Bosom Friends

I don’t often write book reviews on this blog. I used to write them with more frequency years ago, but now I only review one or two books a year at most. However, when I do post a book review, it’s because there is something significant I want to relay to my readers. Such is the case with the following book. I finished reading Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King by Thomas J. Balcerski a few days ago. It is a fascinating account of the perceptions of masculinity in the early 1800s, and how those perceptions have evolved over time. Here is the book’s description from Amazon.com:

The friendship of the bachelor politicians James Buchanan (1791-1868) of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King (1786-1853) of Alabama has excited much speculation through the years. Why did neither marry? Might they have been gay? Or was their relationship a nineteenth-century version of the modern-day “bromance”? 

In Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, Thomas J. Balcerski explores the lives of these two politicians and discovers one of the most significant collaborations in American political history. He traces the parallels in the men’s personal and professional lives before elected office, including their failed romantic courtships and the stories they told about them. Unlikely companions from the start, they lived together as congressional messmates in a Washington, DC, boardinghouse and became close confidantes. Around the nation’s capital, the men were mocked for their effeminacy and perhaps their sexuality, and they were likened to Siamese twins. Over time, their intimate friendship blossomed into a significant cross-sectional political partnership. Balcerski examines Buchanan’s and King’s contributions to the Jacksonian political agenda, manifest destiny, and the increasingly divisive debates over slavery, while contesting interpretations that the men lacked political principles and deserved blame for the breakdown of the union. He closely narrates each man’s rise to national prominence, as William Rufus King was elected vice-president in 1852 and James Buchanan the nation’s fifteenth president in 1856, despite the political gossip that circulated about them.

While exploring a same-sex relationship that powerfully shaped national events in the antebellum era, Bosom Friendsdemonstrates that intimate male friendships among politicians were–and continue to be–an important part of success in American politics.

In the American Historical Review, the leading peer reviewed journal for books on American History, Andrew L. Slap, Professor of History at East Tennessee State University, wrote: 

“Balcerski impressively balances the personal and the worldly to produce an original and engaging study both of two men and of the wider antebellum world which they lived in and helped shape….This is certainly the definitive account of the intimate friendship between Buchanan and King. In addition, Balcerski makes important original contributions to our understanding of male friendships and politics in the antebellum United States. This is an excellent first book from a promising young scholar.”

Thomas J. Balcerski is an Associate Professor of History at East Connecticut State University who specializes in Early American History, Manhood and Gender, and U.S. Presidents and First Ladies. Bosom Friends shows his expertise in the study of Manhood and Gender as the book spends a considerable amount of time discussing intimate male friendships in the antebellum period, how those friendships were used by early American politicians, and how such a close friendship could be used against them.  From the outset, Balcerski tells the reader he is not going to make a case for the sexuality of Buchanan or King. Instead, he aims to use the historical record to tell about the “bosom friendship” of these two men. The Cambridge Dictionary describes a bosom friend as a friend that you like a lot and have a very close relationship with; someone you can be very close with and confide everything in. It seems this is what Buchanan and King had for a number of years while they lived in the same boardinghouses.

The two men were so close they were referred to as the Siamese Twins. Political opponents often attacked their manhood and suggested they were romantically involved. But were they? In my opinion, they most likely were not sexual partners. I suspect King may have been romantically invested in Buchanan, but it doesn’t appear Buchanan felt the same way. King was described as handsome and fashionably dressed. Some even compared him to Lord Byron. He was said to have been the epitome of manners, and a perfect example of Southern male chivalry right down to his involvement in several near duels. Buchanan, on the other hand, was always flirting with younger women. Furthermore, Buchanan appeared to hold friendships in high esteem when it would help him politically. His friendship with King seems to have been strongest when King was most powerful politically. When the tables were turned with Buchanan’s appointment as Secretary of State, and King’s appointment as Minister to France, King became Buchanan’s subordinate and their relationship began to deteriorate.

By the mid-1840s and early-1850s, King and Buchanan both vied for the offices of Vice President or President on the Democratic ticket. Instead of their tight friendship, their political ambitions seemed to get in the way. King supported Buchanan’s aspirations to higher office, but when King was nominated for Vice President, Buchanan largely kept silent. King was the first to hold one of the two top elected positions, but he never really served after he was elected. He died just six weeks after being sworn in as Vice President. Buchanan received the 1856 nomination for President, which proved disastrous for the nation as he saw the break-up of the country under his watch.

The book brought up two questions for me: 1) Was there a romantic relationship between King and Buchanan? and 2) What would have happened if King had lived to see the Civil War? The first is left up to the reader to decide, and the second isn’t addressed at all as this is not a “what if” type of book. Unlike some historians of Buchanan, Balcerski keeps to the facts and leaves conjecture to the reader. Little archival information on King still exists. There is one box of King Family Papers at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, but little else except in the Papers of James Buchanan. Both men had nieces who tried to preserve their uncles’ legacies. Buchanan’s niece was far more successful at preserving his documents, but not at rehabilitating his reputation. King’s plantation, Chestnut Hill, just outside of Selma in what was King’s Bend, was burned and ransacked during the Civil War as Union troops advanced through Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. King’s niece wrote to Buchanan’s niece stating there was a box of letters her uncle had received from Buchanan, but they were at the old plantation home. She had recently relocated to Camden, Alabama, and whatever happened to those letters is lost to history. They could have burned or perished in one of the frequent area floods of the plantation. Some have speculated the nieces burned the letters containing the most intimate details, but that is supposition. There is no proof.

The fact is King’s personal life has mostly been lost to history. One thing that remains, Buchanan is the only one of the two who seemed to show any regular interest in a woman. King supposedly fell instantly in love when he met the future Czarina of Russia, Maria Feodorovna. He repeated throughout his life he had loved once but could not love again when retelling the story of the meeting. So, to answer the question whether Buchanan and King were a romantic couple, you’ll have to read the book and decide. It does seem to be the definitive book on the relationship and is free of any bias.

Now comes my own speculation. If King had lived through the Civil War, would he have been chosen as the Confederate President instead of Jefferson Davis? He was certainly the most powerful and influential Southern politician of his time. If he had been chosen, I think it is unlikely he would have moved the capital from Montgomery to Richmond. Could the Confederate capital having a more central location changed the course of the war? Would it have influenced Virginia’s decision to secede? There is no doubt King was pro-slavery, but he was also an ardent unionist. So, would he have had enough influence to calm the tempers of the day? With his intimate friend Buchanan as President, could he have even helped prevent the war? One thing is certain, had King lived through the Civil War, he would have been at the heart of the secession crisis. The question is, what side would he have been on and what role would he have played?

If you have an interest in American political history in the years preceding the Civil War, I think you would enjoy this book. Also, if you want a better understanding of early American male bonding and masculinity, you will also enjoy this book. There are still questions about King and Buchanan, but those questions are ultimately unanswerable due to the lack of historical resources. We have no idea what went on in the bedrooms of these two politicians, but I suspect it is unlikely anything happened as they always lived with other people in their various boardinghouses. My ultimate suggestion, then, is to just read the book and enjoy it.

Here’s a piece of trivia for you: the land where King’s plantation, Chestnut Hill, once occupied is now owned by Buchanan Lumber Mobile Inc. of Mobile, Alabama.

For short biographies of the two men, click “Continue reading” to see the rest of the post.

William Rufus King is a little-known figure in American history. He was not a great orator but was still a very influential politician in America’s early days. King was often referred to as Colonel King for the rank he held in the militia during the War of 1812. He served in the U.S. Senate for more than 30 years and was a loyal Unionist and a moderate on most issues. He served at a time when major debates on slavery were a frequent topic in the Senate. They often drew large crowds of House members, reporters, and the general public eager to get a glimpse of the likes of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, Sam Houston of Texas, and other notable public figures as they argued the merits of slavery. As President Pro Tempore of the Senate and thus a frequent presiding officer, King regularly acted to restore decorum. In this electrically-charged environment, he took every opportunity to remind other Senators of his need for their support “to put down the least movement toward disorder, or the slightest indulgence in personal remarks.” 

King was elected Vice President on the ticket with Franklin Pierce in the election of 1852. However, King’s health was poor as he suffered from tuberculosis. On January 17, 1853, King left for the more beneficial climate of Cuba reaching Havana in early February. He realized he would be unable to return to Washington in time for the March 4, 1853 Inauguration and requested Congress to permit him to take his oath in Cuba. Consequently, for the only time in our history, Congress passed legislation allowing the Vice President-Elect to be sworn in outside the country. On March 24, 1853, near Matanzas, a seaport town 60 miles east of Havana, the gravely ill King, too feeble to stand unaided, became the nation’s 13th Vice President. King set sail for Mobile on April 6th and reached his plantation on April 17th. There he died less than six weeks after taking the oath of office. According to his family, his last words were, “Hush, let me die in peace.” He holds the distinction of being the only member of the U.S. Executive branch to have been sworn into office on foreign soil. 

James Buchanan is better known than King, but history has not been kind to him. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1820 and served in this position representing Pennsylvania for 10 years. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson made Buchanan Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia. After returning from two years in St. Petersburg, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1834 and served for three terms. Buchanan had presidential aspirations during his Senate service and was even considered for the Democratic nomination for the 1844 election. The nomination instead went to James K. Polk and in return for Pennsylvania’s support, Polk appointed Buchanan as Secretary of State. King had been a mentor to the younger Buchanan who was five years his junior. However, King became Buchanan’s subordinate when he was appointed the Minister to France. This did not prove beneficial to their friendship. They were living an ocean apart, and Buchanan didn’t seem to have time to write King very often. This was often the case with Buchanan when the two men were apart. After King’s death in 1853, Buchanan received the 1856 Democratic nomination for President, an election he won partly due to the fractioning of other political parties and the collapse of the Whig Party.

Buchanan had always been a doughface, a disparaging descriptor for someone, chiefly a politician, who was perceived to be pliable and moldable. Typically, it was applied to a Northern Democrat who was more often allied with the Southern Democrats than with the majority of Northern Democrats and especially on the topic of slavery. Buchanan entered office presiding over a rapidly dividing nation. He did not grasp the political realities of the time. Relying on Constitutional doctrines to close the widening rift over slavery, he failed to understand that the North would not accept Constitutional arguments which favored the South. Nor could he comprehend how sectionalism had realigned political parties: the Democrats were split; the Whigs were destroyed giving rise to the Republicans.

The Democratic Party split into Northern and Southern wings, each nominating its own candidate for the Presidency. Consequently, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a foregone conclusion he would be elected even though his name appeared on no Southern ballot. Rather than accept a Republican administration, the Southern “fire-eaters” advocated secession. Buchanan, dismayed and hesitant, denied the legal right of states to secede but held that the Federal Government legally could not prevent them. He hoped for compromise, but secessionist leaders would not accept compromise and Mississippi and South Carolina seceded from the Union beginning a string of secessions. Finally, Buchanan took a more militant strategy. He sent the Star of the West, a civilian ship chartered by the War Department, to carry reinforcements to Fort Sumter. On January 9, 1861, the ship was fired upon by cadets from the Citadel and was hit three times by what were effectively the first shots of the Civil War. Although the Star of the West suffered no major damage, her captain, John McGowan, considered it too dangerous to continue and turned about to leave the harbor. The mission was abandoned. The Star of the West headed for her home port of New York harbor. After this, Buchanan reverted to a policy of inactivity that continued until he left office. In March 1861, he retired to his Pennsylvania home, Wheatland, where he died seven years later leaving his successor to resolve the issues that divided the nation. Just before his death in 1868, he said, “History will vindicate my memory from every unjust aspersion.”

Buchanan was mistaken. He consistently ranks as the worst president in the history of the United States, but it looks like Donald Trump is vying for that top spot. Sadly, King ranks routinely at the bottom of the list of Vice-Presidential rankings. While Buchanan presided over the dissolution of the Union, King ranks at the bottom because he did not serve long enough to do anything as Vice President. Had there not been widespread speculation, especially in recent decades, about the sexuality of King and Buchanan and the nature of their relationship, it is likely only the most ardent historians would know King’s name. King would likely be a footnote in history and remembered mainly in Alabama, his adoptive state, and by a few historians in North Carolina, his state of birth.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

2 responses to “Bosom Friends

  • Bryan D. Spellman

    Great article. Are you aware that in 1852, the Territorial Legislature of Oregon created two new counties along the eastern shore of Puget Sound. At the time, Washington was still part of Oregon Territory. The new counties were named for the newly elected President and Vice President, Franklin Pierce and William Rufus Devaney King. Those two counties still exist, with Pierce County centered on Tacoma and King, the largest Washington county by population, centered on Seattle. Over 100 years later, in a fit of political correctness, the King County Commissioners decided they didn’t like their county being named for a slave holder, and decreed that the county honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They went so far as to redesign the county flag and seal to show Dr. King’s profile. A few years back, the Washington Legislature accepted the new “history.”

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