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April 15, 2009 / howardmestas

DID LINCOLN OWN SLAVES?

First Log Cabin Republican?

First Log Cabin Republican?

Everything You Always
Wanted To Know About Abe

But Were Afraid To Ask!

Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most iconic individual in American History and folklore. His image is adorned by monuments from Mt. Rushmore to Washington, D.C.; and one can hardly ignore his continued presence in everyday situations such as purchasing a product with a five-dollar-bill and getting back change with “Lincoln head” pennies. He is considered by most to be our greatest president who saved the Union, ended slavery, and wrote two of our most cherished speeches in the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural. With all these reminders, “Honest Abe” in ingrained in our minds and in our hearts, yet most of what we know about him is based more on legend than on fact. What we sincerely know best about him we really don’t know at all. Or it is exaggerated, or based on what others with an agenda would like us to think.

With such a legacy, it’s no wonder that people are curious, and occasionally anxious about the truth regarding our sixteenth president. Gerald Prokopowicz’s book, Did Lincoln Own Slaves?, is a careful catalogue of the thousands of questions he was asked over the course of nine years as resident scholar of the Lincoln Museum at Fort Wayne, Indiana. Some the questions are shocking, some are thought provoking, and some are just plain stupid. Equally, some of the answers are surprising, but most could probably be deduced by using common sense.

The litany of inquiries include just about everything from, “Was Abraham Lincoln’s last name really Lincoln?” to “Was Lincoln’s corpse ever stolen?” So what does the book really tell us about Lincoln? First off, he was a hard guy to understand, even by his closest friends, which may account for so many interpretations. Secondly, there are things we can never really know because the answers would all be based on conjecture. So in reality, Prokopowicz’s book may provoke more questions than answers.

Some of the most enjoyable answers came from questions about Lincoln’s athletic ability. Aside from the author’s belief that he possibly could have been the first white guy before steroids able to dunk a basketball, Lincoln’s storied reputation as a wrestler is fascinating. Ironically, his only known match happened in 1831 as a new arrival to his adopted hometown of New Salem. Much is revealed about Lincoln’s character in that event in that he was unafraid to take on the town’s known bully Jack Armstrong. No one is really sure who won the match, but he did manage to earn the respect of Armstrong and his gang of thugs, the “Clary’s Grove Boys.” Honest Abe was versatile enough to be competitive in just about every activity he tried, including “town ball,” which was an early form of baseball only with bases laid out in a square and not in the form of a diamond. Lincoln’s strength was revealed early in his youth when he worked as a rail splitter, which involved pounding a sledge hammer on an iron wedge to split logs into four equal sized fence posts. During the Civil War, he would “show off” his incredible strength by holding an axe horizontally, gripping only the very end of the handle, a feat no soldier could duplicate.

Since Lincoln has been baptized posthumously by so many so many modern revivalists, it was refreshing to read from an expert that evidence of his religiosity is mostly unsubstantiated. Although he may have used the words, “God” or “Almighty” in many of his addresses, this may have been politically motivated to appease the audience of his day. Certainly, he was fluent in biblical terminology, but the same can be said of his verse for Shakespeare. Both can probably be attributed to his voracious appetite for reading, especially literature that could explain difficult situations with poetic articulation. Without question Lincoln was a spiritual man, but his belief system was that of a deist who believed in “Providence” as a product and not as the guidance of a higher power. According to Prokopowicz, in New Salem, “Lincoln associated with freethinkers who doubted the divinity of Jesus, and he wrote an essay mocking the idea that Jesus was the son of God.” Of course this manuscript was tossed into the fire by his friends to “protect his budding political career.” According to Mary Todd Lincoln, “who ought to have known, he was not even a Christian.” Of course, it is only coincidence that he was born on the same exact day as Charles Darwin.

The most intriguing questions and answers were those concerning Lincoln’s sexuality; basically, “Was Lincoln gay?” This is no small matter since according to Prokopowicz; this is the number one Lincoln question of the twenty-first century! Surprisingly, the author skirts around the question by suggesting that there was no such definition identifying one as “gay” in the course of Lincoln’s era, although he admits that Lincoln may have engaged in “homoerotic” activities. Historians have never denied the “emotional intimacy” between Lincoln and his lifelong companion Josh Speed based on their many revealing letters to one another. But let’s be serious, Lincoln and Speed lived together and shared the same bed for four years! The rail splitter also had a close personal relationship with Captain David V. Derickson, who was assigned as his bodyguard on his frequent retreats to the Soldier’s Home during the Civil War. The two spent so much time together, and were so reclusive, that rumors were rampant within soldier’s camp. Many claimed that when Mrs. Lincoln was away, the two slept in the same bed chamber with Derickson often seen wearing the president’s nightshirt. So based on the known evidence, and the lack of outright denials from reputable historians, Honest Abe probably was at least partially gay by today’s definitions. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

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One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. marksims / Jun 7 2009 2:53 pm

    What are your sources for the assertion that Lincoln and his body guard illicited rumors around the soldier’s camps. I’ve read a great deal on Lincoln and never encountered that before.

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