Magazine October 14, 2019, Issue

Was James Buchanan Gay?

From the cover of Bosom Friends (Oxford University Press)
Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, by Thomas J. Balcerski (Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $34.95)

Was President James Buchanan gay? Probably not. At least, so says the historian Thomas Balcerski (who is gay himself, if that matters). There’s no need for a spoiler alert on this revelation, since Balcerski states his conclusion on page twelve and then spends the rest of the book intermittently setting forth the mixture of documentation (mostly letters), antique gossip, and retro-gaydar that has led him to it. And the case he makes is pretty convincing; every dozen pages or so we see Buchanan, who died a bachelor, chasing, flirting with, mooning over, or writing poetry for another young woman, well into his seventh decade. If he actually was gay and this was all a ruse to cover it up, he was way overacting.

Buchanan’s purported homosexuality has inspired considerable literary and scholarly output in the last few decades, including a 1987 article in the noted historical journal Penthouse. The question arises because Buchanan spent a good portion of his political prime, coinciding roughly with the 1830s, in a very close friendship with another lifelong bachelor: William Rufus King of Alabama — a senator, diplomat, and finally vice president under Franklin Pierce (for a month and a half, until King died of tuberculosis). When Congress was in session, the two men shared a “mess” (a rooming and eating house) with a shifting cast of fellow bachelors, and they were so often seen in each other’s company that they were called “Siamese twins” or “Orestes and Pylades” (and various ruder names). Balcerski is less certain about King’s sexuality than he is about Buchanan’s, but he leans toward the view that King was indeed gay. This could explain why, when political rivals or hostile editors made fun of the pair, it was almost always King who was cast as “Aunt Nancy” or “Buchanan’s wife,” and why King was clearly the more needy partner in this friendship, complaining petulantly when Buchanan was slow to answer his letters.

Each member of the pair had a story of tragic love for a woman in his past. Buchanan’s was well known in his hometown of Lancaster, Pa.: In 1818 Ann Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy local industrialist, accepted Buchanan’s marriage proposal, but once they were engaged, Buchanan neglected her for his law practice, and after one too many slights from him, she died of an overdose of laudanum — perhaps intentionally. This scenario is certainly consistent with Buchanan’s being gay, but it’s also consistent with his being faint-hearted or her being high-strung. Whatever the explanation, Buchanan took Ann’s death hard, even as her friends “look[ed] upon him as a Murderer,” as a local resident wrote. When Buchanan recovered, he returned to politics (he had previously served a term in the Pennsylvania legislature as a Federalist) and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1820, beginning a four-decade stretch during which he was never far from the federal government, in one capacity or another.

And King? Well, in 1817, while on a diplomatic mission to St. Petersburg, he attended the wedding of a Russian princess. According to a story often repeated in the King family, as he clasped the bride’s hand while congratulating her after the ceremony, they looked into each other’s eyes and instantly felt a deep mutual love. Of course it could never be consummated, but King knew immediately that she was the One and he could never love another woman. So he let go of her hand, and that was that.

This encounter was unwitnessed, and it does sound like something you’d make up as a cover story if you had read a bunch of early-19th-century romantic novels and weren’t trying very hard to be convincing. In King’s correspondence, affectionate notes to young women like those Buchanan wrote are few and far between and seem forced, and he peremptorily deflects any discussion of marriage. So all around, King seems a better candidate than Buchanan for the title of First Gay Holder of National Office.

(Coincidentally, Buchanan also went on a diplomatic mission to St. Petersburg, a decade after King, but these two were not the only American diplomats sent to Russia in that era who may have been LGBTQ avant les lettres. For a few months in 1830, America’s minister to Russia was longtime Virginia congressman John Randolph of Roanoke, who was generally understood to be of ambiguous gender and sexuality and who, sure enough, also had a tragic love affair in his past. The Dictionary of American Biography’s entry on Randolph states, somewhat mysteriously, that “the universal contemporary opinion that he was impotent” was “verified after his death.”)

What about those years when Buchanan and King shared a Washington mess? Might there have been a casual relationship there? No one can say for sure, but for what it’s worth, the messmates slept in separate rooms; this wasn’t the 1790s, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison occasionally shared beds in rustic inns while traveling together, nor was Washington a frontier town of a few thousand like Springfield, Ill., where Abraham Lincoln and his roommate Joshua Speed had to share a bed for several years. In any event, there was never a whiff of scandal outside Washington for either man, and neither one was ever linked with another male “wife.” An 1844 letter in which Buchanan states, “I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen but have not succeeded with any one of them,” often cited as evidence for the gay-Buchanan theory, is very clearly about searching for a messmate, not a lover.

The question remains of why Buchanan never married. There was no shortage of willing young would-be brides, even in his sixties; being single and president is a killer combo at any age — just ask John Tyler. Perhaps Buchanan’s perpetual bachelorhood can be traced to the crisis of his late twenties, when Ann Coleman, his father, and two of his siblings all died within a short time, leaving James, as the oldest son, to look after the extended Buchanan family. He may have decided that a new family of his own, on top of his law practice, caring for his relatives, and his revived political career, would simply have been too much. His 1844 caution to a friend that any proposed wife should “not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection” may have reflected this need to focus on national issues, or perhaps just the fact that he was a male in his mid 50s. In the end, as Balcerski writes, for Buchanan, King, and their bachelor messmates, “marriage was subservient to political advantage.”

Which brings us to the other thing that Buchanan is famous for: perennially being named the Absolute Worst President Ever in polls of historians. Does he deserve this distinction, and did his bachelorhood have anything to do with it? At first glance, it’s hard to see what exactly Buchanan could have done as president, particularly as a lame-duck president, to head off secession. On the other hand, he didn’t try very hard, before or after Lincoln’s election. The times called for bold strokes, which his decades-old political outlook, formed in the days of a compact nation run by an elite professional class of politicians, left him incapable of taking. If he was not the first gay president, he may have been the last Federalist president, clinging to accommodationist anti-anti-slavery principles that had become unsustainable by the 1850s.

Beyond the were-they-or-weren’t-they question, Balcerski’s book provides a useful understanding of the way personal networks and informal groups, such as messes, ran Washington in the mid 19th century. James Buchanan was a central part of that world for several decades, and if he had won the White House in his early fifties instead of his mid sixties, today we might rank him among the best presidents. Instead he became the dog who finally caught the car, only to see it burst into flames.

This article appears as “The ‘Siamese Twins’ of Washington” in the October 14, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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