South Bend mayor and noted homosexual Pete Buttigieg recently posited that, based on sheer statistics, America has totally had a gay president.
“I would imagine we’ve probably had excellent presidents who were gay—we just didn’t know which ones,” Buttigieg said.
The thing is, we probably do know of at least one queer POTUS, but he’s generally considered one of the worst presidents, if not the worst, ever. (Though our current one is giving him a serious run for his money.)
Meet James Buchanan: 15th president of these United States (from 1857 to 1861). Confirmed bachelor. Doughface.
A doughface was a popular term of the era for a Northern politician who favored Southern principles, i.e. slavery. Buchanan is often blamed for the Civil War due to his inaction in the face of secession. Even during his lifetime he had to defend himself from vicious attacks claiming he was responsible for the splintering of the nation. Though he insisted that he did the right thing till the day he died and that history would absolve him, history has given that notion a hard pass.
Buchanan, a constitutional originalist, believed that the whole question of slavery could be settled by deferring to the judgment of the Supreme Court and its interpretation of the Constitution. In the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, the enslaved Scott was suing for his freedom, arguing that he had lived in states and territories where slavery was illegal. Buchanan hoped a broad Supreme Court decision in favor of keeping slavery legal would maintain the national peace—as we know, it didn’t.
Before he took the oath of office, Buchanan persuaded a Northern SCOTUS judge and fellow Pennsylvanian to vote with the court’s Southern majority. Two days after Buchanan’s inauguration, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that black people “cannot be, nor were ever intended to be, citizens” of the United States.
With Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, talk of secession grew stronger, and Buchanan proved highly ineffectual at stopping it. He angered both the North and the South with his inertia and decision-making; he blamed Northern abolitionists for the conflict and defended the South as being “justified,” if not legally entitled, to “revolutionary resistance.”
By the time Lincoln took office in 1861, seven states had seceded. Two months after Buchanan left the White House, the Civil War broke out—some even called it “Buchanan’s war.”
So yeah, James Buchanan was kinda the worst. But what makes him gay? Meet William Rufus DeVane King: 13th vice president of these United States (for six weeks). U.S. Senator from Alabama. Alleged lover of James Buchanan.
Shady D.C. contemporaries referred to King as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy,” as well as Buchanan’s “better half,” “his wife,” and “Mrs. B.” The two were so inseparable they were known around town as the “Siamese twins,” and they lived together for about 13 years. Buchanan even planned to run for president in 1844 with King as his veep.
Indeed, King’s influence on Buchanan might explain why the Pennsylvania lawyer had such an affinity for the South. One Buchanan biographer considers King to be a political mentor who left “an indelible impression on him.”
And what an impression. Writing to a friend in 1844, Buchanan lamented being away from 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.”
King, for his part, wrote Buchanan that same year that he was “selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation. For myself, I shall feel lonely in the midst of Paris, for here I shall have no Friend with whom I shall commune as with my own thoughts.”
This would be super cute—like, who goes “a wooing” to gentlemen anymore?—if Buchanan hadn’t been a terrible and unfit leader who reigned over the most difficult time in the nation’s history while dickmatized by the South into making some real piss-poor choices.
The good news? While James Buchanan is generally considered the worst president ever, his successor is often considered the best. Much like Buchanan—and pretty much any historical figure—Abe Lincoln’s sexuality has been a topic of debate for ages. Lincoln also had a special male friend with whom he shared close quarters, Joshua Fry Speed.
In 1837, Lincoln moved to Springfield, Ill., to pursue a career in law. There, he met and befriended Speed; they became roommates and reportedly shared the same bed for four years. That was apparently something men did back in the mid-19th century since space was limited—or whatever reasoning historians use to debunk the many, many rumors of Lincoln’s purported queerness.
The practice of erasing a person’s queerness, or the queer people in their lives, from their official history has made using retroactive gaydar that much harder. As have shifting views of intimacy and sexuality.
A 2005 biography on the 16th president claims that Lincoln also had an intimate relationship with his bodyguard, with whom he also shared his bed in the absence of his wife, Mary Todd. All in all, Lincoln may have shared his bed with 11 dudes throughout his life. Who’s to say if he slipped any of them his Lincoln log or invited them into his rustic cabin?
With Buchanan, the evidence is more overwhelming. He never married and had a longstanding relationship with the same man, and their correspondence—that which wasn’t burned by their respective nieces after their deaths—suggest more than just the usual close male friendship of the early 1800s.
“In some ways, the first half of the 19th century was much more open towards physical touch between men and expressions of love,” history professor Rachel Cleves told Time this week.
Lincoln’s queerness is harder to pin down, especially when using a rather modern interpretation of homosexuality. After all, homosexuality as a term didn’t exist until 1868, though as a concept it’s been around since time immemorial.
“I think that there were always gray areas and nuances and plenty of possibilities for men in the late 19th and 20th century to have sex with other men and not consider themselves gay,” Cleves said.
Considering how much politicians love to equivocate, Mayor Pete is probably/definitely onto something.