Ezekiel Emanuel is vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.
“If elected, you would be the first openly gay president of the United States,” Stephen Colbert said to Pete Buttigieg after the mayor of South Bend, Ind., declared his candidacy. While the characterization of being openly gay or “out” is relatively new, the fact is the United States has already had a gay president whose contemporaries knew it: James Buchanan. Indeed, the United States has also had a gay vice president and, maybe more surprisingly, a gay senator from Alabama.
If students taking U.S. history classes are taught anything about Buchanan, they learn that he was “our only bachelor president.” How quaint. But, by using euphemisms, we falsely educate students — indeed all Americans — about the realities of this country’s history. We also distort how and why Buttigieg’s sexual identity matters today.
Before becoming president in 1857, Buchanan openly lived with William Rufus King, who at various times served as senator from Alabama, ambassador to France and, finally, Franklin Pierce’s vice president. They met in Washington as young politicians, and lived together on and off for more than 16 years until King’s death from tuberculosis in 1853. Buchanan’s biographer, Jean H. Baker, believes that his relationship with the Southerner King partially explains why this Pennsylvanian was a “doughface,” a northerner who did not oppose slavery. Indeed, Buchanan explicitly urged the Supreme Court to deliver an expansive ruling in the Dred Scott case — which denied freed slaves American citizenship and forbade Congress from regulating slavery in U.S. territories — and lobbied Congress to admit Kansas as a slave state.
How do we know Buchanan and King were a couple? In 1844, after King assumed his posting in Paris, Buchanan wrote a letter to a friend, complaining about being alone and not being able to find the right gentleman partner:
“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.”
Maybe he was only looking for a roommate, but who “woos” a roommate? And he admits he would not deliver “ardent or romantic affection” to a woman.
Similarly, King wrote Buchanan from Paris:
“I am 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.”
Their peers knew about their relationship, which Buchanan and King made no real effort to hide. Andrew Jackson referred to King as “Miss Nancy”— a euphemism for a gay man.
Other contemporaries called King Buchanan’s “better half,” and one congressman referred to him as “Mrs. B.” All this would be quite peculiar if Buchanan was not gay. And we are not likely to get more explicit acknowledgment because both Buchanan and King had their personal papers burned after death.
Skeptics will note that in 1819, at age 28, Buchanan was engaged to Anne Coleman, daughter of a rich Pennsylvania ironmaster. Ultimately, she canceled the engagement and shortly thereafter apparently committed suicide. A rumor in the 1850s had Buchanan involved with Sarah Childress Polk, the widow of President James Polk, but it was never substantiated. In all, there is no evidence that he ever was intimately involved with another woman. At most it could suggest Buchanan was bisexual.
By not openly discussing this moment, we forget that being gay in the mid-19th century did not automatically exclude a man from national leadership. The idea that some people, including politicians and social leaders, are gay was not news or shocking to our forefathers. Americans generally considered it a private matter, and irrelevant to holding or performing public office. We obscure or even deny all this history, and, consequently, we miseducated our children and misdirect our attention. Moreover, we obfuscate perhaps the one positive step we took as a country in electing James Buchanan, who makes almost every list of the worst U.S. presidents.
So, sorry, Pete Buttigieg, you can’t aim to be the first gay president, although you could be the first married gay president. Let’s stop pretending Buchanan was a bachelor, and take a lesson from our forebears. Instead of focusing on a candidate’s sexuality, let’s spend our time assessing their aptitude to lead our country in this perilous moment in history.