April 23, 1791 – James Buchanan
I am the last President of the United States!
Pete Buttigieg as the first gay President? I’m telling you it’s already been done. 80 years ago, we had Eleanor Roosevelt, the first woman President and first gay President, but back when Stonewall was an army general from Virginia, a gay guy was elected POTUS by popular vote. Even in our new century, people continue to write on his tombstone with anti-gay slurs, because, you know, progress.
Buchanan was born to Irish immigrants, the second of 11 middle-class siblings. He was a bad boy who drank the best whiskey, loved to gossip and was kicked out of college for partying. He was smart enough to become a very successful lawyer, rich enough to send 22 nieces and nephews to school, and own several very swank houses, stocking the bars with high-end bourbon.
He ran for President as a Democrat in 1844, 1848 and 1852. Millard Fillmore (13) and Franklin Pierce (14) had failed to do anything about the number one topic of the day: slavery, which was expanding with the country. People on both sides of the issue were pissed; armed conflict and grisly murders in Kansas foretold what was going to happen next.
A riff tore apart the Democratic Party and gave birth to the Republican Party. The country was fissured along a moral line, and Buchanan did what he did best: lawyering. He thought that rational resolutions under the law, amending the Constitution, reinforcing Southern property rights, and legally forcing Northerners and Southerners to be friends was what he hoped to accomplish. The overly-cautious Buchanan tried his best against nearly impossible odds. He also dressed well, had a passion for musical theatre, and was talented at decorating. Does Buchanan belong on the $3 bill? Buchanan was what they used to call a ”confirmed bachelor”.
He lived with another confirmed bachelor, William Rufus King, a Senator from Alabama, in an arrangement that lasted more than a decade . Departing for France for a few years to serve as minister during the reign of King Louis Philippe I, King wrote to Buchanan:
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. 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.
Most of their other letters were destroyed when King died in 1853, Buchanan joined him 15 years later. By agreement, their nieces burned much of their personal correspondence, probably because of all those passages about the love that dare not speak its name. To be fair, letters were destroyed all the time. Famous people had an expectation that their letters would be published, so it was polite to afire anything that might embarrass anyone. We will soon find out when candidates’ tweets from a decade ago come back to haunt them in a presidential campaign.
People in Washington DC referred to King as ”Miss Nancy” and ”Mrs. Buchanan”. The press mocked them as ”The Siamese Twins”. Like a gay cliché, Buchanan was fussy and neat. He loved to gossip. He once had a dispute with his nephew that involved a moustache. A broad-shouldered six feet, he was muscular with the 19th century equivalent of a gym bod.
Of course, there was no such thing a ”gay” during this era. The first known appearance of the term ”homosexual” is found in an 1869 German pamphlet 143 des Preussischen Strafgesetzbuchs und seine Aufrechterhaltung als 152 des Entwurfs eines Strafgesetzbuchs für den Norddeutschen Bund. Gay meant cheerful. Rainbows were refracted light and not a name for a flag. Instead, a gentleman might be referred to as: “that way” or “a bit funny”. People also used the term “sodomite”. Would an ambitious, cautious man like Buchanan risk a 40-year public career on a same-sex relationship, or even the appearance of one? Remember, it was the 1800s, he could have been jailed. Buchanan was not gay as we understand it today.
Male friendships during the 19th century were marked by an intense bond and filled with deeply held feeling and sentimentality. In many instances they were not that different than romantic relationships between men and women. Men during this time freely used endearing language with each other in daily interaction and letters. Daniel Webster (1782 -1852), a Senator from Massachusetts and one of this country’s greatest public speakers, often began his letters to male friends with “My lovely boy”. Even letters by manly man Theodore Roosevelt to his manly friends were filled with sentimental language that would make most men today rather uncomfortable.
In addition to using affectionate language with each other, men during the 19th century weren’t afraid to be physically affectionate. Men draped their arms around their bud, even holding hands. It is quite foreign to our modern sensibilities, yet it was even common during this era for men to share a bed.
But you know what? I want Buchanan to be gay. It makes me happy. There are so many clues: Buchanan was expelled from his church; Catherine Thompson, the wife of cabinet member Jacob Thompson, wrote that “there was something unhealthy in the president’s attitude“. I like to imagine him as a closeted pioneer of equal rights, even if he is often named as the Worst President of All Time, until now.
In March 1860, the House of Representives created a committee to investigate the Buchanan administration for evidence of offenses, some impeachable, including bribery and extortion of representatives in exchange for their votes. The committee of three Republicans and two Democrats, was accused by Buchanan’s supporters of being partisan; they also charged its chairman, Republican Congressman John Covode, with acting on a personal grudge when Buchanan vetoed a bill that was fashioned as a land grant for new agricultural colleges, but was designed to benefit Covode’s railroad company. However, the Democratic committee members, as well as Democratic witnesses, were equally enthusiastic in their pursuit of Buchanan, and as pointed in their condemnations of him as the Republicans.
The committee was unable to establish grounds for impeaching Buchanan; however, their report exposed corruption and abuse of power among members of his cabinet, as well as allegations, if not impeachable evidence, from the Republican members of the committee, that Buchanan had attempted to bribe members of Congress. The Covode Report pointed out that evidence was scarce but did not refute the allegations.
Buchanan claimed to have “passed triumphantly through this ordeal with complete vindication”. Nonetheless, Republican operatives distributed thousands of copies of the Covode Report throughout the nation as campaign material in that year’s presidential election, which was won by Abraham Lincoln running as a Republican in a four-way race. Buchanan had been dumped by his party at the Democratic convention in favor of Stephen A. Douglas; Buchanan’s veep John C. Breckinridge ran as a Southern Democrat, plus there was the nativist, anti-Catholic, xenophobic, and anti-immigration Constitutional Union Party candidate John Bell.
Though Lincoln had virtually no support in the South, his support in the North was enough to give him an Electoral College majority. Buchanan was the last Democrat to win a presidential election until the 1880s.
According to Jacob Baer, a Washington D.C. liquor merchant, Buchanan purchased a 10-gallon keg of whiskey every week. That is about 860 shots of whiskey, per week. I am sure that Buchanan shared, but that is still enough to keep the party going.
After the inauguration of Lincoln, Buchanan retired to Wheatland, his country home in Pennsylvania, where he spent his final years licking his wounds and removing himself from the horrors of the Civil War, presumably washed down with plenty whiskey and special alone time with a handsome farmhand. He was taken by gout, compounded by his drinking, in 1868.
And his beloved King? The 1852 Democratic National Convention was held; Pierce was nominated for president, and King was nominated for Vice President. After Pierce and King were elected, King was diagnosed with tuberculosis and had traveled to Cuba to regain his health, and he wasn’t in Washington to take his oath of office on March 4, 1853. By a Special Act of Congress, he took the oath outside the USA. King died of TB after just 45 days in office. King never carried out any duties of the office and he remains the only confirmed bachelor Veep. Buchanan described him as:
… the best, the purest and most consistent public men I have known.
Openly gay Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg recently joked that he can’t weigh in on whether Buchanan was gay because:
My gaydar is not great to begin with and it definitely doesn’t work over long stretches of time, so I think we’ll have to let the historians figure that one out.