The United States of America has elected some interesting characters to the highest office in the land. Despite some of their personal peccadilloes men with certain “flaws” were not often mercilessly persecuted for their behaviors (unlike today’s environment of heightened media scrutiny and character dissection). They were allowed to act as dignitaries without the niggling and constant priggish badgering inflicted upon any modern-era President (especially if he is not white or a Republican).
There are many other interesting facts about our Presidents. For example, with respect to religion, although the first several Presidents professed faith in “Providence” (a nebulous construct more closely related to “Fate” and “Destiny” than it is to the Judeo-Christian god, Yahweh), they weren’t particularly religious. And although most Presidents have been mainstream Protestants there have been some notable exceptions. There was the Catholic John F. Kennedy, of course. But this country has also elected a Quaker to the Great Office; that would be Richard M. Nixon.
The history of the Presidency is filled with other endlessly fascinating tidbits simply because the men who have served (and someday, hopefully within this lifetime, women will get a shot) are a diverse group.
It is worth noting these many differences. William Howard Taft holds the distinction of being our first and, so far, only morbidly obese President. He was so fat he got stuck in his White House bathtub, forcing the installation of a newer, larger tub.
Our sole disabled President (not counting George W. Bush’s mental challenges) was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The only openly racist President? Woodrow Wilson. The firsCredit: US Patent Officet President born in a hospital? Jimmy Carter. The only President to get a patent for an invention? Abraham Lincoln (for an inflatable bellows system to help river boats remove themselves from sandbars).
Who was the only President produced by Pennsylvania? James Buchanan. Who was our first gay President? That, too, was James Buchanan.
There was a time in the world (and the United States) when people were very plain-spoken. The hallowed Puritans who sailed in the Mayflower to this New World were disparagingly referred to (by the definitely less-couth, non-Puritan crew of the ship) as “puke-stockings” (because most of the Pilgrims spent their time vomiting excessively from sea-sickness).
Place names here in the US were often colorful (though crude) but, in the end, plain-spoken (a set of hillocks called “Squaw Tits”; a mountain named “Nigger Head”, et al). Obviously, naming places with racial epithets (such as “squaw” and “nigger”) is offensive, and the US Postal Service took care of that particular issue beginning in the early 1900s, rightfully renaming more offensive venues to the innocuous (the noxious “Nigger Head” Mountain in Maryland is now called “Black Mountain”).
A few venues escaped renaming because the current name wasn’t offensive to the ear, its origins were murky, or people simply didn’t know what the word actually meant. The Grand Tetons (mountains in Wyoming) are a perfect example. The word “tetons” is of French origin and it literally translates into “tits” meaning exactly that and nothing more. It is not the genteel “breast” or the clinical “mammaries”; it is the slang term exclusively.
When Victorian “sensibilities” swept England in the mid to late 1800s, the US followed suit with the insanity of euphemistically naming things, couched in such bizarre language that often one Credit: Vic Dillinger, 2011did not know what the subject was. Anything sexual or having to do with the human body, its functions, or behaviors was renamed something less “offensive” or less prurient. The extremes of language are manifold: the formerly plain-spoken frontiersman once commented upon a table’s “leg”, now it was a table’s “limb”.
The Victorian language style tends to confound the modern reader, and this idiocy could be recited ad nauseum, but two examples need pointing out.
A prime example of Victorian oblique language was in the investigation of Lizzie Borden (under suspicion for murdering her father and step-mother with an ax in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the late 1800s).
A coroner’s inquest revealed a blood stain on one of Lizzie’s undergarments when examining her clothing worn on the fateful day. Lizzie, under oath, testified the blood was “from a flea bite”. Today, one would imagine a tiny dot of blood, perhaps the size of a pinhead, and no more.
The people of Lizzie’s day (and the Coroner), though, knew exactly what she meant: in the confounding euphemistically ridiculous language of the times, she was telling the court the blood was a splotch of menstrual blood. “From a flea bite” was the “tender” way of putting it, and the blood splotch in question was certainly much larger than a pin head (hence, the police’s original interest in it). What her answer also did, though, was to cleanly shut down that line of inquiry – the men on Lizzie’s jury had no intention of probing into her menstrual cycle in open court.
So, too, in sexual matters the Victorians really upped the ante. Homosexuality has existed as long as there have been people, and it is documented in the rest of the animal kingdom as well. Before the Victorian era, homosexual men were called “inverts”, “Nancy boys”, or “pansies”. Not terribly flattering but not misleading, either. Their female counterparts were “Sapphics” (and since the average upper-class Brit was steeped in the Greek Classics this term was not mysterious, either). Being “gay” meant one was happy, or one was a prostitute (as in the sentences, “She went gay” or “She’d gone gay”; these meant the woman in question “became a prostitute”).
But with the prudery of Victoriana, all the plain-spoken speech disappeared. Suddenly, a homosexual man was no longer an “invert”. He was called a “bachelor”
The “Bachelor” President
James Buchanan (like his Presidential successor, Abraham Lincoln) was born in a log cabin. This little one-room hut in the woods in Cove Gap (near Mercersburg), Pennsylvania, ultimately sheltered a total of 11 children. The future President was the second child in the birth order, born in 1791.
He grew from boyhood to his teen years without incident. He attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was ejected after his first year, however, allegedly for insubordination to his teachers. He appealed for reinstatement and graduated with honors in 1809. From there he studied law for the next three years, and opened his own practice in 1812 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He also bought a part-interest in a tavern at this time.
Buchanan volunteered for service during the War of 1812 and played a part in defending Baltimore from British attack. He returned to Lancaster, and in 1814 was elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature. He spent two terms in office, then returned to his law practice. Good business acumen combined with thrift on his part allowed Buchanan to earn a steady income of $8000 annually (a princely sum in those days).
Pursuant to the expectations and trends of the time Buchanan felt he should probably get married. Keeping in mind this article is about Buchanan’s homosexuality naysayers will point to his later “engagement” as proof he was not a homosexual. Here’s why Buchanan's wife search is irrelevant to his nature. As any closeted homosexual in the public eye could have expounded upon (Tony Randall, Dick Sargent, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Barbara Stanwyck, Meredith Baxter, Agnes Moorhead, et al) a “beard” works wonders for a career. In an era of staunch homophobia as we live in today (actually worse in many ways than in Buchanan’s time) protecting one’s privacy and job is important. Homosexuals have often married members of the opposite sex for cover, and it is not so unusual.
In Buchanan’s day as well, marriage was the “natural” course of events. A man secured his place in life, settled down, and raised a family. Marriages of convenience were common, and in the early 19th Century one didn’t always marry for love. Even the canonized Abraham Lincoln (definitely not homosexual) succumbed to the idea of a marriage of convenience before he met Mary Todd Lincoln. In his younger lawyering years, Lincoln also found himself moderately successful and was urged by his close friends and associates to marry.
Matchmakers found what they believed a suitable mate for him in the form of a fat, dumpy, unintelligent slovenly woman who had family money and family connections. Lincoln finally folded under the pressure and began “a-courtin’” this woman who (in his private writings) he recorded as being despicable and a dullard. Nonetheless he felt obliged to carry on out of a sense of duty. Amazingly, the “prize” in the picture ran off with another man leaving a surprised (and surprisingly incensed) Lincoln with egg on his face. He couldn’t seem to get over the fact this woman had dumped him – he complained bitterly about it in correspondence to a friend.
Buchanan’s quest for a wife makes perfect sense whether he was a homosexual or not. The intended was a woman named Ann Coleman whose family were very well-heeled iron-mill owners. Buchanan spent little time with her during the courtship, however. His time was divided between his law firm and political activities surrounding the Panic of 1819. The Coleman clan, though, thought Buchanan was simply gold-digging and did not approve of his “interest” in their daughter. Rumors abounded, suggesting he was marrying Ann for her money or for status (because his own family was less affluent). Although later in life Buchanan never publicly spoke of his motives or feelings, letters from Ann suggest she was paying attention to the rumor mill. She broke off their “engagement”.
Ann Coleman died soon afterward, on December 9, 1819. The records of her attending physician (who watched over her in her last hours) stated hers was the first instance he “ever knew of hysteria producing death”. His theory was that Ann was so distraught over Buchanan (though this doctor had no supporting evidence) she killed herself (perhaps accidentally) with an overdose of laudanum. The reality is her death is a mystery but unlikely related to any unresolved feelings about Buchanan – after all, it was she who had broken the engagement with him.
Buchanan, like Lincoln when slighted, was also chagrined. However, his very public grief over Ann’s death when it came was probably genuine. In all likelihood he did have some affection for the woman. Her family, though, denied him a place in her funeral party, and he was barred from attending. He later wrote obliquely to his father: “It is now no time for explanation, but the time will come when you will discover that she, as well as I, have been much abused. God forgive the authors of it . . . I may sustain the shock of her death, but I feel that happiness has fled from me forever.” Buchanan may have been venting his frustration at having the marital opportunity snatched away. He never came close to it again in his life.
He was a lifelong alcoholic, and he consumed large amounts of booze without any outward signs of drunkeness (though “gin blossoms” – the eruptive skin condition most notably seen on the face of early 20th Century actor/comedian W.C. Fields – are visible in photos of him late in his life). One journalist later wrote of Buchanan’s capacity for liquor: “More than one ambitious tyro who sought to follow his . . . example gathered an early fall.”
Buchanan was elected to Congress in 1820. In 1824 he became a supporter of Andrew Jackson, and when Jackson was elected President in 1829 he awarded Buchanan’s loyalty with the post of USCredit: Library of Congress Minister to Russia in early 1832. [Jackson’s reasoning for sending Buchanan abroad was Machiavellian, though. A few years later when James K. Polk, as President, appointed Buchanan to the post of Secretery of State, Jackson strenuously objected. When Polk pointed out that Jackson had given Buchanan the plum responsibility of Russia, Jackson retorted, “It was as far as I could send him out of my sight, and where he could do the least harm. I would have sent him to the North Pole if we had kept a minister there!"]
Buchanan was particularly good at this job – the Russian people liked him, he was well-received in the Russian Royal Court, and he successfully negotiated the first trade treaty between the US and Russia. He remained out of the US in this job for a little over a year, but then began agitating to come back to Washington, DC. Ostensibly, as an ambitious politician, he did not want the folks at home to forget about him. He returned in 1834, and he was elected to the US Senate.
William Rufus King was also a US Senator, from Alabama. He and Buchanan would share a domicile as “roommates” for 15 years (prior to Buchanan’s Presidency). The relationship between these two men was much speculated upon, and was actually a running joke in the political and social circles of the time. They were inordinately close; rarely was either man seen in public without the other. Although neither man was ever caught in flagrante delicto, Buchanan’s and King’s close relationship did draw titters and jeers, sometimes from surprising corners.
Andrew Jackson (quien es mas macho that any other President in this country’s history) referred to Senator King as “Miss Nancy” and to Senator Buchanan (who was almost foppish in appearance) as “Aunt Fancy” when he saw them about. Another politico, Aaron V. Brown, spoke of the two men as “Buchanan and his wife.” Some members of the contemporary press also gossiped about Buchanan’s and King’s relationship.
Credit: Library of CongressAlthough most correspondence between Buchanan and King was later destroyed by their two nieces (who served as surrogate “wives” for both men) surviving excerpts show there was probably more than simple camaraderie involved between them. Buchanan wrote of his “communion" with his housemate. King received a political appointment as US Minister to France, and he was often absent from the Buchanan-King household. During one such absence in May 1844, Buchanan wrote to a female acquaintance:
“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.”
He then ran for President himself as a Democrat (did not get the Democratic nomination) in 1848. In the wake of the loss, the 57-year-old Buchanan retired to an estate he held near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, named Wheatland. By this time it is certain he and King were no longer living together (because of career conflicts and not domestic issues). He missed the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination again in 1852, but almost immediately was given a post as US Minister to Great Britain.
Buchanan did not personally believe in the benefits of slavery. He was, however, a political animal, and his Southern support base was very strong. His attitude toward the Southern “Cause” was opportunistic: whatever worked for him, worked. While in Britain, Buchanan teamed with two other pro-slavery ministers and drafted the “Ostend Manifesto”. This document basically demanded that Spain sell Cuba to the US (intent on making it a slave-holding territory). The Manifesto further stated if Spain refused to sell Cuba force might be necessary to take it. The document created controversy in the North while Southerners cheered its intent (the program went nowhere, although presciently it would have been helpful to get Cuba as a US Territory at this time).
Franklin Pierce, the president-elect in 1852, had William King (Buchanan’s ex-“roommate”) as his Vice President. King, however, died of tuberculosis in 1853 (only six weeks after assuming the position of US Vice President). When King died Buchanan was inconsolable. It is unfortunate the man could not properly express his grief but was forced to suffer in private.
Debate over the Kansas Territory’s possible admittance to the Union as a slave state raged and much blood was shed over the issue. It tainted Pierce's re-election campaign (he was pro-slavery), and when the time came for the 1856 primaries Buchanan was on the ticket (he was not involved in the Kansas debate and Southerners found him acceptable because of the Ostend Manifesto).
Buchanan took office in 1857, winning by a comfortable margin. As he had no wife an adopted niece filled the shoes of White House hostess for him. Buchanan’s inauguration was the first everCredit: Meade Brothers, 1860 documented by Credit: Library of Congressphotography. [It is interesting to note the cosmetic differences in a portrait photograph taken in 1860 versus his more flattering official White House painted portrait]
At his inaugural address he boasted about the great fiscal shape the country was in at the time (a truthful statement; there was a huge surplus in the federal treasury when he took office). Unfortunately, the Panic of 1857, just a few months into his term, wiped out that surplus and left a $27 million deficit in its wake.
He mistakenly embraced the South, however, early in his term, and his palliative policies with respect to the South would plague the last years of his administration and cost him re-election. He promised one southern Senator "to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question in the North and to destroy sectional parties. Should a kind Providence enable me to succeed in my efforts to restore harmony to the Union, I shall feel that I have not lived in vain." In the vernacular of the day, Northerners referred to Buchanan as a “doughface”: a Northern man with Southern principles.
Buchanan, however, was playing a political game. His policies toward the South differed greatly from those of Andrew Jackson. When South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union under Jackson’ administration, he threatened them with military force, and they backed down. Now, with several Southern states agitating over new states' being slave states and rattling the saber of secession, Buchanan practically fell all over himself to keep them happy. He tried, and failed, to get Kansas admitted to the Union as a slave state. He continued agitating against Spain to sell Cuba to the US to no avail. He negotiated with Russia to get the Alaska Territory and was not successful (William Seward, in the Lincoln administration, would be the lucky winner with the purchase known at the time as “Seward’s Folly”).
While the country was in turmoil Buchanan wasted time and military manpower suppressing what he perceived as a rebellion in Utah. In 1857, the current Utah Territory governor was the Mormon leader Brigham Young (he had been governor since the Territory’s creation in 1851). Young had hurt some feelings in Washington, DC, when he defied the orders of some federal officials sent out to Utah. Buchanan took swift action. He appointed a new governor, then sent troops to Utah to enforce his order. The subsequent skirmishing saw the Mormons burn two federal forts and attack several federal supply wagon trains. By December 1858 the situation had eased and Buchanan reported the insurrection was over.
John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry lit the tinder for the Civil War powder keg, raising the ante on the slavery issue. Again, due to waffling on admitting new states with regard to the slave issue Buchanan could not seem to respond appreciably to continued secession threats. Finally South Carolina made good and announced its secession from the Union in 1860 (Andrew Jackson simply would have suppressed any insurrection with immediate and decisive military force).
It was late in Buchanan’s term when the threat to Fort Sumter developed. Buchanan tried to give help, but was warned if he offered any naval support any incoming ships would be fired upon by South Carolina. He relented and made no further moves to help ease the Fort Sumter stand-off situation (a situation Lincoln would inherit when he took office).
Buchanan’s approach to the South was sound from his read on the US Constitution. He believed that secession was unconstitutional. But he also believed it was unconstitutional for the US to use force against secession. Buchanan’s actions on pushing the slave-state agenda for Kansas’ Union admission fractured the Democratic Party, and no clear candidate could be supported for the upcoming elections. Lincoln, a Republican, won handily in the chaos. By the time Buchanan left office, six more states had left the Union.
He told Lincoln as the reigns of power changed hands on March 4, 1861, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed.” He returned to his estate, and died at age 77 in 1868 of pneumonia.
Author’s note: Of paramount interest is the plain level of tolerance held for the human failings of politicians of Buchanan’s day. Grover Cleveland was elected for two non-consecutive terms despite his sexual history. Furthermore, even though Buchanan’s orientation was questionable and a kind of “open secret” in Washington, DC, he enjoyed a very long and fruitful political career. Keep in mind the allegations of his “Nancy” behavior spanned several years and were not a single isolated incident. However, he was still elected President.
It gives one pause: in today’s cut-throat political world the merest hint of any sexual indiscretion or allegation is conflated all out of proportion to the event, so that people such as Gary Hart (cheated on his wife) are hounded out of the political arena. Even more absurd is bringing impeachment charges against a sitting President for Oval Office sexual liaisons when, as recently as the mid 1920s, Warren G. Harding was having sex with a mistress in a closet adjoining the Oval Office (and the word “impeachment” wasn’t even whispered). There is no excuse for boorish behavior, but perhaps our 19th Century ancestors had it right by focusing on real issues rather than on where, or with whom, one slept.
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