James Buchanan Jr. was born today, April 23, in 1791. He was the 15th president of the United States (1857–61), serving immediately prior to the American Civil War. A member of the Democratic Party, he was the 17th United States Secretary of State and had served in the Senate and House of Representatives before becoming president. Historians often put him on the short list of one of the worst presidents, but was he also the first gay president?
Buchanan was born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. He became a prominent lawyer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and won election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Federalist. In 1820, Buchanan won election to the United States House of Representatives, eventually becoming aligned with Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party. After serving as Jackson's Minister to Russia, Buchanan won election as a senator from Pennsylvania. In 1845, he accepted appointment as President James K. Polk's Secretary of State. During Buchanan's tenure as Secretary of State, the United States grew immensely with the conclusion of the Oregon Treaty and victory in the Mexican-American War. From 1853 to 1856 during the presidency of Franklin Pierce, Buchanan served as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Buchanan defeated Republican John C. Frémont to win the 1856 U.S. presidential election.
The only president to remain a bachelor, Buchanan's personal life has attracted great historical interest. His biographer Jean Baker argues that Buchanan was asexual or celibate. Several writers have put forth arguments that he was gay, including sociologist James W. Loewen and authors Robert P. Watson and Shelley Ross.
In 1818, Buchanan met Anne Caroline Coleman at a grand ball at Lancaster's White Swan Inn, and the two began courting. By 1819, the two were engaged, but could spend little time together; Buchanan 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. Some suggested that he was marrying 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 Anne revealed she knew of several rumors. Coleman broke off the engagement, and soon afterward, on December 9, 1819, died suddenly. Buchanan wrote her father for permission to attend the funeral, claiming "I feel happiness has fled from me forever." However, Robert Coleman refused permission.
After Coleman's death, Buchanan never courted another woman, nor seemed to show any emotional or physical interest. Some believe that Anne's death served to deflect awkward questions about Buchanan's sexuality and bachelorhood. During Buchanan's presidency, his orphaned niece, Harriet Lane, whom he had adopted, served as official White House hostess.
Buchanan had a close and intimate relationship with William Rufus King (portrait at right), an Alabamian politician who briefly served as vice president under Franklin Pierce. Buchanan and King lived together in a Washington boardinghouse for many years, from 1834 until King's departure for France in 1844. King referred to the relationship as a "communion", and the two attended social functions together. Contemporaries also noted the closeness.
Andrew Jackson called King "Miss Nancy" and prominent Democrat Aaron V. Brown referred to King as Buchanan's "better half," "wife" and "Aunt Fancy" (the last being a 19th-century euphemism for an effeminate man). Sociologist Loewen noted that "wags" described Buchanan and King as "Siamese twins," that Buchanan late in life wrote a letter acknowledging that he might marry a woman who could accept his "lack of ardent or romantic affection," and also that Buchanan was expelled from his Lancaster church, reportedly for pro-slavery views acquired during the King relationship. Catherine Thompson, the wife of cabinet member Jacob Thompson, later noted that "there was something unhealthy in the president's attitude."
King became ill in 1853 and died of tuberculosis shortly after Pierce's inauguration, four years before Buchanan became president. Buchanan described him as "among the best, the purest and most consistent public men I have known." Jean Baker's biography of Buchanan notes that his and King's nieces may have destroyed some correspondence between Buchanan and King. She opines that the length and intimacy of their surviving letters (one written by King upon his ambassadorial departure being specifically cited by Loewen) illustrate only "the affection of a special friendship."