William Rufus DeVane King of Alabama was one of the few people in American History who openly sought the Vice Presidency of the United States and when Franklin Pierce was elected President in November 1852, King finally had the opportunity to become the presiding officer of the United States Senate.
Within days of the 1852 election, King found a nagging illness to be worsening. As the date of his inauguration as Vice President came closer, King developed a vicious cough and lost so much weight that he was almost unrecognizable to friends and colleagues. The Vice Presidency was finally near his grasp, so King left the cold of a Washington, D.C. winter to attempt to recover his health in the tropical climate of Cuba.
In Cuba, King’s health did not improve. Though he was supposed to be sworn in on March 4, 1853 in Washington, King found that he didn’t have the strength to even leave the island. As a tribute to King’s long service, Congress decided to give special authorization for the most unlikely inauguration for any government official in American History. Twenty days after Franklin Pierce became President, a representative of the United States government met an emaciated William Rufus DeVane King in the small seaside village of Matanzas, Cuba. King couldn’t stand under his own power, so he as he was helped to his feet and steadied, he took the oath of office as the 13th Vice President of the United States. King is the only President or Vice President to be inaugurated in a foreign country.
Vice President King never made it back to Washington, D.C. Determined to return to his country, he made a arduous journey back to his plantation in Cahaba, Alabama. By the time he arrived in Alabama, King was completely weakened by tuberculosis and near death. On April 18, 1853, William Rufus DeVane King died at his home at the age of 67. King served only 45 days as Vice President, a shorter term than all but two Vice Presidents — John Tyler and Andrew Johnson — who served brief terms before succeeding to the Presidency upon the deaths of William Henry Harrison and Abraham Lincoln respectively.
Today, if King is remembered at all, it is not for his brief term as Vice President or the fact that he was inaugurated in Cuba. What King is most well-known for is probably the long-standing rumor that he and James Buchanan, the 15th President, may have been involved in a homosexual relationship. Nothing is certain and the rumors can never be proven true, but I’ve written about the allegations before. What is a fact is that Buchanan and King were incredibly close, lived together for 15 years, were widely considered to be lovers by their contemporaries, wrote long and loving letters to one another (most of which were later destroyed by Buchanan prior to his death, and were the only President and Vice President respectively to remain lifelong bachelors.
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.