In the modern day many Americans feel compelled to break down barriers of identity while in the ballot box. Race, religion, and sexual orientation no longer prevent people from entering the world of politics like they once did and many up and coming politicians are bent on blazing a trail and reducing the stigma for up and comers who may have once been prevented from holding office. There are a lot of barriers left to break down, but one of them has already been deconstructed and America’s first “bachelor president” is widely speculated to have been America’s first gay president.
When Barack Obama became president in 2008 he accomplished something many Americans felt they would not see in their lifetime. The same country that created plantation slavery and Jim Crow elected its first black president.. This sense of making history was something Hillary Clinton clearly tried to play off with her constant calls to “break the country’s highest and hardest glass ceiling.” Even Bernie Sanders would have been the first Jewish president and some would argue potentially the first atheist in the oval office. A serious presidential primary between a Jewish socialist and a former first lady would be unthinkable for many Americans decades ago, but it happened.
The last decade has created a new sense of what is possible in American politics and this has many Americans feeling as if barriers that once held them back could now be gone. Americans of every ethnicity, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation are trying to break their own glass ceiling, hoping to make history in much the same way their predecessors have. It has to be noted though, America very well may have already elected the first gay president.
There is still a lot of history to be made, but among those people vying to break barriers, some up and coming gay politician may be surprised to find that the wall they hoped to tear down has already been dismantled. America already elected the first gay president over 100 years ago, when president James Buchanan took office in 1857.
Buchanan was the first and to date only president without a wife. As a young man Buchanan was to be married to a woman named Anne Coleman. During their relationship Buchanan was constantly working through the the Panic of 1819 at his law firm and building his political career. This gave him little time for Coleman and rumors of infidelity and Buchanan marrying Coleman for her father’s money floated about. Eventually private correspondence would prove that Coleman believed the rumors, despite there being no evidence of any wrongdoing on Buchanan’s part.
It didn’t take long for the soon to be marriage to fall apart and soon after Coleman passed away. Some speculate her death was caused by suicide by overdose, but her doctor claimed it was the “first instance he ever knew of hysteria producing death.” After her death Buchanan was incredibly distraught and wrote Coleman’s father to ask permission to attend her funeral. Buchanan wrote, “I feel that happiness has left me forever.” Still, despite no evidence of any wrong doing on Buchanan’s part, Coleman’s father prohibited him from attending the funeral.
For whatever reason after Anne’s death Buchanan never remarried, it’s not even clear he ever fostered another romantic relationship with anyone, leading some historians to speculate that Buchanan may have actually been asexual. Other historians speculate Buchanan did have a few more romantic relationships, but they never turned to marriage because they were with various men Buchanan lived with throughout his life.
Specifically many point to his relationship with William Rufus King, who would become Vice President for Franklin Pierce. Buchanan and King lived together in a Washington DC boarding house for over 10 years. At the time their relationship struck many people as questionable and prompted many to point it out, numerous times according to the historic record. Andrew Jackson called the pair “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy” the later being a derogatory term of the day for an effeminate man. Congressman and Governor of Tennessee, Aaron V. Brown referred to King as Buchanan’s “better half.”
It went deeper than that though, some at the time pointed out that Buchanan adopted many of the same mannerism as King. Perhaps more importantly though he adopted his romanticized view of the South and Southern culture. Which may have had something to do with Buchanan’s later inability to deal with the south and slavery with any seriousness. Regardless it was pointed out by some as proof of a close relationship with King. Furthermore anti-south papers referred to King and Buchanan as “siamese twins” which was inflammatory for a number of reasons, the sexual implications being just one. King died in 1954 and Buchanan never took another romantic partner. There is no clear evidence a sexual affair occurred between the two, but then again that evidence might have been destroyed.
It should also be noted that sexuality was a very different thing in the mid 19th century than it is in the modern day. Calling Buchanan the first gay president may be putting a modern moniker with far more wrapped up in it than people in Buchanan’s position would feel comfortable. Then again, who knows, because the historical record appears to be missing some key pieces to the puzzle that is Buchanans sexuality.
Years after Buchanan’s death there is some evidence his niece may have destroyed some of his correspondence with King. There isn’t much concrete proof that Buchanan was gay, but there are some hints, still his sexuality is questionable enough that there are running theories among historians. It looks like the jury is out and always will be. James Buchanan might have been the first gay president, he might have been asexual. Either way, when another person seeks the presidency and challenges the overwhelmingly hetero normative footsteps they are following in, James Buchanan deserves a nod for being a pivotal figure in the history of presidential sexuality.
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