Let it never be forgotten that James Buchanan was demonstratively one of the worst presidents the United States has ever had. We fell apart on his watch. He was number fifteen, which would also be his score out of a hundred.
You can debate certain things about Buchanan, but some things are incontrovertible. Fort Sumter was seized while he was in charge, and with plenty of warning, before Lincoln was inaugurated. Prior to that, he had permitted the arming of the South using federal arsenals; he allowed his Secretary of War to ship muskets and ordnance to the South even as the region rattled the sabers of secession. When the war broke out, that guy became a Confederate general.
Other members of Buchanan’s cabinet also sided with the secessionists. In fact, his Secretary of Treasury headed up the body that created the Confederacy. He was pretty much its first president.
The Dred Scott decision came down upon his inauguration in 1857, and all hope for political compromise tumbled down with it. The country went on suicide watch but Buchanan all but shrugged as it pushed in the blade. He vetoed westward expansion if that expansion meant the new lands would ban slaves. Even as Kansans killed each other over whether their state should have slavery, he asked Congress to approve Kansas’ pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, fracturing his own party. John Brown responded to all this by launching his raid on Harpers Ferry during the Buchanan presidency, and the resulting show trial and rapid execution gave national acrimony its most potent martyr.
America was a freight train rushing toward calamity, and Buchanan pretty much just waved an embroidered hanky at it as it roared down the tracks. Let’s not forget any of that.
We could. I mean, we forget a lot about James Buchanan.
We forget that he lived with another man for 13 years.
Yes, James Buchanan was very probably the first gay president, or the closest thing to it that the 19th century would allow. James Buchanan’s home, Wheatland, was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Today, it’s preserved as a museum dedicated to a president to whom very few people prefer to be dedicated. I paid a visit to see what they had to say about all this.
Buchanan’s very close “friend” was named Senator William Rufus DeVane King, later Vice President King under Buchanan’s presidential predecessor, Pierce. King was himself was born in a slave state, North Carolina, and served for another, Alabama.
You might wonder if his intimate association with Buchanan might have affected any policies toward slave states. He was, after all, known as a doughface, or a Northerner who preferred the South’s political position, and in the Election of 1856, he carried every slave state except Maryland.
To the public, they were roommates. But the DC circuit knew them to function as a unit. Buchanan and King were inseparable, attending parties together, writing fevered letters to each other—some called them “the Siamese Twins,” which was slang for a gay couple back then. President Andrew Jackson, not one to mince words (if that’s the phrase), referred to the two as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” Aaron Brown, an important Democrat at the time, wrote Mrs. James L. Polk and called King Buchanan’s “better half.”
When King sailed for France to serve as ambassador, Buchanan wrote to a friend, “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 wrote Buchanan from France: “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.”
Buchanan was America’s only bachelor president. King was its only bachelor vice president. King died in 1853.
The minute Buchanan became president, three years later, his niece burned all the letters from King, and King’s niece did the same.
Even if you think all that is too circumstantial to prove homosexuality, especially in the way mid-19th century people viewed gay couplehood, you have to concede that Buchanan’s contemporaries considered King a significant connection.
How would Wheatland present both his record as a leader and his affection for King? It simultaneously slams him and sanitizes him.
A Tour of Wheatland
James Buchanan bought Wheatland in 1848, and he lived the last 20 years of his life there, less some time in London and the White House. The home, on what’s now a semi-busy street suspended between city and suburb, is well-preserved, handsomely furnished, and although attendance is slight, it’s not because the home offers nothing attractive to see. It’s because it was Buchanan’s. No one cares.
When he ran, reluctantly, for President in 1856, Wheatland became his Democratic HQ. He delivered only two speeches: one to accept his nomination, one to accept the presidency. Both were delivered from the front porch of Wheatland. James Buchanan was either phenomenally entitled or stupendously brilliant at playing hard-to-get. I wouldn’t wonder if he had just popped out in his bathrobe to say a few words. He stayed home, he enjoyed his flowers. He was also 65. He was also the ultimate insider: a former lawyer, a former Pennsylvania representative, Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State, and ambassador to both Russia and France.
“One of the most qualified people ever to run for the presidency,” our guide said. Pause. “And one of the poorest presidents we’ve ever had, which goes to show what qualifications mean.”
At Wheatland, there’s no partisan tenor, but they know there’s no use hiding it: He was lousy. “He was the wrong man to be president,” our guide told us. “We needed a leader.”
Our guide gently told us that Buchanan’s actions were well-meant. “He was a constitutionalist,” he explained. In modern-day Pennsylvania, being an originalist is the highest compliment you can give a conservative, as if the nobility of ideological assurance absolves all other flaws in character, but in 1850s America, idealistically and doggedly hewing to a flawed Constitution would soon cause the slaughter of 750,000. “He enforced the laws.”
“He was totally opposed to slavery. He thought slavery was immoral. During his life, he was known to go down South, buy slaves, take them up north, and release them.” And yet, “he thought the Civil War was caused by abolitionists haranguing the South.”
The focus of Wheatland is James Buchanan’s private life. Much attention is directed to the lavishness of his meals, the delicacy of his china (a gift from France), his rococo writing desk, the signed lithograph of the young Queen Victoria. The other tourists in my six-person walking tour seemed surprised by everything they saw. Every time they were shown something that was original—carpet, doors, Venetian blinds, Masonic plaque on the wall, servants’ bell system—the women in the group literally cooed and moaned out of an apparent duty to emotional demonstration. (In museums, I’m an originalist, too.)
His political life was explained as a matter of incompetence, but what was glaring at Wheatland was Buchanan’s repeated description as “a family man.” Which is true. As the wealthy bachelor uncle of the family, he stepped up for the younger members. But in modern Pennsylvania, land of Santorum, we also know that being a “family” anything is coded validation of morals, and at Wheatland, it’s repeated over and over.
“He moved in with his little family. He had no wife and children, but his family was his longtime housekeeper, who ended up being with him for 38 years by the time he died, his niece, and his nephew. Eventually, his other nieces and nephews were in his charge.” He became an unmarried uncle-dad of seven.
Having all those nieces and nephews was given as a reason for his being single. “We don’t know why he wasn’t married,” the guide said. “But there are indications that that may have turned off women later in his life.”
Not once is his 13 years with King mentioned. Wheatland misses so many chances to simply state the facts and let decisions fall. Themes are made of his bachelorhood and his affection for family, but there is no discussion of King, who for 13 years, lover or not, was part of this bachelor’s family.
Buchanan’s main companion at Wheatland was his charming niece Harriet. Because he had no romantic female partner in his life, Harriet served as the de facto First Lady when Buchanan ascended to the White House. After he died in Wheatland in 1868, he left it to Harriet. The house passed to a series of owners until the Junior League of Lancaster bought it in 1935. The next year, the tours began. (Now Wheatland is run in association with Lancaster County’s Historical Society.)
The guide did speak at length about an event in Buchanan’s youth. In 1819, three decades before Wheatland, he had a brief engagement to a rich girl, Ann Coleman. Everyone in town noticed he paid nearly no attention to her during courtship, and it was widely assumed he just wanted her money. When she realized the engagement wasn’t going to work out (we don’t know why it was broken—he had those letters burned, too), she died of an overdose of laudanum, a widely prescribed opiate. Whatever Buchanan did to her must have been bad, because her father banned Buchanan from the funeral.
Subsequently, he threw himself into politics—his bachelorhood became a key to his success. Maybe America would have been better off if he’d just pretended to love her.
Maybe 750,000 people would have lived if a better President had been elected to avert the slaughter. Maybe when James Buchanan admitted he couldn’t kiss a girl, a butterfly effect began.
Selling the Bachelor President
In the very last seconds of the hour-long tour, as the guide prepared to deposit us back onto the doorstep, he wrapped on an apologetic note.
“He built his own family. He was a strong family man. But probably a failure as a president. Some people in Pennsylvania may take offense, but not being a Pennsylvanian, I will not take offense that Pennsylvania’s only president was a failure.”
I couldn’t contain myself any longer. He asked for questions, and I un-bit my tongue.
“But I heard that before he lived here, he lived with a man for 13 years and he was gay before there was a word for it,” I said. Hearing that, the other people on the tour turned toward the guide expectantly.
“Well, there are theories that he was gay,” he told us. “If you read some of his letters to other men, they’ve very flowery. They burned most of the letters. But a lot of men did that in those days. As someone pointed out, Abraham Lincoln lived with other men, and as a matter of fact, he used to sleep in the same bed with other men in the Summer White House.”
(Not for 13 years, I thought.)
He went on. “People have studied his ad nauseam, and if there were proof of it, they would have found it by now,” he told us. (Burned letters, I thought.) “There are theories he was holding a torch for his first love, Ann Coleman, and that’s why he never married. Some people think he never met the right woman. Some people think he just didn’t care that much. We don’t know. Someday they may find it, you never know. But I don’t think so. So…enjoy the rest of your day!”
Even when pressed, when I visited, Wheatland excised King from the record. It doesn’t even mention the possibility. Theories of thwarted heterosexuality are openly shared, but theories of homosexuality are not. Even a broken engagement, a classic predictor for homosexuality, is not entertained as worthy of consideration.
In the gift shop, you can read some of the impressive contortions some people will go through to divert attention from something they find distasteful. One biography suggests that based on his hairline in portraits, Buchanan might have had wonky testosterone levels and was therefore straight but devoid of a sex drive. Others suggest King loved Buchanan but his love was unrequited (again, I remind: thirteen years!). Some waive his unmarried condition by explaining he never got over Ann (whom, I repeat, he ignored), or that he loved working too much for love, and so on. Evidence is in short and contestable supply.
The shop selections are willful in their creation of a palatable myth. Few biographers have written deeply about him, but two of the slim titles on offer during my visit were James Buchanan: Bachelor Father and Family Man (essentially an optimistic listing of every woman he was ever seen at a party with; “Mrs. Buck, after about a year, gave up old Buck as a hopelessly hardened bachelor”) and The Lost Love of a Bachelor President, which covers the Ann Coleman incident (“Buchanan apparently did not spend very much time in his courtship…”). Although the former contains the line “on trips to Paris had a gay old time with the vivacious Ellen Ward,” both are also conspicuously silent about his boy roommate of 13 years.
At the very least, Wheatland and I can agree that Buchanan stank as president.
We could argue about whether he was gay, but it would have to lay the facts on the table first. Lack of proof is not proof of the contrary.
And intentionally withholding evidence in abeyance, whether it’s burning letters in the hearth of Wheatland or limiting the words in the mouths of its guides, is revisionism by exclusion.