Getting in Touch with Your Own Inner Lincoln

LincolnTomorrow will be my first full day with my Lincoln class.  We are going to begin by focusing on our own beliefs about Lincoln.  My class is a nice mix of new students along with those I taught last year in both regular and AP American history; this will give me a chance to gauge what we know or what we think we know about Lincoln.  I am going to share some images of Lincoln that span both his life down to the present.  [The image to the left is one of my favorites, which appeared in Salon magazine as part of a review of Tripp’s study.] This will hopefully give us a sense of how pervasive Lincoln’s image is and the ways it has been employed.  Finally, I asked my students to read Lincoln’s December 1859 autobiography which he prepared for Illinois newspaperman Jesse Fell.  Ending with Lincoln’s own words will give students an idea of how he remembered his own past before we dive into his early life next week with the Gienapp biography, and articles by Doug Wilson and Jean H. Baker. 

The image of Lincoln above also provides an opportunity to comment on another Republican.  Everyone is no doubt aware of the story involving Republican Senator Larry Craig.  There is something disturbing about a public official who campaigns on issues of "family values", votes against gay rights legislation at every opportunity, and turns out to be gay.  I wish Craig had the courage to serve as an openly gay member of the Senate and representative of the Log Cabin Republicans.  Last I checked honesty and integrity were family values.  How many more social conservatives are hiding their homosexuality?  The Democrats have recently turned up the rhetoric in their attempt to attract social conservatives who are frustrated with the numerous scandals within the Republican Party.  My advice is to keep your mouths shut and work on governing the country.  Are our elected officials really the kinds of people we want telling us how to behave?  If Democrats and Republicans wanted to be seen as representing family values they would have acted to address the damage done by Katrina more quickly, and they would be working at this very moment to end this nightmare that we’ve created in Iraq.  Think of all the families that have been destroyed both here and in Iraq as we debate family values issues.   

19 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2007 @ 9:26

    Matthew, — I find the same thing with my students. Sure there are those who feel uncomfortable, but more and more are moving beyond these rather simplistic and discriminatory views. We have a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance at our school, which is very active in the life of the school. It’s unfortunate that there are people who feel a need to reduce people down to sexuality, but I suspect that the tide is turning. In the end, as I’ve suggested before, there is no difference between the arguments against homosexuality and those once used in the context of race.

  • matthew mckeon Sep 1, 2007 @ 9:10

    Thank you for your response. Our situations are quite different. Cebula has a point, because gayness is stigmatized and any discussion of sex usually generates more heat than light I would want to make sure it was established and important.
    In my limited point of view, sexual orientation is less of an issue with the students than the faculty.

  • Larry Cebula Sep 1, 2007 @ 8:34

    The evidence for Lincoln’s homosexuality is indeed thin, but it is suggestive. If it were anyone but Lincoln, and if it were anything but homosexuality, the theory would get a much better hearing than it has.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2007 @ 8:24

    Matthew, — Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that the evidence for all of this is thin. That said, one of the things I try to convey to my students is the way historical explanations are evaluated by the community. As for the time constraint remember that this is a semster course on Lincoln. Of course this issue is in no way going to dominate the course, in fact, it may only be discussed for part of a class towards the end of the semester.

  • matthew mckeon Sep 1, 2007 @ 8:19

    The trouble with gay Lincoln is that:
    1) Tripp’s evidence is thin
    2) See #1

    As a teacher of non AP, urban public school, I have trouble enough getting the kids to learn the stuff that historians are certain about, let alone the stuff that is widely rejected.

    Being mostly adolescent boys I can make book that one will say something like “gaybraham”(giggle, giggle) and that will be the only thing they recall about the Gettysburg Address. If Abe’s sexual orientation is established I would teach it, as I have other gay or bisexual historical figures. I mean, you can’t teach ancient Greece without addressing sexual relationships between men.

    I wouldn’t “get in trouble” with the school system If I taught that Baron von Steuben or Pat Cleburne were gay. But I teach in Massachusetts, maybe that’s a factor.

    I used to show parts of “Little Big Man” when we did Westward Movement, which featured a gay Cheyenne man. While they established he was gay by making him act swishy and lisping, the kids are totally cool with some of the heroes being gay and accepted by the other heroes.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2007 @ 16:40

    Hi Richard, — Some of the responses got me off topic given the content of the post, but unfortunately, I often make the mistake of continuing it.

    You are absolutely correct that there are language concerns and questions about social habits that need to be considered. C.A. Tripp is on the shakiest ground when he analyzes this in _The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln_. His study includes chapters on Lincoln’s relationship withh Ann Rutledge, Elmer Ellsworth, and Leonard Swett. The Afterword includes responses by Michael Burlingame and Michael Chesson.

  • Richard Phillips Aug 31, 2007 @ 16:33

    Hello Kevin

    Had to check this blog several times today, was curious about the responses. In talking about Lincoln do you reference the social habits of men at this time. I know that in hotels it was common for men to sleep in the same bed. In reading some of Lincolns letters you would think he was writing to a lover instead of a friend but this is looking thru my 2007 eyes. It is my understanding that men used what we would today think of as intimate language in corresponding to each other.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 31, 2007 @ 15:58

    No – not at all Kevin. But I do believe that we should vote (everytime and on everything) based upon our own personal moral beliefs.

    The majority of voters in VA voted to ban gay marriage (at the voting polls) – Therefore according to their ‘moral beliefs’ (which drove their vote) they were against it.

    That’s all I meant by citing that. You said you found the notion absurd, and I said that the majority of Virginians disagreed with you – hence the ban which was determined by a majority vote of “No gay marriage”.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2007 @ 15:46

    I have yet to see how referencing a poll has anything to do with taking or constructing a moral position. Are you suggesting that if the people of Virginia voted against interracial marriages in the next election that the practice should necessarily be considered immoral?

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 31, 2007 @ 15:42

    Kevin, you said “Thanks for the history of polls on the subject; unfortunately, I don’t refer to such things when thinking through my moral beliefs.”

    Does that mean that you do not vote at the polls based upon your ‘moral beliefs’? Those were the ‘polls’ that I referenced. (We voted against gay marriage here in VA.)

    Once again, it is NOT my intention to get in a fight with you. i just wanted to clarify my statment. I’m moving on. It’s always a pleasure ‘debating’ you.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2007 @ 14:38

    As I stated in the post all of these students have taken one year of American history and a few took the Advanced Placement course so they have the necessary background.

    It’s impossible for me to know what you have in mind when you suggest that they are not ready to discuss issues of history and sexuality. I taught an entire semester course last year on modern women’s history which included many discussions of how notions of gender and sexuality have evolved in recent years.

    I am not going to speculate as to what you mean by normal or abnormal.

  • HankC Aug 31, 2007 @ 14:20

    Won oneders if these students have enough basis in history to go ‘Tripping’ into this arena.

    For this same reason, vet and med schools do not teach disease and illness until after the 2nd year. The students do not yet have a practical grounding in the primary subject yet. Basically, the abnormal cannot be taught until the normal is known.


  • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2007 @ 12:56

    Michael, — Actually, the comments were not directed at you per se, but to show that one can teach an issue without necessarily injecting a personal opinion into it.

    Thanks for the history of polls on the subject; unfortunately, I don’t refer to such things when thinking through my moral beliefs. I also believe that the institution of slavery was immoral at times in our history where a large percentage believed it to be morally justified.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 31, 2007 @ 12:50

    Kevin, please don’t take that the wrong way. It was not my intent to start an argument over your classroom policies. I was simply commenting on an observation that I later understood better after re-reading the entire piece you linked to (hence my follow-on post). However, since you added them… in regards to your comments to me… you obviously have one perspective on the subject of homosexuality and think that mine is absurd – and I say that the opposite is absurd. I have no problem agreeing to disagree with you here, but please understand that you are certainly in the minority. If you weren’t, there would already be legally ‘recognized’ gay marriage and other ‘like-equalities’ adopted into law. America has voted repeatedly on this issue and has said at the polls that it is not acceptable. Virginia (as a state and at a local level) has said that it is not acceptable. Personally, I have no problem as a devout Christian accepting same-sex Civil Unions between partners. I have no problem with that at all, and I also have no opinion on the sharing of benefits etc.. I just refuse to ever acknowledge it as ‘holy matrimony’ which (IMO) is being joined together in the eyes of God in a church. (The same goes for traditional marriages. No priest, or minister, or rabbi, or house of worship involved then no ‘holy’ in the matrimony. That’s for a different debate all together. Once again, no need to start another fight. The ‘spirit’ of your reply was not my intent here. I simply wondered what the difference was between presenting ones spirituality vs. sexuality. You answered. Thanks.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2007 @ 11:56

    Sorry Michael, but I really don’t have any clue as to how I should respond to your questions. To think that I downplay or ignore religion as an important factor in the serious study of the history of this country or of a given individual’s life is simply absurd. It suggests that you don’t really understand some of my point regarding the role that religion plays in our memory of the Civil War/Confederacy, etc. I am a teacher and I do not shy away from introducing controversial ideas to my students. I will introduce the gay Lincoln theory to the class because it is part of the historiography. We will read what historians have to say and critically discuss it. What is so controversial about that? Lincoln may have been gay depending on how one reads the evidence.

    By the way I don’t consider homosexuality to be controversial or immoral in any sense. The arguments against it, including those coming out of Christianity, are as absurd as the arguments once used in support of slavery. So please don’t confuse your own view of it with a mature discussion of sexuality in the classroom. I don’t gauge what I deem to appropriate by what is done in public schools or what is deemed to be appropriate in your neck of the woods.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 31, 2007 @ 9:48

    Kevin, I read the entire article and I think that I understand. You are presenting the idea behind the actual ‘notion’ of this theory, and how it has been entered into the arena of historical memory. Correct?

    I was confused before as I thought that you were endorsing this implied character trait of Lincoln as a valid possibility, when you had discounted other individual’s religious character traits – which may or may not fall under the same umbrella as subjective history.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 31, 2007 @ 9:23

    Kevin, Sorry, but I have to respectfully ask this… in the past you have discussed what you refer to as the religious character of historical individuals as not necessarily being an accurate, noteworthy, or even valid (at times) part of historical memory, yet you are using the gay-Lincoln theory as material? What is the difference – and isn’t it a little hypocritical of you to discount theories about one’s piousness, yet discuss controversial theories about their sexual preferences. Honestly, I am surprised that you are able to do this in a VA school. This approach would not go over well here in our neck of the woods. Regardless, I know that you are a smart teacher Kevin, but I think you may be contradicting yourself on this one. You discount the historical approaches of the Bible-thumpers, but embrace the gay ones? Maybe I’m just not getting it, but I’m a little confused on this one.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2007 @ 7:12

    Hi Larry, — This is indeed a high school class. Not only am I going to show that image today, but towards the end of the semester we are going to read and critique a bit of Tripp along with some responses.

  • Larry Cebula Aug 31, 2007 @ 7:09

    Wait, is this a high school class? My wife is a former high school teacher and around here you would not dare even mention the gay Lincoln theory (or gay anyone else theory) in a public school classroom. Your job would vanish quicker that a Republican senator’s pants in an airport restroom.

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