Over 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president. Many of these books either allude to or specifically report on Lincoln's ambiguous relationships with men. Lincoln lived with and shared a bed with Joshua Speed for four years, and they remained friends years after they no longer lived together. He also had a close relationship with Captain David Derickson, who would stay with Lincoln overnight at the Soldier's Home (a retreat from the White House) when Lincoln's wife Mary left town. There were reports of Captain Derickson wearing Lincoln's nightshirt, and Lincoln has been quoted as saying, with a "twinkle" in his eye, "The captain and I are getting quite thick."
Many historians are quick to say that men shared beds due to a bed shortage and that surely Lincoln, the savior of the Union, could not have been gay. The studied impulse to make Lincoln absolutely heterosexual reflects a discernible societal discomfort with the complexities of human sexuality and sexual orientation, as well as deeply embedded streaks of homophobia.
American history is written not only in books but in the sacred narration of family stories that endure as indelible parchment in our hearts. Thomas Jefferson had an affair with his slave Sally Hemings, fathering many children with her. The family history of Sally Hemings' descendants never wavered from the fact of Jefferson's paternity, though their claims were disputed by many offended historians. Surely, these historians protested, the author of the Declaration of Independence would not have had sexual liaisons with a slave. Genetic testing proved them wrong.
America's founding fathers had sex with slaves. There's no dispute over that fact. This brings us to my own family history. Growing up, my mother told me that we were from Blair House, the White House's official guest house. She stated that her great-grandmother was a servant at Blair House, had an affair with the master of Blair House and also babysat Lincoln's kids. The affair produced a child, Mattie, born Oct. 20, 1860.
When I began to research this family story, I found that the master of the house was none other than Montgomery Blair, Lincoln's Postmaster General (a member of the cabinet) and a lawyer for Dred Scott in the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford case. His father was Francis P. Blair, one of the founders of the Republican Party. While I have not yet learned the name of my great-great-grandmother, I found indisputable evidence that the Blairs owned slaves and had set them free before the Civil War. I also found that most of those former slaves remained working for the Blair families.
Because this research also led me to learn more about Abraham Lincoln, it resulted in my falling in love with him. I read about Lincoln's great soul, his better angel genius, his love for his children, his love of animals, his soaring words, his melancholy and his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. And as I went on this journey, I also read about his apparent male preference in his social life. This led me to find increasing evidence about his sexuality. As a sexologist, I posit that Lincoln was a Kinsey 4 -- homosexual with more than incidental opposite-sex contact. But as I studied Lincoln's magnificent life, I realized that William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner for 20 years and the keeper of Lincoln's legacy, never mentioned anything that would leave one to believe that Lincoln was gay.
One day I was having lunch with Rev. Cindi Love, the executive director of Soulforce. I was telling her about my family history, my burgeoning love affair with Abraham Lincoln and my quest for more information. "I have been researching Lincoln and found a lot about his relationships with men, and I am getting this from a many sources," I told her. "But I am puzzled about one thing: William Herndon has not mentioned or written anything that would indicate that Lincoln was gay."
She gave me a telling look and said, "Well, here is the missing piece of your puzzle. My maiden name is Herndon. William Herndon was my great-great-uncle, and he was gay, and he was Lincoln's lover." She went on to talk about how this information was handed down from generation to generation in the Herndon family.
There are history books, and then there are generational stories that give character and quality to the threads on the loom of history. I believe that Lincoln was gay, and I see that as simply the sweet icing on the cake of the life story of our greatest president.