Was James Buchanan The First Gay President? Why Some Historians Think So

Published January 12, 2018
Updated February 19, 2018

James Buchanan, the only president to remain a bachelor his entire life, may have also been the first gay president in U.S. history.

Was James Buchanan gay and with William Rufus King

Wikimedia Commons Was James Buchanan gay? Some point to his close relationship with William Rufus King as a good indication.

James Buchanan, widely regarded as one of history’s worst presidents due to his alliance with slave states and inability to stop the country from hurtling towards a civil war, may have another claim to fame in the history books. Several historians believe that Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States, may have been America’s first gay president.

While he was briefly engaged to a wealthy woman named Anne Coleman, the marriage never went through, and many people speculated that the attachment was based more on her significant wealth than any genuine affection. Coleman suspected Buchanan was having an affair, which led her to break off the engagement. She committed suicide a short time after and her father, never having approved of the couple, denied Buchanan permission to attend the funeral.

Despite links to a few other romantic dalliances, including to Dolley Madison’s niece, Buchanan never married. He was the only U.S. president to remain a bachelor his entire life, although that may not have been the case had gay marriage been permitted in the 19th century. According to some historians, Buchanan developed a very close relationship with fellow politician William Rufus King, an Alabama senator and Franklin Pierce’s Vice President.

Historians such as Jim Loewen and John Howard, historians who have studied Buchanan’s life and presidency, say the evidence is there. Buchanan and King lived together and were openly close with each other, causing other colleagues to nickname them “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” They also referred to King as Buchanan’s “better half.”

In 1844, when King was sent abroad to Paris to serve as the American ambassador to France, Buchanan lamented in a letter to a friend that he was:

“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.”

However, the idea of the president wooing gentlemen was not as shocking to the American public as it might be today, as American society at that time was fairly liberal when it came to sexuality. In fact, Buchanan seems to have made little effort to keep his relationship secret. Despite their brief interruptions due to King’s travel, the two remained close until King’s death from tuberculosis in 1853.

While a sexual relationship cannot be conclusively established, especially since Buchanan requested all of his correspondence be destroyed after his death, there is no doubt that the two men had a strong attachment and affection for one another that lasted throughout King’s lifetime.

So, was James Buchanan gay? Perhaps, but some historians argue that Abraham Lincoln was gay as well. Then read about the president who wanted to journey to the center of the Earth.

Aimee Lamoureux
Aimee Lamoureux is a writer based in New York City.
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