The Queer History of the United States: Part 4
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Episode · 2 years ago

The Queer History of the United States: Part 4

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Truth be told… There hasn’t been a lot of diversity when it comes to United States presidents. In fact, besides Barack Obama, the position has exclusively gone to older white men. One of those old white men--JFK-- was Catholic and that was a big deal. Another old white guy-- James Buchanan-- was… gay? Maybe. Today we’ll talk about him, his companion, and their relationship in the years just before the Civil War. Dr. Eric Cervini is with us again this week as we dive into part 4 of our series on The Queer History of the United States. Be sure to follow Eric on IG! Your host is Levi Chambers, co-founder of Gayety. Follow the show and keep up with the conversation @Pride. Want more great shows from Straw Hut Media? Check out or website at strawhutmedia.com. Your producers are Levi Chambers, Maggie Boles, Ryan Tillotson and Edited by Sebastian Alcala Have an interesting LGBTQ+ story to share? We might feature U! Email us at lgbtq@strawhutmedia.com. *This podcast is not affiliated with Pride Media. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices

Straw media. Truth be told, there hasn't been a lot of diversity when it comes to United States presidents. In fact, besides Barack Obama, the position has exclusively gone to older white men. One of those old white men, JFK, was Catholic and that was a big deal. Another old white guy, James Buchanan, was gay. Maybe today we'll talk about him, his companion and their relationship in the years just before the civil war. Dr Eric Servini is with us again this week as we dive into part four of our series on the Queer history of the United States. We know your home, because we're all home right now, so stick around. I'M LEA by Chambers, and this is pride. Where are we in history today? Well, we have been talking about what we're possibly homosexual relationships or homosexual behavior up until the middle of the nineteen century, so really up until the civil war. And today we're going to be talking about the president who was in office immediately before the civil war, who many scholars have wondered whether he was in fact a game man, and his name was James Buchanan. That's right, long before the days of Pete Putta Jedge, we had a president who may very well have been gay. And even though Pete is out of the running for the Democratic ticket now, someone did ask him about it while he was on the campaign trail and he recently said my Gadar is not great to begin...

...with and it definitely doesn't work over long stretches of time. So I think we'll have to let the historians figure that one out. So maybe that's what we can do today. Let's do it. James Buchanan was from Pennsylvania. Originally, after almost being expelled from college, he graduated with honors and then served in the war of eighteen twelve and became a successful lawyer. Around eighteen nineteen he was considered to be the city's most eligible bachelor. He met a woman named Anne Coleman, a twenty three year old heiress of an iron fortune, and they got engaged and even though, you know, it looks like it should have been a really good match. He was extremely successful, she was considered good looking and very, very rich. Suddenly there were problems. There were a lot of rumors that he was using her for her money and meeting other women. He was constantly out of town and you look at some of the letters and in the records from the time and becomes pretty apparent that he just was not putting in enough effort. So Anne got tired of it. She broke off the engagement and went to stay with relatives in Philadelphia, but not long after she died of what the doctor called hysterical convulsions. Side note, hysteria, which we now know as the blanket medical term for women behaving badly, was being diagnosed as late as one thousand nine hundred and eighty. In other words, and was depressed and something happened, and so there were rumors at the time that it may have actually been suicide. One scholar even referred to Buchanan's behavior toward his fiance as negligent, and in fact, the one of the reasons we don't know that much information about the relationship is before his death, as an older man, Buchanan actually ordered whoever executed his will to burn all the letters with Anne. What we do know is that this was Buchanan's one and only relationship, or attempt at a relationship, with...

...a woman. He was a bachelor for the rest of his life and he was the only president in our history who served as as a bachelor. Politically Buchanan started out as a Republican federalist, a lot like Alexander Hamilton. He was probank, pro tariff and anti war. Plus he had grown up in Pennsylvania, which was above the Mason Dixon line and therefore the north. But then things changed. He joined the Democratic Party under under Andrew Jackson and that is when he met William Rufus Davane King, his boyfriend. Well, so that's that's kind of the big mystery before we go on. Something to remember about the US during this time period is that the political parties were different. The democratics were pro slavery, like Andrew Jackson, and the Republicans were antislavery, like Ave Lincoln. So king, originally frorom North Carolina, was a Democrat, a pro slavery guy. He represented Alabama in the Senate and he was one of the founders of the town of Selma, Alabama, which was the side of Martin Luther King Junior's historic civil rights march. King was no American hero by today's standards and, like Buchanan, he had his own story why he would never love another woman. He was working in Russia as as on the American mission. They're supposedly he fell in love with us, this princess from from Prussia, but nothing ever came from it, and for the rest of his life he complained about having this wayward heart after that experience and supposedly he could never love again. So he also was this lifelong bachelor. When King and Buchanan first met each other in Congress in eighteen twenty one, they had very different politics. After all, Buchanan was from the north and king was from the south, but they got along and became supporters of Andrew Jackson and at Buchanan's urging, they started living together. And you know these communal boarding houses, right, they were very common in Washington. They were...

...it was still a very, very small southern city, and so often these congressmen who you know, we're traveling back and forth between their districts and Washington. They often live together just to save money, except that neither of them really needed to save money. At first the boarding house was home to Buchanan, King and two other congressmen, but then, as the other men were voted out of their seats, it ended up being just the two of them. They lived with each other for sixteen years and they certainly could have lived apart, but they chose to stick together. So what evidence do we have to support the idea of a romantic relationship between Buchanan and King? A lot of it, Eric says, is circumstantial and it all comes down to, of course, the letters. But we don't have that many letters. We only have around five dozen of them, because we know he likes to burn letters. Exactly so we likes to burn letters, so that's one thing. Even though we know Buchanan had his letters with a burned, we actually do have some letters from king to Buchanan. What we don't have are the letters from Buchanan to king, and there are a few reasons for that. First of all, kings family plantation was rated during the civil war, so a lot of things were destroyed. Second, there was a flood that wiped out more property and third and most importantly, Buchanan's letters to king were marked private and confidential, so he probably burned them after reading them. However, many of the letters Buchanan wrote to other people survived. One thing that's interesting about the letters, though, is Buchanan really liked a gossip, especially with older women, kind of in in Washington society, and when he described events and parties in his letters, he did something interesting. He never described the physical features of women, but he very often did it with men. So you know, if he was describing the people at a party, he might say, Oh, this person was this woman was there, and also this really...

...athletic, you know, tall, sightly guy was there too, and so that kind of makes you wonder. So that's kind of the first piece of circumstantial evidence we have. Another piece of evidence we have is how both Buchanan and king were described by other people. Buchanan's critics, for example, said his voice was shrill and feminine and they criticize him for having holy beardless cheeks. People noticed that the two spent a lot of time together around Washington. People called them the Siamese twins. One of their critics called them Miss Nancy and aunt fancy. And in one thousand eight hundred and forty four Tennessee Congressman Aaron Brown wrote a confidential letter to Future First Lady, Sarah Polk, where he said Mr Buchanan looks gloomy and dissatisfied, and so did his better half. So that's referring to king. Until a little private flattery in certain newspaper Puff, which you doubtless notice, excited hopes that by by getting a divorce, she might set up again and the world to some tolerable advantage. The letter goes on, and fancy may now be seen every day, tricked out in her best clothes and smirking about in hopes of securing better terms than with her former companion. So everyone around them was using this language to maybe suggest that something was going on. Some of the best evidence comes from the period of time when King went abroad to serve as minister to France, in one thousand eight hundred and forty four, and so he wrote, while he was away to Buchanan. I am selfish enough to hope that you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation. It makes you wonder what did he mean by associate? What may have you meant by saying, all right, you, maybe you can find someone else who will fulfill your needs? The language is suggestive but not explicit exactly. And they they're very aware right that these letters, if they keep them, would end up especially as as political figures at the you know, a pretty crucial time in American history. There was a good chance that either...

...their family members or even the public would be able to actually have access to these letters, and so that's why the really private ones, of course, were destroyed, because they knew if they got out then they both be going down for whatever they contained. During this time, you can and also seem to be missing his companion. He wrote a letter to Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt, the great aunt of Theodore Roosevelt, and he said, I envy, Colonel King, the pleasure of meeting you and will give any thing in reason to be the party for a single week. I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the House with me. I've gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but if 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 dinners for me when I am well and not expect me any very ardent romantic affection. So clearly he he was trying to would dude, trying to find a guy, but then he was like fuck it, if I mean worst, crustal worst. I'll just marry an old maid and she'll make my food and like wipe my butt when I'm old. Right, and he has no interest in sort of romantic affection. After the break will decide whether we really want to claim Bu can in any way welcome back. Before the break, we looked at what kind of evidence there is to suggest the relationship between James Buchanan and William King was more than platonic. And as fun as it is to speculate, it's important to also remember that these were definitely not the good guys in American history. There's a bit of a dark side about the relationship, which of course comes back to slavery. So even though...

Buchanan came from an abolitionist part of Pennsylvania, King and his politics rubbed off on him, so to speak, so pretty quickly if Buchanan started tolerating slavery in the institution, thinking of a kind of a necessary institution just to keep the the country together, and abolitionists were of course really pissed off and labeled him a dough face, which is a northern man with southern principles. And he didn't really care because he thought, okay, this is a necessary part of my politics if I want to become president, and it's entirely possible that you can. and was that politician we see in movies and television, one that is willing to forfeit any and all convictions in order to get elected. What's really crazy is they had this dream of getting into power together. It's seems very house of cards. Ask Right. There was this the political power couple, so to speak, even if it was platonic, and they really wanted to be president and vice president. You can and clearly thought he was choosing the winning side by joining the Democrats, even though king was passed over for vice president in eighteen forty four. In eighteen forty eight, president James Polk announced that he was not seeking re election. So they actually schemed be Cannan and king to form a bachelor ticket, and they actually came up pretty close to making it happen. But they didn't quite make it together. And while it may have been romantic for them to move into the White House together, it isn't necessarily what we're rooting for. After all, they were the pro slavery guys, but the following election, Franklin Pierce is elected president and King has chosen to serve as his VP. But this is where things get a little crazy. King gets sick with tuberculosis and so he goes down to Cuba to recuperate. Congress actually passes an act that allows him to take his oath of office as Vice President in Cuba. But he doesn't get any better.

Forty five days so less than two months after he takes his oath of office as Vice President, he dies of tuberculosis. So he's one of the shortest living vice presidents in history. Before king had secured the role of vice president, Buchanan had spoken publicly on many occasions to speak to his abilities. He says publicly the king was among the best, purest and most consistent public men I've ever known. is also a sound, judging and discreet fellow. But after King's death it was a totally different story. You can and didn't make any eulogies or public statements about his lifelong companion, even as the country mourned the death. You can and kept his communication private and reserved, essentially just repeating the phrases he had used during the election. One Scholar, Dr Thomas J Balserski, who wrote a book called Bosom Friends, the intimate world of names Buchanan and William Rufus King, came to the conclusion that they're just asn't enough evidence to authoritatively say that Buchanan was gay or that there was any kind of sexual relationship between him and King, but he did say that king was more attracted to Buchanan. Right, so he there was a little bit more evidence to suggest that, if anyone, we had a first vice president who may have been gay, even though that term, of course, was not used at the time. He may have been the one who, if we brought him here to two thousand and twenty, would have identified as a homosexual or gay. Okay, so what did Thomas Belcherski say about their relationship? Well, Belchersky concluded after looking at all the evidence, he said, quote. I think we stand on firmer ground with King, about whom the evidence suggests that he was gay. Not only does his correspondence reveal a greater struggle with his failure to marry, but the political gossips rolling about him was more virulently gendered. Balsarsky even suggests that Buchanan may have used king when he...

...wanted and ignored him when it was inconvenient. It ends up being kind of a sad story, because the other thing that Buchanan is known for in history is being one of the worst presidents of all time. Oh right, that. So beyond probably being a general asshole, he was also a terrible president. Three years after King died, Buchanan was elected president in one thousand eight hundred and fifty six. He won with forty five percent of the votes in a three way race. We already know that he was very racist and pro slavery, in the fact that, you know, dread Scott came out of the time which said this was the Supreme Court decision that said that any one of African descent, for your slave, could not be a US citizens. So probably one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in the history of our country. He supported it. But supporting the dread Scott decision in one thousand eight hundred and fifty seven was not unpopular at the time. After all, the Supreme Court ruled seven to two that the descendants of slaves were not US citizens and therefore had no right to sue. On top of that, Buchanan was actually really corrupt so he was treating contracts for political support, he was bribing newspapers, his secretary of war was stealing from the war department and he refused to fire him. And so eventually, in one thousand eight hundred and sixty, he was he was censured by Congress. The silver lining of you Canan's terrible presidency was that he gave his successor, the one and only Abraham Lincoln, a very strong campaign platform. He split the election into four so that Lincoln could win with forty percent of the vote and not even a single ballot from ten of the fifteen southern states. When Buchanan met Lincoln in the White House to hand over the reins, he said to Lincoln, my dear sir, if you are as happy on entering the White House as I am on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed, even though trump maybe giving him a run for his money. Buchanan has been widely regarded as the worst president of all time, and the American public knew it right away. They...

...blamed him for the civil war. They vandalized his portrait in the US capital until it had to be taken down. It's actually a little bit reminiscent of Donald Trump star on the walk of fame in Hollywood, which keeps getting inexplicably fucked up with a sledgehammer. The difference is, I guess, that you can and let the public run him out of town. I like to thank he became a bit of a bitter old queen in his last year's he retired back to Pennsylvania in one thousand eight hundred and sixty one, and a few years later he publishes memoirs and he blamed the abolitionists for causing the civil war. And then he died just a couple years after that and he wrote to a friend I've always felt, and still fuel, that I discharge every public duty imposed on me conscientiously. I've no regret for any public act in my life and History will vindicate my memory. Well, History Definitely didn't vindicate his memory. It's it's a bit interesting to think that. You know, maybe, yes, maybe, today we would consider him as gay if we brought him here, but also it makes you wonder whether we even want this to be our first gay president. So I think I'm I personally am pretty comfortable saying and maybe if there was some sort of romantic relationship between Buchanan and King. That doesn't necessarily that mean that we need to claim this pretty terrible president as our own right. You can have him, you can have him exactly, hate him. We're not claiming him. So for next week's episode, tell me where we're going to go. So next week we'll be talking about how the homosexual identity came to be in the latter half of the nineteen century and how we went from homosexual activity to being a homosexual. Pride is a...

...production of Straw media. If you like the show, leave us a rating and a review on Apple, podcast, spotify or wherever you're tuning in from. Share us with your friends, subscribe and follow us on Instagram, facebook and twitter at pride. You can follow me at lead by chambers and you can find Dr Eric Servini at Riice C R Vini. Please stay safe and help you out there, listeners. Wash your hands, stay home, drink plenty of water and listen to podcasts. Pride is produced by me, be by change vers, Maggie Bowls and Ryan Tillotson, edited by Sebastian. I'll call up. I can't stop thinking about like. Can you imagine like the whole pick or the Dick pick back then? What had it been like draft for me, mail it, draw so I noticed looks like, and then mail it to me.

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