Was Buchanan Gay?

I touched on it a bit in my colum in this weeks Metro (column after the jump). Here some historians debate it. Here’s a little bit more comprehensive site about the question of his sexuality and about Buchanan in general. Other White House gay rumors? The other big one is Lincoln. Then there is Rose Cleveland. Though not married to a president, she did serve as first lady to her brother until he got married. She then left the White House and carried on a relationship with a widow named Evangeline Simpson. Anyways, click below to read my column on Buchanan, his first love, the rumors about his sexuaity, and his legacy as president.

It seems odd that, in a state as rich in history as ours, we have only produced one president. But what we lack in numbers, we make up in intrigue. James Buchanan is considered by most historians to be one of the five worst presidents of all time, he was involved in a romantic tragedy, and some people think that he might have been gay.

I called Lisa Bowman, the Assistant to the Executive Director at Wheatland, Buchanan’s home in Lancaster, to learn more about the enigmatic leader. We first discussed his tragic fiancee, Ann Coleman. “All correspondence on the subject has not survived. What we have is innuendo and rumor.” The primary rumors were that Buchanan was marrying her for her wealth, and that her family did not approve of the young lawyer. It is known that she called off the marriage. “Shortly after the breakup, she went to see her sister in Philadelphia. She appeared to be fine. Her sister left to go to the theatre, and when she returned, Ann was dead. There were a lot of laudanum overdoses at the time, and many people think that she may have killed herself, but the coroner merely wrote ‘hysterics’ as the cause of death. Hysterics? What does that mean? There is no way to know for sure how she died.”

There are some who believe that after his fiance died, Buchanan decided to, ahem, change his domestic policy. He has been tied romantically by some historians to Franklin Pierce’s vice-president, Rufus King. Postmaster General Aaron Brown referred to the two as “Buchanan and his wife”, and Andrew Jackson called King “Aunt Fancy.” They shared a home for 15 years, though that was not unusual for bachelors in the 1850s. Says Lisa, “We have absolutely nothing to shore up that question one way or the other. All correspondence between the two (Buchanan and King) was destroyed upon their deaths.” In some of Buchanan’s letters to others which have survived, he speaks very fondly of King. But, says Bowman, it is unfair to judge on that alone. “Some of Lincoln’s letters to his Generals in the book ‘Team of Rivals’ seem very romantic by our standards. But that is how men communicated then.”

Due to his inaction and hesitance in the years leading to the Civil War, many have branded him as one of our worst presidents ever. Is that fair? “Buchanan had a brilliant diplomatic career. He knew his legacy would be tarnished by becoming president at this time. When I hear peope bash him, I ask, ‘What would you have done to stop the Civil War in 1857?’ He was not an extremely effective President, but I don’t think responsibility for the Civil War can be laid solely at his feet.”