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Cartoonist Ted Rall has apparently decided Buchanan wasn’t gay

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 15, 1999
Buchanan, gay? Who’d have thought?
Anyone who bothered to look into his living arrangements, says James W. Loewen, an adjunct professor of sociology at Catholic University. Of course, in his new book, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (The New Press), Mr. Loewen is speaking of the first Buchanan with Presidential politics in his blood, James.
Mr. Loewen, author of the best-selling Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New Press, 1995), sets out in his new, self-described “rant” to dispel the myths that befog the American landscape. In a chapter titled “You’re Here to See the House,” he recalls asking a tour guide at Wheatland, Buchanan’s mansion near Lancaster, Pa., whether the 15th President was gay. “He most definitely was not,” came the outraged reply.
“Most likely was,” insists Mr. Loewen. Buchanan’s long-time living companion, William Rufus King, was referred to by critics as his “better half,” ‘’his wife,” and “Aunt Fancy.” Around Washington, the pair were known as the “Siamese twins,” slang at the time for gays and lesbians. And when King was appointed envoy to France, in 1844, Buchanan lamented to a friend that “I have gone wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any of them.”
The relationship may have been more than romantic. Mr. Loewen speculates that Buchanan, a native of a fiercely anti-slavery section of Pennsylvania, developed pro-slavery views out of sympathy with King, who served as a Democratic Senator from Alabama.
“It’s important to know that some of our leaders have been gay,” says Mr. Loewen, explaining why he outed a man often counted among the 10 worst Presidents. “To know that gay people did things, good things and bad things. You can’t just claim the heroes.”
You might think from the preceding Chronicle article that James Buchanan is gay, end of story. In fact matters are a little more complicated and an answer is hard to find. There are very few primary sources about James Buchanan because he ordered that his letters be burnt upon his death. (pp. 73-74) The surviving letters and other primary sources are reprinted in a book called “President James Buchanan” by Philip Shriver Klein, and the juicier bits were extracted into a god-awful book by John Updike on, of all things, the Ford administration. I will cite the page numbers of Updike’s easier-to-find book here, even for quotations of Klein himself.
It might be more helpful to separate the “Was Buchanan gay?” question into two parts. One, did he love men instead of women, and two, did he in fact follow his passions. The answer to the second question would seem to be “no.” His fiancee, Ann Coleman was of course exactly the sort of girl that a good-looking, brilliant, young lawyer would try to marry. She was rich, she was beautiful. Her family, owning a musket-making concern, was one of the wealthiest families in Pennsylvania. Aside from Ann Coleman, Mr. Buchanan went after several other women. He wrote to Mrs. Francis Preston Blair on June 3, 1837 that before the next year “I expect to be married & have the cares of a family resting upon my shoulders” (p. 225) Notably, he wrote this to Blair a year after he had started lodging with King! Also, not to put too fine a point on it, whether Buchanan loved King or not, it seems unlikely that two reserved, upper-class men, one of whom continued to date women, would boink each other in the ass. These were, after all, the days before daily showers and Vaseline.
Updike supplies his own thoughts on p. 229. He quotes a contemporary who notes that Buchanan had “a likeness of the late Vice-President King, whom he loved (and who did not?). He declared that he was the purist public man that he ever knew, and that during his intimate acquaintance of thirty years he had never known him to perform a selfish act.” (King was vice-president under Pierce, who served immediately before Buchanan. Incidentally, while Buchanan was the only bachelor president, King was the only bachelor vice president.) Updike’s conclusory analysis that the two of them would never dare to consummate their relationship is, however, not persuasive. Other authors have noted that Senator King was called “Miss Nancy” by Andrew Jackson, “Mrs. James Buchanan” by James K. Polk’s law partner, and “Buchanan’s better half” and “Aunt Fancy” by others. Senator King was noted for his “fastidious habits and conspicuous intimacy with bachelor Buchanan.” It’s not clear whether the cruel jibes were based on the facts of the Buchanan-King friendship (meaning they were gay) or if the two of them stayed fast friends precisely because of the bullying from other frontier politicians (meaning that they might not have been). It’s also possible that perhaps King was gay, and Buchanan was not, and that was what led to their intense friendship.
Did Buchanan Love Women?
As to the first question, whether Buchanan loved women or not, he certainly put work into landing a good one. One possibility is that he consciously or unconsciously pursued women who were “objectively” good rather than trying to find love with a woman. Ann Coleman certainly met that description. As Klein put it, “That she remained unmarried at twenty-three may have been because she was emotionally unstable, but more likely it was due to the stubborn insistence of her parents that she make an advantageous marriage.” (p. 35) At the time people doubted that Buchanan truly loved her; after her death, contemporary Hannah Cochran noted that “he secluded himself for a few days and then sallied forth as bold as ever.” (p. 164) Buchanan years later explained to Samuel L. M. Barlow that his vigorous entry into politics so soon after his fiancee’s death was “ a distraction from my great grief, and because I saw that through a political following I could secure the friends I then needed.” (p. 165) What he said is certainly plausible. Buchanan was widely blamed for Ann Coleman’s death, and he had very few friends in town subsequently. On the other hand, it is also possible that perhaps he did not truly love her, though he had convinced himself he did.
Letter from Buchanan to Robert Coleman
To qualify what Hannah Cochran said, it might be helpful to include one of the few surviving letters written by James Buchanan. This letter was written after Ann Coleman’s sudden death, in it, he pleads with her father to allow him to go to her funeral. In fact, the letter was turned away at the door. In it, he alludes to his noteriety, which probably refers to his boozing at taverns rather than rumors of gay love affairs. As an aside, I heard about this letter from one of the indirect descendants of Ann Coleman, my friend Mike Love’s girlfriend, Laura Coleman Sorenson. She told me that it had been collected with other primary sources into a John Updike novel. This letter was written December 10, 1819.
My dear Sir:
You have lost a child, a dear, dear child. I have lost the only earthly object of my affections, without whom life now presents to me a dreary blank. My prospects are all cut off, and I feel that my happiness will be buried with her in the grave. It is now no time for explanation, but the time will come when you discover that she, as well as I, have been much abused. God forgive the authors of it. My feelings of resentment towards them, whoever they may be, are buried in the dust. I have now one request to make, and, for love of God and of your dear, departed daughter whom I loved infinitely more than any other human being could love, deny my not. Afford me the melancholy pleasure of seeing her body before its interment. I would not for the world be denied this request.
I might make another, but, from the misrepresentations which must have been made to you, I am almost afraid. I would like to follow her remains to the grave as a mourner. I would like to convince the world, and I hope to convince you, that she was infinitely dearer to me than life. I may sustain the shock of her death, but I feel that happiness has fled from me forever. The prayer which I make to God without ceasing is, that I yet may be able to show my veneration for the memory of my dear departed saint, by my respect and attachment for her surviving friends.
May Heaven bless you, and enable you to bear the shock with the fortitude of a Christian.
I am, forever, your sincere and grateful friend,
James Buchanan
The Mystery of Ann Coleman’s Death
Finally, it might do well to explain why Buchanan was blamed for Ann Coleman’s death. The cause of her death, chalked up in history as “hysteria,” is as much a mystery of any part of Buchanan’s life. Although nobody knew what caused her death, James was widely blamed at the time, possibly because it was his faux pax which led to the dissolution of their relationship. Or possibly because of his boozing and carousing. Or possibly because of the facts prompting the “sally forth” remark by Hannah Cochran above. In any case, the primary source regarding Ann Coleman’s death is this short entry in the diary of a Philadelphia judge, Thomas Kittera. Writing about the events of December 8, 1819 (p. 110):
At noon yesterday I met this young lady on the street, in the vigour of health, and but a few hours after[,] her friends were mourning her death. She had been engaged to be married, and some unpleasant misunderstanding occurring, the match was broken off. This circumstance was preying on her mind. In the afternoon she was laboring under a fit of hysterics; in the evening she was so little indisposed that her sister visited the theatre. After night she was attacked with strong hysterical convulsions, which induced the family to send for physicans, who thought this would soon go off, as it did; but her pulse gradually weakened until midnight, when she died. Dr. Chapman, who spoke with Dr. Physick, says it is the first instance he ever knew of hysteria producing death. To affectionate parents sixty miles off what dreadful intelligence—to a younger sister whose evening was spent in mirth and folly, what a lesson of wisdom does it teach. Beloved and admired by all who knew her, in the prime of life, with all the advantages of education, beauty, and wealth, in a moment she has been cut off.