We hear about a lot of firsts. Kennedy was our first Catholic president. Reagan our first actor president. Obama our first black president.
But did you know that, long ago, we almost certainly had our first gay president? Yup. I’ve now read in two scholarly, sourced books that James Buchanan was considered by his contemporaries to be a homosexual. The giveaway isn’t that he was the only president who was never married. It’s that he had such an unusually long, close relationship with a male friend that people commented on it:
For fifteen years in Washington, D.C., before his presidency, Buchanan lived with his close friend, Alabama Senator William Rufus King. King became Vice President under Franklin Pierce. He became ill and died shortly after Pierce’s inauguration, four years before Buchanan became President. Buchanan’s and King’s close relationship prompted Andrew Jackson to call King “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy”, while Aaron V. Brown spoke of the two as “Buchanan and his wife.” Some of the contemporary press also speculated about Buchanan’s and King’s relationship. The two men’s nieces destroyed their uncles’ correspondence, leaving some questions about their relationship; but the length and intimacy of surviving letters illustrate “the affection of a special friendship”, and Buchanan wrote of his “communion” with his housemate. In May 1844, during one of King’s absences that resulted from King’s appointment as minister to France, Buchanan wrote to a Mrs. Roosevelt, “I am now ‘solitary and alone’, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone, and [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.”
It is certainly true that Buchanan lived in an age when people used romantic terms to describe same-sex friendships. Likewise, it was not uncommon for bachelors to share quarters or, as was the case with Abraham Lincoln when he traveled with a friend and colleague, to share a bed. Bed sharing goes back hundreds of years. It’s just that one gets the strong feeling that Buchanan’s one engagement, which ended when the young woman broke it off (and then died soon after), was really his last effort in the petticoat line. Later references in his life to getting married really didn’t have any steam in them. His closest relationship, clearly, was with a man.
What’s interesting, really interesting, is the fact that the suspicions around Buchanan’s sexuality did not affect his career. He was Secretary of State under Polk and, of course, ultimately went on to become president. His friend/partner William Rufus King, too, had an august career, reaching its apex with his becoming Vice President. Don’t ask, don’t tell seemed to be a good rule of thumb for the era.
My last comment, a silly one, is that, when one reads about the political scene in America during the mid-19th Century, the names that come up read like a roster of streets in San Francisco: Stockton, Taylor, Buchanan, Polk, Mason, Clay, etc. It’s ironic, given Buchanan’s probable sexual preferences, that it was Polk Street, rather than Buchanan Street, that became one of San Francisco’s gay meccas.
Okay, that wasn’t really my last comment. My last comment is this: Mr. Bookworm didn’t believe me when I told him about the scholarly suppositions regarding Buchanan’s sexuality, suppositions based on the historical record, because “there were no gays then.” I had a little giggle, and then started the short list of historic figures who were almost certainly gay (as opposed to historic figures who might be gay, but as to whom the record is too shaky to draw conclusions): Edward II; James I; Michelangelo; Leonardo da Vinci; Alexander the Great; Richard the Lionhearted; Oscar Wilde; and Emperor Hadrian.