In honor of Presidents’ Day, let’s discuss two men, a US president and vice-president who may have been gay. While Abraham Lincoln has stolen the limelight with rumors about his furtive sex life, some historians have proclaimed that America’s first gay president was really his predecessor, the now-obscure James Buchanan. (He was the 15th president, serving from 1857 to 1861). Buchanan is the only bachelor to ever have held America’s top office, and his private life raised many eyebrows while he was alive. There are some who think that, yes, there was a gay president. Historian James W. Loewen is one of those who thinks that both James Buchanan (15th President of the United States) and William Rufus King (13th Vice President of the United States) were not only gay but also lovers.
More than 150 years before America elected its first black president, Barack Obama, it most likely had its first gay president, James Buchanan (1791-1868). Buchanan, a Democrat from Lancaster County, Pa., was a lifelong bachelor (throughout American history this was often code for homosexual). He served as president from 1857-61, tumultuous years leading up to the Civil War. Loewen has done extensive research into Buchanan’s personal life, and he’s convinced Buchanan was gay. Loewen is the author of the acclaimed book Lies Across America which examines how historical sites inaccurately portray figures and events and Lies My Teacher Told Me which examines how history books have been marred by an embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies.
In 1819, Buchanan was engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy iron manufacturing businessman and sister-in-law of Philadelphia judge Joseph Hemphill, one of Buchanan’s colleagues from the House of Representatives. Buchanan spent little time with her during the courtship: he was extremely busy with his law firm and political projects during the Panic of 1819, which took him away from Coleman for weeks at a time. Conflicting rumors abounded, suggesting that he was marrying her for her money, because his own family was less affluent, or that he was involved with other women. Buchanan never publicly spoke of his motives or feelings, but letters from Ann revealed she was paying heed to the rumors.
After Buchanan paid a visit to the wife of a friend, Ann broke off the engagement. She died soon afterward, on December 9, 1819. The records of a Dr. Chapman, who looked after her in her final hours, and who said just after her death that this was “the first instance he ever knew of hysteria producing death”, reveal that he theorized, despite the absence of any valid evidence, the woman’s demise was caused by an overdose of laudanum, a concentrated tincture of opium.
His fiancée’s death struck Buchanan a terrible blow. In a letter to her father, which was returned to him unopened, Buchanan wrote “It is now no time for explanation, but the time will come when you will discover that she, as well as I, have been much abused. God forgive the authors of it […] . I may sustain the shock of her death, but I feel that happiness has fled from me forever.” The Coleman family became bitter towards Buchanan and denied him a place at Ann’s funeral. Buchanan vowed he would never marry, though he continued to be flirtatious. Some pressed him to seek a wife; in response, Buchanan said, “Marry I could not, for my affections were buried in the grave.” He preserved Ann Coleman’s letters, keeping them with him throughout his life; at his request, they were burned upon his death.
“I’m sure that Buchanan was gay,” Loewen said. “There is clear evidence that he was gay. And since I haven’t seen any evidence that he was heterosexual, I don’t believe he was bisexual.” According to Loewen, Buchanan shared a residence with William Rufus King, a Democratic senator from Alabama, for several years in Washington, D.C. Loewen also said Buchanan was “fairly open” about his relationship with King, causing some colleagues to view the men as a couple. For example, Aaron Brown, a prominent Democrat, writing to Mrs. James K. Polk, referred to King as Buchanan’s “better half,” “his wife” and “Aunt Fancy … rigged out in her best clothes.” Brown may have been trying to slander King in this letter. He was a friend of the Polks and was James K. Polk’s law partner, but he was also an early proponent of secession after his years as Governor of Tennessee. Most accounts by historians of King’s political career portray him as a moderate southerner who supported slavery while emerging as a strong unionist. King voiced opposition calls by some of his fellow southerners for the South to secede from the United States during the tense decade prior to the Civil War. King was always considered a moderate Democrat who was a staunch Unionist, which probably led to some political disagreements between Brown and King.
William Rufus DeVane King, the 13th United States vice president, has the distinction of having served in that office for less time than any other vice president and for being the only U.S. official to be sworn in on foreign soil. He died of tuberculosis on April 18, 1853, just 25 days after being sworn into office while in Cuba on March 24, 1853. Some historians have speculated that King holds yet another distinction — the likely status of being the first gay U.S. vice president and possibly one of the first gay members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
King (1786-1853) served in the House of Representatives from North Carolina for six years beginning in 1811 and later served in the Senate from the newly created state of Alabama from 1819-44, when he became U.S. minister to France. He returned to the Senate in 1848, where he served until he resigned after winning election in November 1852 as vice president on the ticket of Franklin Pierce.
When in 1844 King was appointed minister to France, he wrote Buchanan, “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation.” Loewen also said a letter Buchanan wrote to a friend after King went to France shows the depth of his feeling for King. “I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me,” Buchanan wrote. “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 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.” Loewen said their relationship — though interrupted due to foreign-service obligations — ended only with King’s death in 1853.
Even though his vice presidency was short, fraught with illness, and uneventful, William King is remembered as a perceptive decision maker with the utmost integrity … and also, possibly, as the nation’s only gay Vice President! There is no direct evidence that William R. King was in any kind of relationship with President James Buchanan, who was also a bachelor. However, they were referred to as “Siamese twins” by many people in Congress (which was a slang for homosexuals in those days.) Also, King was the only unmarried vice president in history. King actually lived as Buchanan’s house companion for many, many years. Andrew Jackson invented the nicknames “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy” for King, while Aaron V. Brown referred to King as “Buchanan’s wife.” The only evidence that could have been salvaged were the numerous letters written back and forth between the two.
Some of the contemporary press also speculated about Buchanan’s and King’s relationship, but 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.”
Circumstances surrounding Buchanan’s and King’s close emotional ties have led to speculation that Buchanan was homosexual. Buchanan’s correspondence during this period with Thomas Kittera, however, mentions his romance with Mary K. Snyder. In Buchanan’s letter to Mrs. Francis Preston Blair, he declines an invitation and expresses an expectation of marriage. The only President to remain a bachelor, Buchanan turned to Harriet Lane, an orphaned niece, whom he had earlier adopted, to act as his official hostess.
Loewen said many historians rate Buchanan as one of the worst U.S. presidents. Buchanan was part of the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party, and corruption plagued his administration. But Loewen said those flaws shouldn’t discourage members of the LGBT community from acknowledging Buchanan’s status as a gay man. “If we only admit that really great people are gay, what kind of history is that?” Truthfully though, even the letters written by Buchanan do not really point to more than merely a great friendship and affection that was common between men of the nineteenth century, especially during a time when women were still seen as intellectual inferiors.
A lifelong bachelor, King lived for 15 years in the home of future U.S. president James Buchanan while the two served in the Senate. In a time when Congress was only in session part of the year, and senators often returned home when not in session, it would not have been that unusual for two senators to share a home. King’s relationship with Buchanan, who was from Pennsylvania, could have been a factor in Buchanan’s sympathy for the South.
From the research I have done about King, he seems to be a fairly boring and moderate politician, as most Vice Presidents in history have been. Like many men of his status, he traveled widely in Europe during his life, often as a diplomat. He also sent his nephews and nieces to Europe as well to round out their education. The only evidence I have seen is what Brown stated to Mrs. Polk in his letter and in the way that Buchanan pines for him in his letters.
Is this really enough evidence to be the proof that Loewen claims to have? I personally think that either man would be a wonderful addition to the list of LGBT historical figures, especially King, who I have long admired. What do you think?