Buchanan, our gay president

If an openly gay men were to be elected president today, he would be hailed as the first gay president, or at least the first openly gay president. But James Buchanan would have him beat.

Buchanan never married and was America’s only bachelor president. Buchanan’s reputed romantic partner was William Rufus King, Democratic senator from Alabama. After Buchanan’s and King’s deaths, their nieces burned most of their correspondence, which might have clearly revealed the nature of their relationship. However some evidence of Buchanan’s homosexuality survives, which James Loewen wrote about in his book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. In the chapter titled, “You’re Here to See the House,” Loewen noted that contemporaneous critics of Buchanan referred to King as Buchanan’s “better half,” “his wife,” and “Aunt Fancy.” Around Washington, the pair were known as the “Siamese twins,” slang at the time for gays and lesbians. And when King was appointed envoy to France, in 1844, Buchanan lamented to a friend that “I have gone wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any of them.” As further evidence, Loewen notes that Buchanan grew up in an abolitionist part of Pennsylvania and that the only explanation we have for Buchanan’s pro-slavery views is that Buchanan adapted his views to those of King. It seems less likely that Buchanan would change his view on such a charged subject if they were merely friends.

Buchanan’s surviving letters and other primary sources are reprinted in a 1962 biography, President James Buchanan by Philip Shriver Klein. This book was published by a small university press and copies are quite rare. Fortunately John Updike extracted the juicier bits to include in his own book, Memories of the Ford Administration. Yes, really.

The story begins with Buchanan’s courtship of Ann Coleman. She was exactly the sort of girl that a good-looking, brilliant, young lawyer would try to marry. She was beautiful and her family, owning a musket-making concern, was one of the wealthiest families in Pennsylvania. Buchanan and Coleman were engaged. Then the wedding was suddenly called off due to what a contemporary, a local judge named Thomas Kittera, called “some unpleasant misunderstanding,” and then she died of hysteria. It is speculated that Ann may have been emotionally unstable, which would have left her more vulnerable to whatever Buchanan might have done. Thomas Kittera described the events of December 8, 1819 in his diary.

At noon yesterday I met this young lady on the street, in the vigour of health, and but a few hours after[,] her friends were mourning her death. She had been engaged to be married, and some unpleasant misunderstanding occurring, the match was broken off. This circumstance was preying on her mind. In the afternoon she was laboring under a fit of hysterics; in the evening she was so little indisposed that her sister visited the theatre. After night she was attacked with strong hysterical convulsions, which induced the family to send for physicians, who thought this would soon go off, as it did; but her pulse gradually weakened until midnight, when she died. Dr. Chapman, who spoke with Dr. Physick, says it is the first instance he ever knew of hysteria producing death. To affectionate parents sixty miles off what dreadful intelligence--to a younger sister whose evening was spent in mirth and folly, what a lesson of wisdom does it teach. Beloved and admired by all who knew her, in the prime of life, with all the advantages of education, beauty, and wealth, in a moment she has been cut off.

We don’t know what the “misunderstanding” was, but according to a letter written by a contemporary, Hannah Cochran, there had been rumors that Buchanan was more in love with the Coleman fortune than with Ann. Hannah also stated that Ann’s friends blamed Buchanan for her death. Buchanan wrote a florid letter to Ann’s father, Robert, asking for permission to attend the funeral and interment.

My dear Sir:

You have lost a child, a dear, dear child. I have lost the only earthly object of my affections, without whom life now presents to me a dreary blank. My prospects are all cut off, and I feel that my happiness will be buried with her in the grave. It is now no time for explanation, but the time will come when you discover that she, as well as I, have been much abused. God forgive the authors of it. My feelings of resentment towards them, whoever they may be, are buried in the dust. I have now one request to make, and, for love of God and of your dear, departed daughter whom I loved infinitely more than any other human being could love, deny my not. Afford me the melancholy pleasure of seeing her body before its interment. I would not for the world be denied this request.

I might make another, but, from the misrepresentations which must have been made to you, I am almost afraid. I would like to follow her remains to the grave as a mourner. I would like to convince the world, and I hope to convince you, that she was infinitely dearer to me than life. I may sustain the shock of her death, but I feel that happiness has fled from me forever. The prayer which I make to God without ceasing is, that I yet may be able to show my veneration for the memory of my dear departed saint, by my respect and attachment for her surviving friends.

May Heaven bless you, and enable you to bear the shock with the fortitude of a Christian.

I am, forever, your sincere and grateful friend,

James Buchanan

Buchanan’s messenger was refused at the door. There’s no way to know whether his desire to attend the funeral was motivated by sincere sentiments or by concern for his own public image. The latter seems more likely, according to the same letter by Hannah Cochran. She wrote, “After Mr. Buchanan was denied his requests, he secluded himself for a few days and then sallied forth as bold as ever. It is now thought that this affair will lessen his Consequence in Lancaster as he is the whole conversation of the town.”

This would not be the end of Buchanan’s pursuit of women for less than romantic purposes. Two decades later, he wrote to Mrs. Francis Preston Blair on June 3, 1837, saying that before the next year “I expect to be married & have the cares of a family resting upon my shoulders.” Buchanan’s prediction of marriage did not come to pass. Note this was a year after he had started lodging with King.

In the same letter to Cornelia Roosevelt where Buchanan talked about his lack of success “wooing” gentlemen while King was abroad, Buchanan contemplated the practical benefits of a loveless marriage to a woman. “[I] should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

For his part, Senator King was called “Miss Nancy” by Andrew Jackson, “Mrs. James Buchanan” by James K. Polk’s law partner and “Buchanan’s better half” by Aaron V. Brown. A newspaper noted Senator King’s “fastidious habits and conspicuous intimacy with bachelor Buchanan.” Also of note is that King has the distinction of being the United States’ only bachelor vice-president. (He served with Franklin Pierce and died in office. Pierce was succeeded by Buchanan.)