In recent years, as gays have come out of the closet and into the mainstream of American life, there’s been a big effort by gays to “out” famous Americans of the past. It’s easy to understand why. Gays want people to understand that they’ve made important contributions to American life. And outside of the arts, most of those contributions were made by people who had to hide their homosexuality.
In his recent biography of Alexander Hamilton, for example, Ron Chernow unearthed long-suppressed love letters between Hamilton and his boyfriend, John Laurens, when they were young men during the Revolution. Later in his life, Hamilton was married and had affairs with both men and women. Chernow’s great biography is not prurient at all, but does show how Hamilton’s constant risk-taking in his sex life was part and parcel of his character, and came to jeopardize everything else he’d worked so hard to achieve.
Of more dubious value was C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, which makes a lot out of Honest Abe’s close friendship with Joshua Speed, with whom he shared a bed in his circuit rider days; his stormy marriage to Mary Todd; and his fondness for bawdy jokes. Tripp’s book fails to convince because it pulls Lincoln’s actions out of any historical context. Same-sex bed sharing was common on the frontier in those days; so were intense romantic friendships. In those days, sex was almost never talked about, and many people in polite society didn’t even know that gays existed. This actually freed people to have close friendships in a way that we have not had since sex began to come out into the open (around the time of the Depression). Besides, in later years Lincoln often publicly introduced Speed as the man he used to sleep with, which he hardly would have done if he were worried about any scandal.
Some gay historians have also turned their attention to Meriwether Lewis. Unfortunately, very little of Lewis’s personal correspondence has come to light, so the case for Lewis being gay has to be based largely on conjecture and circumstantial evidence. Lewis had certain traits that we think of today as being stereotypically gay. When he worked as Thomas Jefferson’s secretary, he was a well-known dandy who wore all the latest fashions in clothes and hair style — what we might call today a “metrosexual.” Not only that, he was high-strung, temperamental, and loquacious. And one day on the Expedition, when the Corps of Discovery was pulverized by a hail storm, Captain Lewis gathered up some of the hail stones and made punch.
It’s easy to make fun of this mighty thin gruel. More substantively, Lewis was never married and was notably unsuccessful with women. When he came back from the Expedition, he wrote that he was “determined to get a wife.” But despite being well-built, nice-looking, and a genuine American hero, Lewis repeatedly struck out. Something about his personality sent women screaming in the other direction. After one particularly brutal dumping, in which Lewis went to the woman’s house only to find she had left town in the middle of the night, he wrote glumly, “I never felt less like a hero.” At age 35, he felt doomed to remain a “musty, fusty, rusty old bachelor.”
Lewis’s letters and his Expedition journals reveal a man profoundly uncomfortable with sex. When writing about women back home in Virginia, Lewis writes not of specific girls, but of “fair ones” and “celestial creatures.” When writing about Indian women, Lewis seems positively repulsed, especially by the naked Clatsop women on the Pacific Coast, who exposed their “bubbies” and “battery of Venus” for the world to see.
There’s a great discussion of Lewis’s writings on sex and women in Clay Jenkinson’s monograph The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Completely Metamorphosed in the West. Jenkinson doesn’t think that Lewis was gay, but he does think that Lewis, like his mentor Thomas Jefferson, had some serious issues that prevented him from finding love and being happy with a woman. Others aren’t so sure. Brian Hall based his successful historical novel, I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company, on the premise that Lewis was gay and had unrequited love for Clark. Lewis’s suicide provides the capstone to all the conjecture. Many gays have experienced the haunting loneliness that comes with the certain knowledge of social ostracism if their proclivities became known. What better explanation of Lewis’s tragic death do you need?
Well, maybe. It’s certainly possible that Lewis was gay. Lots of people with his personality type and problems are. But there are also a lot of straight men who wear nice clothes, are squirmy around open displays of nudity, and can’t get a girlfriend. Maybe he came on too strong. Maybe no woman could measure up to his mother. Maybe stories about his drinking and carousing got around.
Or maybe Lewis was just clueless. After all, this is the man who wrote when Sacagawea told the story of how she was kidnapped as a young girl, “I cannot discover that she shews any immotion of sorrow in recollecting this even, or of joy in being restored to her native country; if she has enough to eat and a few trinkets to wear I believe she would be perfectly content anywhere.” To say the least, these aren’t the words every woman longs to hear.
If Lewis was gay, his enemies didn’t pick up on it. In the Hamilton biography, Chernow provides examples of times when Hamilton’s detractors wrote snidely that Hamilton “pranced” or otherwise acted “effeminate” or “womanish.” A great website about Pierre L’Enfant, the architect of Washington, D.C., talks about the way George Washington and others reacted with alarm to his homosexuality. It seems impossible that Lewis’s enemies, especially the gossipy and destructive Frederick Bates, would have failed to comment if they found anything gay about Lewis’s behavior.
Unless more papers are found that might shed some light on this topic, all we can do is wonder about this piece of the very complex puzzle that was Meriwether Lewis.
More interesting reading:
Sex in the 1790s (From Bob Arnebeck’s website about early Washington, D.C., which covers many topics, not just those about sex. Check out The General and the Plan and be prepared to spend the afternoon!)