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Remembering James Buchanan

June is a month reserved for your posts, but I'll also be posting either to fill in gaps on days when nobody else posts, or to comemmorate anniversaries, like today for example. On June 1, 1868 (145 years ago today) James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States, died at the age of 77 at his home called Wheatland in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The cause of death was respiratory failure.

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When it comes to ranking the Presidents, many people place Buchanan close to, or at the very bottom of the list. It was on his watch that the southern states began to secede, and Buchanan did little to prevent it and nothing to try and stop it. On the former he would disagree strongly, and did so in his memoir published in 1866 entitled Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion (reviewed here).

Buchanan was a lifelong public servant. He represented Pennsylvania in the US House of Representatives and later in the Senate, and served as Minister (or what we would now call Ambassador) to Russia under President Andrew Jackson. He was also Secretary of State under President James K. Polk. After he turned down an offer for an appointment to the Supreme Court, President Franklin Pierce appointed him Minister to the Court of St. James (Ambassador to Great Britain) and he proved to be a pretty good diplomat, helping to draft the Ostend Manifesto, part of Pierce's unsuccessful plan to purchase Cuba.

Buchanan was nominated as the Democratic candidate in the 1856 Presidential election because for most of Pierce's term, he was stationed in London and therefore was not caught up in the crossfire of sectional politics. He was the victor in a three-man race with John C. Frémont and Millard Fillmore. As President, he was often called a "doughface", a Northerner with Southern sympathies, who battled with Stephen A. Douglas for the control of the Democratic Party. Buchanan's efforts to maintain peace between the North and the South alienated both sides, and the Southern states declared their secession at the end of his term, which led to the Civil War. Buchanan's expressed view was that secession was illegal, but that going to war to stop it was also illegal.

By the time he left office, popular opinion was against him, and the Democratic Party had split. Buchanan had once aspired to a presidency that would rank in history with that of George Washington. However, in polls of historians Buchanan is consistently ranked as one of the worst Presidents in American history. Historians in both 2006 and 2009 voted his failure to deal with secession the worst presidential mistake ever made.

The other fascinating thing about Buchanan is that many believe that he was the nation's first gay president. We will never know for sure. There is smoke, but is there gay fire? Let's look at what we do know.

In 1818, Buchanan met Anne Caroline Coleman and the two began courting. Anne was the daughter of the wealthy iron manufacturing businessman Robert Colemanand by 1819, the two were engaged, although both were beyond marrying age for the time. Buchanan spent little time with her during the courtship claiming that he was extremely busy with his law firm and political projects. Buchanan was accused of wanting to marry her for her money, and letters from Anne showed she was paying attention to those rumors. Anne broke off the engagement. She died suddenly soon afterward, on December 9, 1819. The records of a Dr. Chapman, who looked after her in her final hours, record just after her death that this was "the first instance he ever knew of hysteria producing death". Many surmise that her death was a suicide caused by an overdose of laudanum. Buchanan was prevented from attending the funeral service by Anne's father.

After Coleman's death, Buchanan never courted any more women or seemed to show any emotional or physical interest. While Buchanan may simply have chosen to become celibate or asexual, there are many indicators that suggest he was homosexual. This argument has been put forward by Buchanan's biographer Jean Baker. The rumors arise out of Buchanan's close and intimate relationship with William Rufus King (who became Vice President under Franklin Pierce). The two men lived together for 13 years from 1840 until King's death in 1853. Buchanan referred to their relationship as a "communion", and the two attended all parties together. Contemporaries also noted the unusual closeness of the two men. Andrew Jackson called them "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy" (the former being a 19th century euphemism for an effeminate man), while Tennessee Governor Aaron V. Brown referred to King as Buchanan’s "better half". In later years, Kat Thompson, the wife of Buchanan's Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson, expressed her opinion that "there was something unhealthy in the president’s attitude".

Buchanan and King planned to run as president and vice president in 1844. Both men were described by contemporaries as "soft, effeminate and eccentric." When King was appointed Minister to France, Buchanan wrote letters expressing how sad he was at the loss of his companion. In May 1844, Buchanan wrote to Cornelia Roosevelt, "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 also wrote with sadness of his separation from Buchanan. In a letter to Buchanan in 1844, King wrote "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 always feel lonely in the midst of Paris, for here I shall have no Friend with whom I can commune as with my own thoughts."

Historian James Loewen is one of the strongest advocates for the theory that Buchanan and King were lovers, noting that the two were referred to around Washington as "Siamese twins" which was contemporary slang for gay couples. Professor Loewen goes so far as to speculate that Buchanan's affection for the southerner King may have been what influenced the Pennsylvanian to have such strong pro-slavery views.

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The two men's nieces destroyed their uncles' correspondence, but the length and intimacy of surviving letters illustrate "the affection of a special friendship". We'll never know what went on behind closed doors in the home that Buchanan and King shared, but doesn't it make for wonderful historical speculation?

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