Dead Presidents

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

By Anthony Bergen
Recent Tweets @
Posts tagged "President Buchanan"
I am the last President of the United States!
James Buchanan, upon the secession of South Carolina, December 20, 1860
I love the noise of democracy.
James Buchanan

Mr. Buchanan is an able man, but is in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.

James K. Polk, on his Secretary of State (and future President) James Buchanan, personal diary entry, February 27, 1848

I love the noise of democracy.

James Buchanan

In my opinion, yes, by any way you look at it.  If you look at all of the Presidents, including William Henry Harrison, who only spent a month in office, Buchanan was still the worst because Harrison didn’t do anything harmful to the country in his 31-day Presidency.  He didn’t really have a chance to do anything at all.  

Buchanan had four years in office and the country was crumbling around him while he did nothing. I would have more respect for President Buchanan if he would have tried something and made some sort of stand against secession.  It’s a good thing that secession didn’t start until the final months of Buchanan’s Administration because if it had taken place in 1859 who knows how conciliatory Buchanan would have been towards the seceded states.  Had secession happened earlier, the wishy-washy, ineffectual President might have recognized the Confederacy.

Also, with the sectional crisis, secession, and threat of Civil War, most people aren’t aware of the fact that the Panic of 1857, just five months after Buchanan was inaugurated, triggered a brutal economic depression that continued throughout the rest of Buchanan’s term and was inherited by Abraham Lincoln.  That means that, on top of everything else the nation was going through during Buchanan’s Administration, the country was also mired in an economic depression.

And if you know anything about what James Buchanan did (or, I guess I should say, DIDN’T do) as states began to secede from the Union, you probably can make a very good guess about what President Buchanan did to combat the economic depression triggered by the Panic of 1857.  Did he speak out in an attempt to shore up confidence in the nation’s finances?  Well, no, not that.  Did he try to temper the domino effect caused by a run on banks?  Not quite.  Did he work with his Treasury Secretary to clear up some of the murky banking laws causing trouble throughout the country?  No…his Treasury Secretary, Howell Cobb, was busy being one of the leading voices for secession and Founding Fathers of the Confederacy, which nearly elected Cobb as their President instead of Jefferson Davis.  

So, what did President Buchanan do in response to the Panic of 1857 and the economic depression of 1857, 1858, 1859, 1860, and 1861?  The exact same thing that President Buchanan did in response to the threat of secession, the actual secession of states from the Union, and the seizure of federal property (including military installations and weapons caches) by insurrectionists as states began to secede:  NOTHING.

That’s why James Buchanan is the worst President in our history.  Not because he had the misfortune to hold office at a tumultuous, troublesome time in our nation’s history, but because he did absolutely nothing to respond to those troubles. 

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