After the whole brouhaha over Barack Obama‘s support for gay marriage and Newsweek‘s declaration that he is our first “gay” president, the historian James Loewen reminds us of James Buchanan. The dude was straight-up gay without even trying very hard to hide it! For instance, on May 13, 1844, the future president wrote a letter to a Mrs. Roosevelt describing his social life after the departure for Europe of his great love, Senator William Rufus King:
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.
Imagine if the news media got hold of such a letter today!
Anyway, I don’t spent too much of my time contemplating presidential sexuality (honest!) but today I did happen to wonder about Buchanan after reading about his early romance with Anne C. Coleman, daughter of a Pennsylvania millionaire. Buchanan, then twenty-eight, courted her during the summer of 1819, but they quarreled and she broke things off. Soon after she died suddenly, possibly of suicide. “I have lost the only earthly object of my affections,” Buchanan wrote, “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.”
The book I was consulting, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents by William A. DeGregorio (updated 1997), mentions not a thing about Buchanan being gay, and not being a Buchanan scholar, I thought, “Hey, maybe he was just bummed about his girlfriend’s suicide. After all, her father blamed Buchanan and wouldn’t even allow him to attend the funeral. I would probably remain a bachelor my whole life, too.”
No! says Loewen. The truth is right there in that letter, if you’ll only just believe it. Which some people don’t, apparently.
Despite such evidence, one reason why Americans find it hard to believe Buchanan could have been gay is that we have a touching belief in progress. Our high school history textbooks’ overall storyline is, “We started out great and have been getting better ever since,” more or less automatically. Thus we must be more tolerant now than we were way back in the middle of the nineteenth century! Buchanan could not have been gay then, else we would not seem more tolerant now.