President Buchanan

True or false: If Pete Buttegeig becomes President, he will be America’s first gay President. Answer: maybe.

A book by Thomas Balcerski attempts to answer the question, was James Buchanan America’s first gay President? First some biographical details: the author is assistant professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. Buchanan was President immediately before Lincoln. He lived from 1791-1868, and has been linked to a man who briefly held the office of Vice President, William Rufus King (1786-1853).

Buchanan had many courtships but adeptly circumvented any entanglements with women. As for King, his “sexuality seems to have been intensely and consistently suppressed throughout his lifetime.” He was known in the press as “Miss Nancy.” While residing in Washington DC, Buchanan and King lived in the same house and became known as “Siamese twins.”

Buchanan was even a cross-dresser. In 1859, while in office as President, one of his lady friends (the widowed Mrs. Bass) visited Buchanan at his cottage three miles from the capital. When Bass arrived, the president “rushed out of the parlour to change clothes, returning ‘dressed in an inch of life’ as Kate Thompson, wife of the interior secretary.” So the circumstantial evidence is pretty strong, but there is no ‘smoking gun’ evidence he was gay or involved with King like a 21st century gay couple.

The reader does not have to wade deeply into the book to find Balcerski’s conclusion. On pg. 12, he states “This book finds that the surviving evidence neither supports a definitive assessment of either man’s sexuality, nor the occurrence of a sexual liaison between them.”

Vice President King

Balcerski is to be commended for his circumspect scholarship in this regard. Rather than a salacious book filled with wild conjecture, this is a thoroughly scholarly book, with appendices, notes, bibliography and index consuming 125 pages! In the remaining 209 pages of prose, the author offers a very fine exposition on the American political scene in the decades preceding Lincoln’s election. This covers several presidencies including Jackson, Harrison, Van Buren, Polk, Tyler and Pierce, the first president not to be renominated for election by his own party. The main national and international crises that confronted these presidents, including whether or not to annex Cuba and Texas into the Union, and how to handle the extension of slavery into newly acquired territories as the United States expanded westwards, shine a spotlight into an era of American history few people outside the halls of history departments are aware of anymore.

One comes away from book feeling that the Civil War might have been averted if Buchanan had not been in office, but certainly became more inevitable because he was in office as a Northerner who supported slavery. The verdict of history has been especially cruel to Buchanan, who almost always rates as the worst president in history in rankings prepared by professional historians. The only reason the legacy of the two men survived is due to both of their nieces, who rescued their papers if not their reputations. At the time of his death he was viewed as a political idiot, and traitor by some. As the author writes, “The nation widely noticed-though little mourned-the passing of James Buchanan. But like the lifelong bachelor that he was, he failed to marry the fortunes of his party with those of the nation.”

Both he and King tried for the presidency a number of times, and possibly if King had not died in office as VP (he served for only 6 weeks after his election) he might have had a shot at it before Buchanan. As it is, his main claim to fame is having been inaugurated in Cuba, the only man in one of the two top jobs to be sworn into office in a foreign land.

The book is well written, not overly wordy, with a good fast pace which is especially welcome in a scholarly book. It interweaves the events of the times with the life of Buchanan while providing a balanced look at the private lives of the president and his ‘bosom buddy’ King. I would like to have seen tables for the various occupants of president and vice president for ease of reference, and also senatorial dates and times as many such people pop in and out of the text as time goes on.

Bosom Friends is published by Oxford and is available from any fine bookshop.

President Buchanan