Profound Questions: So, uh, James Buchanan? (Part II)
Originally published June 25, 2010
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
Faithful readers of this column will recall that the current president is black. It's a great and happy breakthrough, and it liberates the nation to look to more executive firsts. Women! Hispanics! Robots!
But gays? Mention it, and inevitably someone will tell you it's been done. In 1856, they'll say, when rainbows were just refracted light and Stonewall was a guy from Virginia, a gay guy was elected by popular vote. There are no James Buchanan balloons at your local pride parade -- but he was a bad president, and your local moustache festival is probably light on Hitler memorabilia, too. A gay 19th-century president defies reason -- but rumors have survived two centuries. As recently as the 1990s, people cared enough to spraypaint his lonely bachelor tombstone with slurs, because progress isn't always forward.
Is there something to this? Does James Buchanan belong on a $3 bill?
A little exploring will give you the answer. Pack a sandwich and your modern stereotypes and get to his Pennsylvania home! Wheatland is a beautifully decorated mansion, with more panache and color than you'd expect for the 1860s. Head down to Washington and Meridian Hill Park -- home of the 1980s crack epidemic and the James Buchanan memorial! It was paid for by his niece, since no one liked James Buchanan, but it's a statue nonetheless. Stare into his eyes! Activate your historical gaydar! Listen for the pings!
Then, when you're done grasping at offensive straws, you can do a little reading. Piece together the allegations, cross-reference a few footnotes, and skim some GLBT theory. You'll notice two things. First, if you're using a cookie-enabled web browser, a lot of your Facebook ads will now be for gay cruises. Second, every "accuser" is drawing from the same shallow well. Generations of speculation are based on the following:
1. Buchanan was a bachelor.
2. He lived with another bachelor. Sen. William Rufus King of Alabama shared quarters in Washington with Buchanan. The arrangement lasted for years.
3. King and Buchanan were tight. Advocates of a gay Buchanan usually go to personal letters for two particular passages of hot, burgeoning lust. King to Buchanan, on departing for France for a few years: "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 to a friend, after King's departure: "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." Scorching stuff.
4. Most of their other letters were destroyed. King died in 1853, Buchanan in 1868. By agreement, their nieces burned much of their personal correspondence ... because it dripped with the love that dare not speak its name! Allegedly.
5. People called them names. Andrew Jackson referred to King as "Miss Nancy." Others from the Tennessee delegation called him "Aunt Fancy" or "Mrs. Buchanan." Together they were sometimes mocked as "The Siamese Twins."
... and that's it. There's no steamy letter. No saucy lithograph. No heart-shaped pendant slipped into a casket. There is only circumstantial evidence, diluted by circumstantial alibis:
1. He wasn't single from a total lack of effort. JB was engaged to the daughter of the richest dude in Pennsylvania. But she broke off the engagement in a jealous fit, then died of "female hysteria" -- 1820s doctor talk for either "suicide" or "Whoops! Wrong pill!" -- before they could reconcile. Buchanan claimed to be all tore up inside, though he flirted with other ladies throughout his life.
2. Before air conditioning facilitated year-round legislating, Washington was a boarding city. Lots of Congressmen cut living expenses by being roommates for part of the year, and why wouldn't two older single guys live together? Do you want to be the only single guy hanging out with married dudes?
3. Open bromance wasn't uncommon in the less sexualized 1840s. People talked funny eight score and six years ago, and those quotes could easily be as innocent as you missing Billy the summer he went to Space Camp.
4. Letters were destroyed all the time. Buchanan "had a tendency to gossip," says Patrick Clarke, the director of Wheatland. Famous people had an expectation that their letters would be published, so it was polite to torch anything that might embarrass anyone. The wisdom of this will become apparent the first time someone's Facebook status updates from their 20s are used against them in a presidential campaign.
5. If you took a class picture of the presidents, Andrew Jackson would be the guy in the letter jacket. And if jocks calling nerds gay counts as evidence, then Thanksgiving dinner is going to be particularly awkward this year.
All that's left are more offensive stereotypes: Buchanan was fussy and neat. He loved to gossip. He once had a dispute with his nephew that involved a moustache (really). Clarke notes that, at a broad-shouldered 6 feet, "on the fire department, he was the guy they called out to run with the ladder." That's either super hetero or exceedingly gay, depending on who you ask. But there is no proof.
So let's shave this down with Occam's razor. Would an ambitious, cautious man like Buchanan risk a 40-year public career on a gay relationship, or the appearance of one? "Not only would he have been commiting political suicide," Clarke notes, "he would have been committing himself to jail." Remember, it was the 1800s.
Could a man in his position keep such a relationship secret? Buchanan had detractors, including Jackson, the most powerful and surly Democrat in the universe. If they had a smudge of dirt, throwing it would have been the norm: years before Buchanan took charge, Jefferson had been publicly diagnosed with jungle fever, Jackson was accused of being a party to bigamy, and Jackson in turn accused John Quincy Adams of being a pimp. (Seriously. It's a long story.) You don't get to be president by sheer force of will -- power brokers have to sign off on your ascent. Serious suspicion would have kept JB from the top of the mountain, but there's no record of Buchanan being upset by the snickering. Because there was no secret to keep.
James Buchanan was not gay. Not as we understand it today, and not as they understood it then.
And there are other ways to explain his bachelorhood. Maybe he was married to his job. He didn't need a wife, since his siblings helped out by having children, dying, and leaving the kids to Uncle Jim. He got to be a father without marriage. Maybe he was asexual. There are theories about low testosterone levels (Buchanan apparently never had to shave). Maybe he just wasn't sexy enough, as scientifically determined a few columns ago.
But you know what? If you want him to be gay -- if it makes you smile to think of the man as a closeted pioneer of equal rights -- go for it. The rumors will certainly never die. If Tom Cruise, with two smoking-hot wives and numerous babies, is as gay as the day on Teegeeack is long, why not James Buchanan? You can argue that he's latently homosexual, filled with urges and repression, and there's no evidence to prove you wrong.
Just save some respect for our actual first gay president, and our first woman president. You know, Eleanor Roosevelt.