It's a persistent rumor, and one that has some basis in historical fact: Was Abraham Lincoln gay?
Abraham Lincoln was such a pivotal figure in American history that he’s inspired a field of scholarship devoted to him alone. Serious historians with advanced degrees have spent their whole professional lives poring over the most minute details of Lincoln’s life. Few of us would fare well under that level of scrutiny, and every few years a new theory arrives that supposedly explains this or that unresolved question about the man who was arguably America’s greatest president.
Scholars have debated whether Abraham Lincoln suffered from a host of physical ailments, whether or not he was clinically depressed, and — perhaps most intriguingly to some — if he was gay…
Was Abraham Lincoln Gay? Surface Impressions
On the surface, nothing about Lincoln’s public life suggested anything but a heterosexual orientation. As a young man he courted women and eventually married Mary Todd, who bore him four children.
Lincoln told racy jokes about sex with women, he privately boasted about his success with the ladies before marriage, and he was known to flirt with Washington socialites from time to time. Even in the salacious yellow press of his day, none of Lincoln’s many enemies hinted he might be less than totally straight.
Appearances can deceive, however. During Abraham Lincoln’s lifetime, America was going through one of its periodic bouts of extreme Puritanism, with a general expectation that ladies will be chaste and gentlemen will not stray from their sides. Men who were suspected of what the law described as “sodomy” or “unnatural acts” lost their careers and their standing in the community. An accusation of this sort could even lead to serious prison time, so it’s no surprise that the historical record from the 19th century is sparse in openly gay public figures.
A Streak of Lavender
In 1837, the 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln arrived in Springfield, Illinois, to found a law practice. Almost immediately, he struck up a friendship with a 23-year-old shopkeeper named Joshua Speed. There may have been an element of calculation to this friendship, since Joshua’s father was a prominent judge, but the two clearly hit it off. Lincoln rented an apartment with Speed, where the two slept in the same bed. Sources from the time, including the two men themselves, describe them as inseparable.
Lincoln and Speed were close enough to still raise eyebrows today. Speed’s father died in 1840, and shortly afterwards, Joshua announced plans to return to the family plantation in Kentucky. The news seems to have stricken Lincoln. On January 1, 1841, he broke off his engagement with Mary Todd and made plans to follow Speed to Kentucky.
Speed left without him, but Lincoln followed a few months later, in July. In 1926, writer Carl Sandburg published a biography of Lincoln in which he described the relationship between the two men as having, “a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets.” Eventually, Joshua Speed would marry a woman named Fanny Henning. The marriage lasted 40 years, until Joshua’s death in 1882, and produced no children.