Often rated as one of the very worst US presidents, James Buchanan was born on April 23, 1791. Speculation about his sexuality began during his political career and many now call him America’s first gay president. So does homophobia contribute to his unenviable ranking on the scale of best and worst presidents?
James Buchanan’s sexuality
James Buchanan never married. In his late twenties, he became engaged to the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer. However, she broke off the engagement when he failed to spend much time with her, and then died suddenly. James Buchanan later described his political career as ‘a distraction from my great grief’.
His rumoured boyfriend had a similar explanation for his lifelong status as a bachelor. William Rufus DeVane King said he’d once fallen in love with a Prussian princess just before her marriage to Russia’s Czar Nicholas. Heartbroken by the loss of a woman whose hand he’d once kissed, he could never love again.
The two politicians — Buchanan from the north and King from the south — lived together for 23 years. They attended social functions together and cooperated politically, prompting contemporaries to refer to them as ‘the Siamese twins’. President Andrew Jackson called King ‘Miss Nancy’ while another politician disparaged him as ‘Aunt Fancy’ and Buchanan’s ‘better half’.
Question: Was Buchanan such a bad president or is history’s judgement tainted by homophobia?
Answer: He was a particularly bad president whether hetero, homo, or asexual.
James Buchanan’s presidency
Numerous aspects of the Buchanan presidency contribute to the low esteem accorded him. His administration was notoriously corrupt and he proved indecisive. But even worse — his attitude to slavery and inaction in the leadup to the American Civil War.
James Buchanan believed that slavery was wrong. But, possibly under the influence of King whose family owned hundreds of slaves, he thought it was okay for the southern states. Indeed, as the United States lurched toward Civil War over the issue, Buchanan attributed more blame to abolitionists than to slaveholders.
And he constantly excused and justified something he knew to be a great evil. He assured Congress that slaves were “treated with kindness and humanity. … Both the philanthropy and the self-interest of the master have combined to produce this humane result.”
One biographer said of James Buchanan, “In his betrayal of the national trust, Buchanan came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history.”
Of course, she wrote those words before Donald Trump ascended to the presidency.
James Buchanan outlived William King by about 17 years. After his death, Buchanan wrote to Mrs Roosevelt, a close friend with whom he often exchanged Washington gossip.
“I am now ‘solitary & 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.”
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