While Abraham Lincoln has stolen the limelight with rumors about his furtive sex life, some historians have proclaimed that America’s first gay president was really his predecessor, the now-obscure James Buchanan. (He was the 15th president, serving from 1857 to 1861). Buchanan is the only bachelor to ever have held America’s top office, and his private life raised many eyebrows while he was alive.
From the early 1840s, Buchanan had shared a “passionate friendship” — as well as his lodgings in Washington, D.C. – with a flamboyantly effeminate senator from Alabama, William Rufus King (who, under Franklin Pierce, became America’s only bachelor vice president). The U.S. capital was then little more than a shabby provincial town, and King was cruelly derided by roughneck politicians from the frontier who called him “Miss Nancy,” “Aunt Fancy” and Buchanan’s “wife.” The pair drew mockery and suspicion for their dapper, dandified dress and fastidious habits, a sure sign that they were “Siamese twins” — 19th-century slang for a gay couple. Buchanan was certainly fond of his house-mate: When King had to depart for a spell as envoy to France in 1844, he mourned to a friend that “I have gone wooing to several gentlemen but have not succeeded with any of them.” King died in 1853, and Buchanan lived alone when he became President in 1857.
A little suspiciously, all personal correspondence between the two men was burned by their heirs, so the question of whether they were passionate lovers or simply Victorian chums will never be resolved. This hasn’t stopped historians from weighing in. The only recent biography of Buchanan, by Jean H. Baker, argues that in photographs he displays “eunuchlike, endomorphic features of body and face as well as the low hairline characteristic of low testosterone men” — which leads her to suggest that he had “little interest in sex,” and probably kept his hands off King as well.
Regardless of his carnal potency, Buchanan’s political career was fairly abysmal: He is generally voted by historians as the worst president in American history for mishandling a string of crises and dithering his way towards Civil War. • 9 December 2010
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Baker, Jean H., James Buchanan, (New York, 2004); Klein, Philip S., James Buchanan: A Biography (New York, 1995); Loewen, James, Lies Across America: What our Historical Sites Get Wrong, (New York, 2000).