Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
Posts tagged "Buchanan"

I love the noise of democracy.

James Buchanan

In researching some Presidential trivia, a friend mentioned that Buchanan never married because he was gay. Not that it matters at all, but now I'm curious if it's true.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

You’re right, it doesn’t matter whether or not President Buchanan was gay, but for the historical record, we’d love to have a definitive answer.  Unfortunately, that’s never going to happen.  So, we have to use the evidence that we have and make our own personal conclusions.

I’ve answered this question in-depth before, so I’m just going to copy and paste that answer.  Since this a question that is asked frequently and a genuine mystery to historians, I, like many other historians, have looked at Buchanan’s life and have a personal opinion on the question. Personally, yes, I do think that James Buchanan was a homosexual.  Still, Buchanan has been dead for almost 145 years and contemporary opinions will always be speculation.  Here’s what I’ve previously written when asked about President Buchanan’s sexuality:

It is very difficult to say that this President or that President was gay or not without simply guessing or making baseless accusations.  My personal opinion is that it’s not our business to say that someone is or is not gay unless they choose to address it and make it our business.

It’s even more difficult to go back through history and say “so-and-so was obviously a homosexual because ___________”.  I mean, let’s be honest, the first five Presidents wore knee breeches, buckled shoes, and powdered wigs, so we’d already be overloaded with suspicion right there.

Without going too far and becoming gossipy and National Enquirer-ish, I will point out the evidence which some believe strongly suggests that James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States, was homosexual. 

Buchanan was a lifelong bachelor — the only President to never marry.  Early in life, he had been engaged to Ann Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania manufacturer who began worrying about rumors that Buchanan was marrying her for her money.  After a difficult period in their relationship, Coleman broke off the engagement in 1819 and died shortly thereafter, likely by suicide.  Buchanan was devastated by Coleman’s death and was shunned by Coleman’s family who blamed him for Ann’s demise.  At that time, Buchanan vowed to never marry and he retained Ann Coleman’s letters for the remainder of his life. 

It is possible that Buchanan was so devastated by the death of his first love that he couldn’t imagine spending his life with another woman.  However, that doesn’t explain why he spent so much of his life with another man.

In 19th Century Washington, D.C., it was not unusual for Members of Congress to room together in boarding houses while Congress was in session.  Many political deals were debated and decided in Washington’s boarding houses which were set up to appeal to a Congressman’s need for prepared meals and affordable housing.  Buchanan, however, was a fairly wealthy man for his age and time period.  The affordable housing that resulted from taking on a roommate wasn’t a necessity for Buchanan.  It was a choice.  And, instead of living with a variety of different colleagues over the years, Buchanan lived with one — Alabama Senator William Rufus DeVane King — for fifteen years.

The close relationship between Buchanan and King raised eyebrows even in their own time.  Contemporaries referred to them as “Siamese twins”.  Andrew Jackson called Buchanan and King “Aunt Fancy” and “Miss Nancy” respectively.  President Polk’s law partner, Aaron Brown, went further, referring to King as “Mr. Buchanan’s wife”.  The relationship between Buchanan and King was interrupted from time-to-time by each man’s foreign service (Buchanan as Minister to Russia during Jackson’s Presidency; King as Minister to France during Polk’s).

Unfortunately, the long letters that Buchanan and King wrote to each other throughout their lives are unable to explain their close relationship.  After each man’s death, their nieces burned almost all of their correspondence with one another.

There are hints which further the mystery in the few pieces of correspondence between the two men that have survived.  In 1844, President Tyler appointed King as the Minister to France and King wrote to 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.  For myself, I shall feel lonely in the midst of Paris, for here I shall have no Friend with whom I can commune as with my own thoughts.

With King in Paris, Buchanan wrote an equally curious letter to a female friend of his in Washington, “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 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.

Whether or not Buchanan and King were truly homosexual will likely never be known.  This much is true:  In 1852, King was elected Vice President and died of tuberculosis in April 1853, 45 days after his inauguration.  In 1856, Buchanan was elected President and served one term while his adopted niece, Harriet Lane, performed the duties of official White House hostess. 

To this day, Buchanan and King are the only lifelong bachelors to ever serve as President or Vice President.

15th President of the United States (1857-1861)

Full Name: James Buchanan, Jr.
Born: April 23, 1791, Cove Gap, Pennsylvania
Term: March 4, 1857-March 4, 1861
Political Party: Democratic
Vice President: John C. Breckinridge
Died: June 1, 1868, Wheatland estate, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Buried: Woodward Hill Cemetery, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Poor Mr. Buchanan.  One of the most qualified men to ever serve as President, and, in my opinion, the absolute worst.  Perhaps no one could have succeeded in the years leading immediately up to the outbreak of the Civil War, but President Buchanan occupies the bottom spot not merely because states began to secede from the Union while he was in the White House, but because he did nothing about it.  There were no flashes of hope during the Buchanan Administration — from the day that he inherited a crumbling nation from Franklin Pierce the 15th President was in office for the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (which he agreed with), rising tension between settlers in Kansas, the Panic of 1857, and, finally, secession.  All Buchanan did was watch the calendar and happily flee to his estate in Pennsylvania after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration.

1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine:  26 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine:  29 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine:  36 of 38
1990: Siena Institute:  38 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine:  38 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  41 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll:  41 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership:  40 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  42 of 42
2010: Siena Institute:  42 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre:  40 of 40