotten from young people curious about Lincoln’s relationships. Along the way we talk about gossipy Springfield, Illinois in the 1840s, Lincoln’s close friend Joshua Speed, the invention of the term “straight,” and how museums can tell queer stories. Come along with us!
Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, connect with us from next door and from around the globe.
Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.
JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.
CH: I’m Callie Hawkins.
JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us
CH: Let’s take that half hour now. For this episode, we’re working on the question: “Was Lincoln gay?”
JC: Both times I’ve been asked this question, I had a teenager come up to me as we were walking between locations on the tour and ask. I always feel honored when a young person feels comfortable asking me a question they really want to know the answer to. In both cases, I said something along the lines of – we don’t really know, but here are some reasons people might think so or not think so.
CH: Other than a general sense of curiosity – which we always recommend – what might lead people to ask this question? What is in the historical record about this?
JC: One person who often comes up in these conversations is someone Lincoln met here at the Cottage.
CH: Captain David Derickson, who led Company K of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers assigned to guard the president here, developed a close association with Lincoln. We know this from his own recollections, where the captain describes Lincoln as a friend and “one of the most kindhearted and pleasant gentlemen that I had ever met,” and from Lincoln, who remarked: “The Captain and I are getting quite thick.” On his famous visit to Antietam battlefield, Lincoln brought Derickson with him for the four-day journey.
JC: We also have a couple primary sources in which other people remark on the relationship between Lincoln and Derickson. A Major Chamberlin, who was visiting in order to train the troops of Company K, describes Derickson as having “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 shirts!” Virginia Fox, married to a prominent political officer, wrote in her diary that a friend told her “There is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs. L is not home, sleeps with him.” She goes on to say, “What stuff!” but it’s a little hard to tell whether she finds the report of the relationship ridiculous or the relationship itself.
CH: The other person who’s an essential part of this conversation is Lincoln’s friend and confidant Joshua Speed, who he knew when living in Springfield, Illinois and stayed in touch with throughout his presidency. For more on this, we turned to historian and psychoanalyst Charles Strozier, who wrote Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, the most recent book on the subject.
Chuck Strozier: And, and we know a number of things about the relationship. First of all, we know it was the, by far, the most important friend of Abraham Lincoln, and really the only friend he knew. Aside from Mary, I mean, Mary, you know, was his wife and he was friends with her, but it was a, a different kind of textured relationship. There were lots of men in Lincoln’s life who regarded him as their best friend, but he was only really close to one other male, and that was Joshua Speed. We also know that from the time Lincoln arrived in Springfield from New Salem in mid-April 1837, he slept in the same bed with Joshua Speed from then until December, late December 1840. So, for three and a half years they slept in the same bed above Speed’s store, which was on the west side of the square in Springfield. We also know that the anticipated separation from Speed, who was planning to move back to Louisville to deal with the estate of his father, the Farmington, the plantation, that the anticipation of separation from Speed had something, I would say significantly – people disagree on, on this – but it had something to do with the broken courtship with Mary that late December. We also know that there was an important way the Speed played a role in the suicidal depression that Lincoln fell into in January 1841, following the separation, the broken courtship. Then later they stayed in touch, and later that summer Lincoln visited, for several weeks in late August and early September, visited Speed in Farmington, in, in that visit with Speed he met Fannie Henning, whom Speed actually began to date after Lincoln arrived and incidentally, we have none of Speed’s letters to Lincoln. So we, we have to infer what Lincoln knew from what Lincoln wrote to Speed. Speed preserved Lincoln’s letters.
JC: So we only have Lincoln’s replies, and not the initial letters that Speed wrote.
CS: Exactly, right. So at some point Lincoln became aware that Speed was planning to marry Fannie. And then there were a series of letters in January and February, culminating in February 25th, that Lincoln wrote to Speed about his, Lincoln’s, reactions to the anticipation of the marriage of Speed to Fannie Henning, and he vicariously experiences what was clearly Speed’s, anxieties and uncertainties about the anticipation of the marriage to Fannie. And Lincoln in a series of letters demonstrates his own uncertainties about love and marriage and the consummation of the marriage. And the culminating letter is February 25th, which I think is the emotional turning point in the life of Abraham Lincoln, when he writes, that “I received yours of the 12th written today. You went down to Williams’s Place some days since, but delayed answering it till I should receive the promised one of the 16th, which came last night, I opened the latter with intense anxiety and trepidation, so much that although it turned out better than I expected, I have hardly yet at the distance of ten hours become calm.” Well, what happened was on the 15th, Speed got married and consummated his marriage. And as far as I can tell, fell out of bed the next morning to write Lincoln, that everything went okay. Lincoln receives the letter and for ten hours after receiving the letters, “I have hardly yet, at the distance of ten hours become calm.” That’s a turning point for Lincoln because, he, via his intimate friendship with Speed, he was able after that to resume his courtship of Mary and the following fall, get married and move on to his emotional life. Although he remained friends with Speed for the rest of his life and Speed visited Washington during the war and played an important role in the early days of the early months of the war in keeping Kentucky in the Union, they never exchanged a personal letter again and Speed had served his emotional purpose, in, in being able to demonstrate that he could fall in love and consummate a relationship with a woman. And that freed up Lincoln to return to Mary and then get married again. So that’s what we know.
JC: What do you feel like we can’t know or don’t know at the moment?
CS: What we don’t know and what many people today reasonably want to know is whether the relationship between Lincoln and Joshua Speed was sexualized. And this is not an unimportant question, and we don’t know that. There’s lots of reason to believe that two men sleeping together who are the absolute best friends in the world for three and a half years, it’s reasonable to assume it was sexualized. It’s also important historical context that men typically, uh, slept together in the 19th century. This was certainly Lincoln’s experience, both in Kentucky and Indiana, riding the circuit. There’s lots of letters and descriptions of life on the circuit where five, ten men would tumble into beds together. So there was nothing unusual about men sleeping together. Lincoln, and I think this is a very important piece of evidence, nothing Lincoln ever said, nothing Speed ever said, nor nothing anyone in Springfield, gossipy Springfield ever said, that there was anything untoward in the relationship between Lincoln and Speed. That’s a negative piece of evidence, but it’s an important piece of evidence. If it had been, this was an era when homosexuality was, it was illegal and, if the relationship had been sexualized, it probably would’ve revealed itself one way or another. Now you can argue, therefore, there was all the more reason, if it was sexualized to hide it, right? We don’t know one way or the other.
CH: Chuck filled us in on some of the historiography of this question – he described to us Carl Sandberg’s 1926 book The Prairie Years, which was the first to address this moment in Lincoln’s life. Sandberg, Chuck told us, was baffled by the relationship with Speed. Sandberg calls it a “lavender relationship,” which many people have taken as code for gay, but ultimately, he didn’t feel he could adequately understand the relationship.
CS: So it’s a kind of a, actually that’s almost a century, a century of uncertainty and some, and some confusion about how to describe the relationship between Lincoln and, and Speed.
JC: This level of uncertainty is a major obstacle in talking about this question. It seemed to me that if we had a smoking gun about this relationship, people would be talking about it differently.
CS: I mean, I think that’s a good metaphor. There, there is no smoking gun.
JC: It was only later that I realized this might not be the best metaphor to use for a Lincoln situation. I hope you can forgive me. In the absence of obvious “hard” evidence for the specifics of Lincoln’s sexuality, how do we approach that ambiguity?
CH: We spoke to Margaret Middleton, a museum consultant who advises organizations on interpreting queerness. They explained a concept from their work called “queer possibility.”
Margaret Middleton: So, the way that I think about queer possibility is that it’s a strategy of countering this idea of a neutral default, heterosexual, cisgender standard. And a way of positing the fact that historical figures in the past may have had queer experiences or feelings. And I think that, you know, given the world that we’re in, where we have these norms, we have to push against them, and that’s where that possibility comes in. We may never know for sure for maybe most people, that’s not the, the most important part. I think the most important part is to, to see possibility of, of queerness.
CH: Margaret also talked with us about how they approach ambiguity with their museum clients.
MM: So when I’m consulting with museums and historic sites, they’re coming to me as somebody who’s done a lot of thinking about the interpretation of history. When I talk with clients, it’s usually, they’re usually looking for some kind of reassurance, that this is okay to talk about, that it’s relevant and that they’re not like, doing something wrong. There is this huge fear of like, getting it wrong and we don’t see that with other aspects of people’s lives when we’re looking at, at historic lives. We certainly don’t get that hung up about someone’s heterosexuality. It’s very clear that this fear is rooted in homophobia because we wouldn’t be wringing our hands about whether or not somebody was gay or whether or not we had enough evidence, unless we thought that potentially talking about someone who was straight in the past is gay, was somehow shameful that it would tarnish their legacy, or be seen as a, as a defect.
JC: Like if we were actually okay with people being gay, it wouldn’t matter if we – it would matter less if we got it wrong, you mean?
MM: Exactly. There are so many inferences that historians and history interpreters make about people in the past. And there are also so few historic sites and museums telling queer stories that I think, I think the right way to go right now is to err on the side of queerness. Like, if there’s a possibility, let’s talk about it.
JC: The next thing Margaret said really changed my perspective on how we evaluate this question.
MM: I mean, I don’t want to discount the importance of sex because sex is a, an important part of any person’s life, and it’s an important part of queer life, but I don’t think it is nearly the big important question to have about whether or not the relationships that Lincoln had were queer. To me, it’s another one of those red herring questions.
JC: That if he had exchanged emotionally intimate letters with a woman who lived in another city and they definitely never slept together, everybody would still be like “they were in love.”
MM: Right, and that it would be considered a romantic love. I think it’s safe to, to, to describe this unusually close relationship as romantic in the same way that we would describe the same correspondence if you were having with a woman.
JC: because I, I do think there are people who approach this question from, like, he wouldn’t really be gay unless there was sex involved, and it’s not that simple.
MM: Right, I mean, it’s impossible really. It’s, it’s really impossible to prove whether or not people had sex with each other. Like, we have this useful thing that happens in some heterosexual sex where there are children involved, but like, that doesn’t prove love. So, the idea that you could, you could describe someone’s sexuality using proof of sex just doesn’t seem, that doesn’t make any sense to me. And it’s, it’s not a very queer way of talking about sex, either, if we’re, if we’re saying, oh, we need, we need some amount of proof. You can have a sexual time with someone without it necessarily conforming to somebody else’s standards of what sex is. Like, it’s such a personal question, that I would like to, I would like to open it up and let more things be sex, I guess. We’ll never know what it meant to them.
CH: Wanting to know more about how Lincoln and Speed might have thought about their relationship, we reached out to Hugh Ryan, a historian of queerness in the 19th century and the author of When Brooklyn Was Queer. He agreed with Margaret about the evidence question:
Hugh Ryan: And I’m also like, prove to me that any two Victorians were having sex. Like, find the piece of paper. Even if they have kids, I don’t know who the father of that child – it’s a question that we only make quote unquote gay people answer because it is an unanswerable question. Who do we ask for evidence from? And it’s always the thing that is problematic, always the other, always the thing that goes against what we think we know about the past.
JC: Many historians working on marginalized identities, whether queer or otherwise, face an unequal burden of proof compared to their colleagues working on more traditional subjects.
CH: We asked Hugh, are gay and straight even the right boxes? How might Lincoln and Speed have understood their identities vis a vis queerness?
HR: I think there’s a lot of important context here, in the 19th century in America, life was just lived in a very different way from the way that we live it today. Men were expected to spend most of their time with men. Women were expected to spend most of their time with women. It’s really a time that’s celebrated what we would call homosocial love, right? So not homosexual, but homosocial. This might have been interpreted as quote unquote love between friends, though friends, I think in that, usage has a lot of meanings and a lot of layers that are not simply about friendship as we think of it today. In the 19th century, men and women were considered so different, so vastly different that it was like a gulf of understanding, so how could the person you were closest to be across that gulf, right? You may idolize someone on the other side, you may love them, you may feel desire for them, but they’re not gonna understand you or be like you. Which is why I really avoid using terms like heterosexual or straight to refer to people in the 19th century. First off, they couldn’t imagine a sexual orientation. In their time, sexual orientation folded under gender. It was simply a part of how good you were at being a man or how good you were at being a woman. But on top of that, they couldn’t imagine a sexuality that was shared equally between men and women. Men and women were simply too different. The idea of heterosexuality as attraction to the opposite sex that is normative and the same between men and women, that is a 20th century concept. The 19th century does not have it. It does have a concept of what it means to be queer, but it’s a very different one from the one we have today, and it’s one that Lincoln probably would not have seen himself in.
JC: You may be thinking – “well, I need to know more immediately” – that’s how I felt.
HR: In the 19th century, the idea of queerness that they had was really based in your body. This is pre-Freudian times, right? We have not yet moved personality into something that develops in our brain, having to do with experiences. Personality is tied directly to your body. So, things like if you had thin lips, you were thought to maybe be untrustworthy. Right? In this world, where sexuality has not been separated from gender and is in fact just part of how well you behave your gender, and in the world where your personality is also considered your body, their idea of queerness rested on people who did not perform gender properly. If you were upper class and educated, you might have referred to these people eventually as inverts, but you’ll see words like “fairy” or “mannish woman.” It combined our ideas of being gay, being trans, and being intersex into a singular thing. And you were literally born that way. There wasn’t much of an idea of becoming an invert until late in the 19th century. In the time when Lincoln grew up in the early 1800s, his understanding of queerness, if he had one, rested on these ideas of gender and the body – ideas that he did not live up to. He was a fairly conventionally gendered man for his time and his friends, his family, his possible lover or best friend, the man he shared a bed with for many years, was also a conventionally gendered person. I can’t speak to what they were doing sexually, but for folks who were conventionally gendered, these kinds of homosocial loves were considered absolutely appropriate, things you should pour your life into. They mattered, and they had physical dimensions, right? They slept in the same bed; they were affectionate to one another. This may have had sexual dimensions, or it may not have, but that question is a 20th century question, right? This changes over the course of the 19th century. And the reason for that is actually because of urbanization. In the 19th century, America goes from being a country where about 6% of people live in cities to a place where 40% of people live in cities. And in these cities, some really important things were happening. First off, that wall between the Victorians that I was talking about, the, the men on one side, women on the other side, really begins to crumble. You can’t keep the people separate when they’ve gotta be on the same trolleys, when they’re living on the same streets. We’ve also got tons of people moving to cities for work where they are single and separated from their families and separated from their communities, able to explore things that maybe they couldn’t do before, and suddenly on the docks of places like Brooklyn, in the mid 1800s, people who we today would call gender normative homosexuals, right? So, men attracted to other men, women attracted to other women – began to notice one another, and in seeing one another, they began to realize they had commonalities. They shared desires, ideas, experiences. And this is where we get the birth of what we might call today homophobia. Because in the 19th century, you could see an invert, right? If your mother was an invert, or you were an invert, or your best friend was an invert, it was obvious. You didn’t need to show that you weren’t an invert, it was on your body, everybody knew it. But when sexuality moves into the mind and it separates itself from gender, and it becomes a category we can identify with, we can be “gay”, or we can be “straight.” Well, now how do you prove that you’re not gay? You have to separate yourself from things like, sleeping in the same bed with your best friend or, writing letters about how much you love him, or going to a bar where actual gay people hang out, or all of these other things. So the emergence of sexuality in the 19th century because of urbanization not only allows gay people to define themselves, but it forces straight people to define themselves as well. That world only begins to evolve when Lincoln is passing, right? This is a really a, a post-Civil War world, and it’s not until the 19 teens that we fully start to get are modern ideas of what it means to be gay. They simply weren’t operative in Lincoln’s time.
JC: One of the other things I was thinking about was that, even in my lifetime, the terminology around queerness has changed a lot. The options have changed, how people prefer to be addressed has changed – but what do we do with Lincoln, who didn’t have access to this terminology? Even if he was having sex with Joshua Speed, does that make him gay? Bi? Queer?
HR: Yeah, you know, I like queer because it doesn’t ask for some of those specifics, right, which I think are impossible to know because they aren’t operative. He, he can’t actually be any of those things because he wasn’t any of those things. I often think that we should look at our terms today, things like “gay” or “sexuality,” and see them as lenses that allow us to understand the past. There’s an argument to be made that in the 19th century, the folks who we think of today as queer, the ones who recognize themselves that way, were always thinking about it in terms of gender and the body, and maybe trans history is actually a more appropriate frame for a lot of these people than gay history, even if to our modern eyes, they don’t look transgender or intersex in any way at all. That was their self-understanding. So that’s what we lose when we try to just mash these terms onto them, we have to come through their understanding and see the world that way. And then also understand how they might have identified had they lived in our time. It’s not that that’s an inappropriate question, it’s just a really limited one.
CH: Well, and it strikes me that, as I’ve found myself saying time and again to visitors, we are imposing 21st century understanding and views onto 19th century people. It’s really interesting because it made me wonder how visitors would respond to that, where this particular question is concerned. They’re very accepting of that idea with other questions, like “was Lincoln racist?,” but would they be that accepting in this case?
HR: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a new idea, it’s a, it’s an idea that a lot of people haven’t thought about. We don’t get a lot of gay history anywhere, and what we do tends to not go back further than like, the Stonewall riots. So we don’t understand even the changes that we’re talking about. I think often where I try to push back is to push back on the ideas of, of heterosexuality, of straightness, of normality. It’s not just that gay or trans is an inappropriate term to push backwards, but so are all of those. None of those terms make sense. And when we use them, we make it seem like that was always the norm, and gay people have either been hiding all this time or were just so dumb they didn’t even understand themselves, right? I think we often look back on the past and think of them as stupid variations of modern people, and that just isn’t true. They have just as much agency and identity as we have today, and yeah, they may have divided the world up differently, and maybe we can point to some kinds of science and say, oh, they were wrong in this sense, but that wrongness doesn’t matter because it’s how they experienced their identity and their world, and that’s what we’re actually interested in, the subjective experience of these people. I think the one other thing I would say is that a lot of the conversation that we’re talking about is happening among white people. That this is a set of ideas that apply to folks who have more power in their family relationships and sexuality and gender. And that the same people who are going to soon start to really define race and racism, the, the same people who are obsessed with the body, eugenicists as we’ll call them in the late 19th century, are the same ones who are going to take this lens and start defining what it means to be a homosexual, what it means to be trans, what it means to be intersex. These things are not neutral, and they are bound together, and I think that we can look at them as these discrete phenomena, but the invention really of whiteness in the 19th century and the invention of what we call sexuality in the 19th century are being done by the same people, often with the same goals, which is this idea of not racism exactly, but white supremacy. And so a lot of this, although it’s not been part of the discussion today, and I think is rarely thought about as being part of the same conversation, they really go together, the development of these ideas, it’s never neutral, right? So when I think about a lot of these ideas of sexuality, I think it is important to remember that they are connected to race and that none of these ideas are neutral, natural, or without evolution over time.
JC: One thing I’ve heard in my casual conversations with folks about this episode is a general idea that, well, if Lincoln was gay, he would have had to hide it, so we maybe wouldn’t know about it anyway.
HR: There’s this assumption that that gayness and the closet and shame are kind of always tied together. I think the, the 20th century concept of homosexuality is intrinsically entangled with shame because it’s an idea that we get to through doctors looking at people who had problems, many of whom they were finding through really strange and forced ways. So I think that our modern ideas cannot be separated from homophobia, it’s simply too entangled with it. And so when we look to the 20th century, we look for shame as the harbinger of sex. So we’ll see people, uh, Boston marriages, right? Two women who spend their entire lives together, who sleep in the same bed, who write letters to each other about anointing each other’s bodies with oil, we’ll be like, well, there’s no sense of shame, so they couldn’t have been having sex. There are these great letters in the late 19th century between these two women, Mary Hallock Foote and Helena de Kay Gilder, and they were absolutely, incredibly in love, uh, they called each other the first great passion of their lives, and they both get married, they’re both upper class white women who live pretty conventional lives and are pretty conventionally feminine. But over the course, like Lincoln, over the course of their lives, the idea of homosexuality starts to emerge. And it’s only in their later letters that we start to see them say things like, “we’ve been told we should be a little more discreet about this, so read between the lines,” that’s literally in one of their letters, is they say to read between the lines of this because not that they thought there was anything wrong in what they were doing, but these great friendships were starting to be look ed at askance, askew, and so shame was being injected into something that they had never felt shame about before.
CH: Hugh eloquently described this gap between how we understand things in the present and how Americans might have understood them in the 1800s. If there’s this huge gap that we’re trying to cross, how can we know anything about them at all?
HR: I think we can know things about them in two senses. One, it’s not inappropriate to ask questions about, how would our terms have fit them. That, that helps us to understand the limits and boundaries of our terms. But also, I think we really need to understand them in their context. We need to look at their time period and understand what it is they were actually doing, and then, and this is where y’all, I think, unfortunately, have the really difficult work, is to connect those two things. To say, they had an experience, this is what that experience was like, it’s different from ours, and here’s how that experience evolves over time into the experience you are having. And the work of the historian is to say, no, understand it in this moment, and now we’re gonna see how it gets to the modern, but they’re separate things, and we need to balance the separation and examine the continuance.
CH: This got me thinking about our role as a museum – if sites like ours felt the freedom to fully explore queer subjects, what would be the potential result for visitors? What would that do for the people who visit our sites every day?
MM: Well, studies show that lesbian, gay, and bisexual visitors all have better museum visits when they see themselves represented. And one of the top reasons why people cite their motivations for going to a museum or a historic site is to learn about people who are different from them. So if you’re taking both of those two things into consideration, it’s really meeting visitor needs to talk about historic queerness. Queer teachers and students and librarians are facing so much discrimination right now. I think that museums and historic sites have this amazing opportunity to advocate for queer people by telling queer stories.
JC: Hugh and Margaret both spoke to their personal experiences as queer people encountering queer history, whether in museums or in the question we’re asking today.
MM: I think when we omit or avoid talking about historic queerness, it comes across as kind of like a blatant omission. It seems like, I always wanna know why, that’s my experience as a museum visitor.
JC: For me, it’s sort of like, that’s what I was expecting, but I’m disappointed.
MM: Yeah. I guess, yeah, as a queer museum visitor, I don’t expect to see queerness interpreted. I’m always very happy when I do see it, but yeah, it’s a, it’s a glaring omission. And it’s, it seems purposeful. When I see interpretation in a museum setting that is very clearly leaving out some kind of queer narrative, it’s hard for me not to take that personally, that you think that it’s somehow inappropriate to talk about queerness in your museum. Does that mean it’s inappropriate for me to come to your museum as a queer person?
HR: As a queer teenager, I was asking questions like that a lot, but I didn’t ask them out loud. I was asking them of the indexes in the art history books in my library, because that’s the only place I found homosexuality in the library in the eighties. So I think it’s a question that’s natural for anyone who comes from a marginalized background or who didn’t get the chance to learn their history in school, to have questions like that, right? We’re looking to history because otherwise we feel alone, freakish, weird, strange, isolated – all of these things that can be really damaging when you’re a teenager, especially trying to figure out who you are and who you want to be. And so I think this question actually is really important. We come to history because we’re looking for a mirror. We wanna see ourselves somewhere. But the actual power of history is that it’s not a mirror, it’s a window. We are looking through our own reflections, which give us an idea of what we’re looking for, but we’re seeing something really different – if we let ourselves. You know, 10 years ago even I wouldn’t have been getting to do this with y’all, uh, in the Lincoln Cottage Podcast. So, it means a lot. It means a lot.
CH: Now that we understand some of the complexities of how to talk about it, I wanted to know: what was the foundation for this really close relationship? What drew Speed and Lincoln to each other?
CS: That’s a very interesting question. I think for Lincoln, Speed, who was five years younger, represented a kind of a smart, outgoing younger brother that he had, he had never had. He was surrounded by a family whom he frankly didn’t, couldn’t relate to. They were not intellectual, and downwardly mobile, and farmers. Where, whereas, Speed was very well educated, he was southern aristocrat, he’d grown up on a plantation, he could dance well and you know, Speed was friends with Mary Todd before Lincoln met Mary Todd. Cause Speed came to Springfield in 1834, and you know, he set up a store, and he was part of the Edwards household and the dances, and he could, he was sophisticated and intelligent, and, and so I think for Lincoln, he represented, he was at ease in society in a way, in that period, that Lincoln also often felt uncertain in, and, and ill at ease. Whereas Speed could, he knew how to dance, he was outgoing, he could deal well with the salons and the, and the Edwards house., I think Lincoln trusted the authenticity of Speed’s affection for him. And I think Speed on the other hand, had tremendous admiration for Lincoln’s incredible intelligence, for his political sagacity. He knew him up close and he knew he was a remarkable, remarkable man. And Speed had heard Lincoln give speeches and was enormously impressed.
CH: It sounds like they had this real mutual admiration for each other that just was really binding. That’s, that’s amazing, I mean, what more could you want from a friendship?
CS: And Lincoln, didn’t open up to other men in his life. You know, he was always friendly and other people thought he was their best friend. But nobody, nobody got close to Lincoln. No male ever got close to Lincoln except, uh, Joshua Speed. But what, what Lincoln and Speed represented was a was a category of loving male friendships that we don’t fully have now, or we have in different kinds of ways. So that’s really what I think the relationship probably amounted to. But, but people who, particularly people within the homosexual world, they – understandably – want to imagine, want to believe that a genuine American hero like Abraham Lincoln, is part of their community. And that’s a totally understand, understandable wish, and it could be true, or it could not be true. I would like to say that my book makes the question infinitely more complicated than we thought it was, but doesn’t answer the question because ultimately, the question can’t be answered.
JC: If we can’t answer this question, why do people care so much about the answer? What can it tell us about Lincoln?
CS: Fully appreciating the significance of Speed for Lincoln tells you a lot about young Lincoln that I think people often gloss over. A lot about him, what he was as a person, as a man. And so the very question probed in depth, opens up other kinds of issues that we care about. What was the nature of his relationship with Mary? What is the broken courtship all about? Why did he go into a, a suicidal depression in January of 1841, when he was tended in his bed and taken, they took his knives and razors away, tended by Joshua Speed.
JC: Yeah, so I’m kind of hearing you say that this worry about the queerness of the question is keeping people from understanding Speed’s importance in Lincoln’s life and keeping us from really getting a full window onto Lincoln’s humanity.
CS: I totally agree.
CH: Margaret agreed that relationships are essential to understanding the full picture of someone’s life.
MM: We hear this one a lot: oh, that’s their personal life, that’s TMI. But somehow that only applies to homosexuality, it doesn’t apply to heterosexuality. I mean, when it comes to Lincoln, you know, I mean, gosh, I don’t know anything about First Ladies, but I can say, like I can rattle off like “Mary Todd Lincoln,” like that’s like ingrained in my head, because I think that we’re all on the same page – people’s relationships are important to understanding their lives. Their families, their communities all have influence on them, so that’s why we talk about them when we talk about somebody’s biography. Like we, we include all those relationships.
JC: You’re kind of saying if the relationships didn’t matter, we wouldn’t know Mrs. Lincoln’s name either.
MM: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, it’s transparent, right? It’s very transparent. And I think that we can trace these double standards throughout so many aspects of, of history interpretation, um, that, that we just, we have a whole, a whole different set of unspoken rules about whether or not it’s ok to talk about potential queerness in the past. I mean, I think what’s, like, something that’s interesting about Lincoln in particular is I think of him as, I think of the relationship that Americans have with him as being like this, very emotional relationship. Maybe more so than most other presidents. He’s kind of universally embraced across party lines in a way that’s really interesting, and beloved by a lot of people with really different ideas. And I think as like, with, with presidents, world leaders, people that are looked up to in the past, I think there’s this idea of, people want to relate to them and see themselves in those people. So, yeah, I think that there are probably a lot of people who feel personally affronted by the idea of Lincoln being gay because it goes against their own identity. There’s so much that we think about when it comes to his internal life. We look at those, those, you know, pre-civil war and during Civil war portraits and his death mask, and we see the care in his face, and we think about his passion for people. There’s so much speculation that we do about his internal life that it is glaring and artificial when that curiosity stops at his sexuality.
CH: As we said earlier, we’re big fans of curiosity ourselves! I asked Margaret what they would like to see as conversations about historic queerness continue to develop.
MM: Well, I would like to see, I would like to see our conversations about historic queerness come from this place of abundance and curiosity and positivity. I’m not looking for heroes, you know, or, or people to claim. I mean, I, I like the idea of Lincoln having this really, like, lovely, I mean, you know, I’ve, I’ve seen a couple of excerpts of his letters with Speed. They clearly had so much affection for one another and oh, I just, I like the idea of them cuddling up together in Illinois and just like having a nice ongoing relationship, writing letters about how nervous they were about getting married and all of that, like to think that he had more than one love in his life, I think is a wonderful thing to think about.
JC: I found that wish for a more bountiful love for Lincoln very moving and nice to think about. I’m hopeful we can continue to embrace opportunities to look for love in the past and in the present.
CH: We want to encourage you to think about: Where do you see yourself in history? How can you be open to more queer possibility?
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, with Callie Hawkins and support from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is made possible by listeners like you. You can support the show by joining Team Lincoln at www.lincolncottage.org, where you can also check out our other online and in person programming. To keep up with new episodes this season, please subscribe.
JC: To the teens who brought us this question, thanks for being willing to ask in the first place.
CH: Comments? Questions? Write to us at email@example.com.
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!