The Other Buchanan Controversy
Was the Fifteenth President of the United States Gay?
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Editor's Note: The only Buchanan actually to make it to the White House, James, the fifteenth president, is the subject of as much controversy this week as Pat. Once again historians find themselves in the middle of the battle. What's roiling the academy now is sociologist James Loewen's allegation that James Buchanan was gay.
Loewen makes the claim in his new book, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, which was recently published by New Press. Here's an excerpt:
Pennsylvania Lancaster: "You're Here To See The House"
Wheatland, Buchanan's house in Lancaster, is open to tourists, but visitors will never learn that he was homosexual or much else about him.
In life, Buchanan was not very far in the closet. For many years in Washington, he lived with William Rufus King, Senator from Alabama. The two men were inseparable; wags referred to them as "the Siamese twins." Andrew Jackson dubbed King "Miss Nancy," and Aaron Brown, a prominent Democrat, writing to Mrs. James K. Polk, referred to him as Buchanan's "better half," "his wife," and "Aunt Fancy . . . rigged out in her best clothes." When in 1844 King was appointed minister to France, he wrote 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." On May 13, Buchanan wrote to a Mrs. Roosevelt about his social life:
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.
King and Buchanan's relationship, though interrupted from time to time by their foreign service, ended only with King's death in 1853. While Buchanan was born and raised in Pennsylvania, William Rufus King was a Southern slaveholder. Buchanan's pro-slavery politics may have stemmed in part from their 23-year connection. Buchanan certainly thought highly of King: "He is among the best, purest, and most consistent public men I have ever known, and is also a sound judging and discreet fellow," as well as a "very gay, elegant looking fellow."
Nevertheless, the staff at Wheatland never mentions King. Asked directly "was Buchanan gay?" a staff member replies, "He most definitely was not," and points to a portrait of Ann Coleman on the wall as evidence. Buchanan was in fact engaged to Coleman, the daughter of a wealthy ironmaker, for several weeks in the late summer and autumn of 1819. He showed so little interest in her, however, that rumormongers in Lancaster suggested he was only in love with her fortune.
What follows is a sample of the remarks posted this week on a listserv run by the University of Michigan. The listserv provides historians with a national forum to debate subjects of interest to scholars. It is affiliated with the Social Science History Association.
Would anyone care to comment on the article appearing in today's Chronicle of Higher Education concerning a new book suggesting that President James Buchanan was gay?
Now, personally I don't much care whether Buchanan was gay or not - I would not think any worse of him (or better, for that matter). But isn't this very poor history? Are we to make sweeping assertions about a president's personal life - and even his political views on slavery - based on such thin tissues of evidence? If we take a face value the various slings and arrows fired at presidents down through our history, we'll be doing our scholarship a great disservice. Are we now to believe, for example, that Abraham Lincoln had an African-American mistress because white Southerners of his day started that rumor? Should we now give credence to the rumors that John Quincy Adams ran a bordello in Europe, as was asserted by Jackson supporters in 1828?
What is truly worrisome is the forum given this scholar and his assertions by as prestigous a publication as the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was a primary link on their website, and appeared under the subheading "a new book dispels American political myths." I find this even more disturbing than the rather suspect history of the author in question. Surely the Chronicle should be above that sort of grandstanding.
Brian Dirck Anderson University
Hey, if a biographer can put himself into a biography as a character why should we worry about a little character assassaination. And while we are at it don't forget Harding's supposed African-Americanness, Jackson's mother being a whore for the British Army, Van Buren's breast fantasy, LBJ's involvement in the JFK killing and his subsequent sexual behavior on Air Force 1 going back to DC and a host of other silliness too long to mention.
I have to admit that I heard this same story (given a very similar spin) told by a distinguished Civil War-era historian, during a lecture in a "Coming of the Civil War" course that I TA'ed for, at a very prominent northeastern research university. I have tried to look up a source for the anecdote myself a few times, but have never found much. The charge may not be very solidly grounded. However, we might want to be careful about knee-jerk reactions to unflattering anecdotes about historical figures. The statistics on the incidence of homosexuality in the general population suggest that there probably have been gay presidents in the past, and Buchanan seems a more likely candidate than most. Also, we should remember that once, before DNA testing, the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship (also first publicized by political opponents) was beaten down by many historians with just the same sense of peremptory outrage.
Jeff Pasley University of Missouri-Columbia
I find it interesting that whenever someone speculates about a person's sexual orientation most academics still become nervous. The general tone is still "Don't ask, don't tell." To see Buchanan's possible homosexual relationship compared to sensational rumors such as LBJ's conspiracy to kill JFK or John Quincy Adam's rumored bordello baffles me. When a biographer suggests that there is evidence that someone may have been gay, that doesn't mean they are spreading rumors about some lack of character. In other words, they aren't trying to "tear down" an important figure. Sexuality is sexuality. And sexuality does effect someones outlook, world view, and even political beliefs. I think that it is time we stop forcing the issue into the closet by saying "it doesn't matter." It does. On the other hand, since the term homosexuality didn't exist in Buchanan's time, it is very difficult to speculate on just what the nature of his relationship with his male companion was. But is it relative? Yes. I find the whole issue refreshing. In my career, I've been asked by several students if Buchanan was gay. I'm glad someone is willing to explore the issue.
Jonathan A. Lee San Antonio College
Let me join the nay-sayers. The gay and lesbian group here at CSUN has been chalking endorsements of homosexuality and bi-sexuality over most of the sidewalks recently, along with the names of famous historical figures who need to be "outed", including Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc? Good God! Even the folk who sent her to burn at the stake almost 600 years ago didn't assert she found sexual pleasures with other women. And what on earth does this have to do with freeing France from English domination? What madness is rampant in our time?
Mike Shupp California State University, Northridge Graduate Student, Dept. of Anthropology
JAMES LOEWEN RESPONDS
I agree with Jonathan Lee (among the comments quoted here) and parts of some others. The preponderance of the evidence clearly shows that James Buchanan had a long-term homosexual relationship with William Rufus King. Historians or sociologists are allowed to go with "a preponderance of the evidence," since we are not convicting anyone of a crime in a court of law. The evidence that President Buchanan was heterosexual, most of which was marshaled by the staff at his house, is thin indeed. He might of course have been asexual, but that's tricky to prove, since absence of evidence (of sexuality in this case) is not evidence of absence.
The statements quoted above, and some others by Buchanan and by King, are surely as persuasive as we are likely to get for anyone in the period. As well, they help explain Buchanan's position on the #1 problem of the day, slavery and related issues, such as its extension into Kansas and fugitive slave law enforcement. Otherwise, Buchanan's position is harder to understand, being abhorrent to his Mennonite, Quaker, and even many Democrat neighbors.
James Loewen is the bestselling author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (Simon & Schuster, 1996).
Published: Oct 15 1999