Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan, who lived from 1791 to 1868, was the 15th president of the United States and is generally regarded as one of the worst to ever hold that office. On his watch, the Union dissolved as Southern states seceded following the election of Abraham Lincoln.
Little noted, though, is a long and successful political career prior to his election to the presidency. Among his many achievements were diplomatic postings overseas, including Secretary of State during the Polk administration, and his years as a U.S. representative and senator. There has also been much speculation recently about his sexuality due in large part to his lifelong bachelorhood, as well as his intimate friendship with fellow politician, senator, and diplomat William Rufus King of Alabama.
The pair was known infamously for their numerous years living together, a politically powerful living arrangement that raised many eyebrows and questions about the nature of their relationship. Buchanan, King, and their relationship are the subjects of Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King ($35 from Oxford University Press). Out author Thomas J. Balcerski is an Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University. His well-researched and extensively footnoted book was recently featured in The Advocate, and he graciously agreed to a wide-ranging discussion of his book, its subjects, patriarchy and slavery in the early 19th century, and the period in general.
The Advocate: Thank you for speaking with The Advocate. Can you discuss the living conditions in Washington D.C. in the early 19th century, and how these factors helped shape social and political life?
Balcerski: Living conditions in Washington during the early 1800s were quite primitive by later standards. The area between the Capitol and the White House (today the National Mall) was still swamp land. Drinking water was unclean and epidemic disease ran rampant. Roads were made of dirt and became muddy with rain or dusty with heat. Then, as now, Washington could be terribly hot during the summer months.
Given the seasonal nature of Congress, which met for two or perhaps three sessions over a two-year period, the average congressmen spent fewer than 12 months out of 24 in the capital. The situation led to the establishment of boardinghouses, temporary establishments where congressmen congregated while in the capital. The high season for social life came in the winter months, when the president and his cabinet hosted levees, parties, and balls.
Can you discuss the boardinghouse or “mess” generally, and then the Washingtonian and King-Buchanan “bachelors mess” more specifically? Can you talk about the evolving political and social importance of the messes and their parlors?
The Washington boardinghouse was inherently a domestic institution. Called a “mess” due to the essential function of eating that took place there, the average dwelling consisted of several bedrooms upstairs with parlors on the ground floor. Meals were served by the boardinghouse keeper. Both enslaved and free African-Americans worked in domestic capacities. Some Southern congressmen brought their own enslaved people with them into the mess.
From these relatively humble quarters, much politics followed. Social calls were an important part of life in Washington. A call was made by leaving a card, hence the term calling card, which obligated the recipient to respond in turn. The calling period was busiest at the beginning of the congressional session, and women followed social etiquette with careful attention.
The “bachelor’s mess” by contrast was a largely male concern and participated to a lesser extent in the social life of Washington. At any given time, four congressmen lived in the mess, most of whom were unmarried. Interestingly, the bachelors of the mess all left Congress after a short time, and to a one, each man married. By contrast, Buchanan and King stayed the course in the Senate, but they never married. Political ambition, to say nothing of personal considerations, drove their decision.
Male-to-male friendships of this period could be intensely intimate without necessarily being sexual. Can you discuss the nature of bosom friendships, and how they would compare to a modern “bromance?”
I like to use the phrase “intimate male friendship” to describe the kind of intensely emotional, though not necessarily sexual, relationships of this era. Certainly, “intimacy” is a key word for my book, and yet it has radically changed in meaning since the 19th century. Likewise, “bosom friends” was used to describe the friendships of men between men and women with other women (never across genders). The phrase was not used pejoratively and carried positive connotations about same-sex intimacy. For this reason, I have come to think of bosom friendship along the same lines as the modern concept of the “bromance.”
Theirs was an intimate friendship, but also a power-hungry political partnership. Can you briefly summarize their complex relationship?
Each man yearned for higher office. By the 1840s, the Democratic Party had fallen into the rhythm of nominating a ticket of one Northerner and one Southerner, as a way to balance sectional interests. King wanted to be vice president in 1844, but he was passed over. In 1848, after James K. Polk had announced his decision to serve one term, Buchanan and King schemed to form a “bachelor ticket.” They nearly succeeded, too. In 1852, King at last attained his lifelong dream of being elected vice president, whose primary duty in those days was to serve as the presiding office of the Senate. Buchanan obtained his reward four years later. They were a political partnership, yes, but like all politicians, each man placed his own fortunes first.
In a time of bosom friendships, the relationship of Buchanan and King stood out as particularly close. They were ridiculed with such epithets as “Aunt Nancy” and the “Siamese Twins.” Can you describe some of the insults they received publicly and privately?
The bosom friendship of Buchanan and King was given extra scrutiny precisely because of its potential political consequences. That their political enemies did all they could to defeat them should not surprise. So, the phrases “Aunt Nancy” and the “Siamese twins” should be taken with a grain of salt. Their Tennessee Democratic rivals seemed to have most commonly used the phrase “Aunt Nancy” to describe King. The insult implied effeminacy and possibly sexual deviancy. By comparison, “Siamese twins” carried a more varied meaning. It has become a politically incorrect phrase for conjoined twins, whereas for many years, it was used metaphorically, often about political partnerships. Generally speaking, these insults were levied privately in the correspondence of their opponents. When the language did appear in print, it was often in the columns of the opposition party’s newspapers.
While King was in France and Buchanan was Secretary of State during the Polk administration, there’s almost a feeling of the pouting elder queen lover King complaining to the legitimately preoccupied younger twink Buchanan about the lack of correspondence and attention. Do you have an opinion on the dynamics, roles, and characteristics of their personal relationship?
I can’t help but chuckle at your characterization of King as a “queen” and Buchanan as a “twink.” At over six feet and portly, Buchanan was not thin! All the same, I take your point, and I don’t disagree with your reading. By that time, their relationship had become decidedly unequal. Buchanan, then Secretary of State, was the political superior to King, who was serving as Minister to France. The power dynamic sometimes shifted, however. In 1852, when Buchanan again ignored him, King threatened to pull his support for his old messmate. The tête-à-tête found in their letters is among the most interesting I have seen from politicians of this period.
Do you, as a scholar, have reason to believe or suspect that either Buchanan or King was gay or bisexual?
You’re not the first person to ask me this question, and I suspect you won’t be the last. Before answering, a word of caution is needed. The classification of heterosexuality and homosexuality as sexual orientations does not become widespread until the end of the 19th century. Prior to then, a greater fluidity existed surrounding sexuality. I admit that the kind of answer we want is elusive — gay, bisexual, straight — and I am hesitant to impose a contemporary worldview on 19th century social relations…
I’ll admit that after more than seven years spent researching these two men, even I can’t help but classify them using the modern concept of sexual orientation. By this lens, I don’t see the evidence for Buchanan being either gay or bisexual, and I generally read him as “straight-acting, straight-looking,” despite the claims of others who think him clearly to be gay. 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 gossip swirling about him was more virulently gendered.
What evidence exists regarding whether the relationship of Buchanan and King crossed the line into something sexual or at least emotionally non-heterosexual?
People are welcome to disagree, but I see very little evidence to suggest that their relationship was in the least bit physically sexual. The strongest argument against a sexual relationship is really the surviving evidence itself. Buchanan was an obsessive record keeper, and he carefully filed away each and every letter from King. On so many occasions, these letters could have been destroyed or at least culled for questionable content, either by Buchanan or by is early biographers or by members of his family. But they weren’t. Quite the opposite. Harriet Lane Johnston, Buchanan’s niece and protector of his estate, went to great lengths to collect her uncle’s letters to King. That this half of the correspondence (Buchanan to King) does not survive is unfortunate, but it has more to do with King as a record keeper and the ravaged state of post-war Alabama than anything else.
By “emotionally non-heterosexual,” I take it that you mean homoerotic. There’s a stronger case to be made here, but it’s decidedly one-way in nature. I see King as strongly attracted to Buchanan and in one of the great tragedies of their friendship, Buchanan simply did not return those same feelings. Even worse, Buchanan used King when it was convenient and ignored him when it was not. He really was the worse friend of the pair.
Can you describe how politics helped initiate their friendship and how slavery served as the foundation of their political partnership?
Buchanan and King shared similar views on slavery, the most divisive issue of the day. Although he came from the North, Buchanan saw that the viability of the Democratic Party depended on the continuance of the South’s slave-driven economy. From King, he learned the political value of allowing the “peculiar institution” to grow unchecked. Both men equally detested abolitionists. Critics labeled Buchanan a “doughface” (a Northern man with Southern principles), but he pressed onward, quietly building support across the country in the hopes of one day rising to the presidency. If Buchanan could not accept the protection of slavery, his partnership with King would have ended many years before it did. Instead, and ever politically savvy, Buchanan embraced the doughface role.
King brought a young teen slave named John Bell with him as a personal valet on an official diplomatic posting to France during the Polk Administration. Can you discuss what life would have been like for Bell, the probable nature of his relationship with King, and perhaps how that would compare with the friendship between the Abraham and Mary Lincoln and their personal valets and servants?
John Bell, King’s “body servant” whom he freed upon his death, presents a fascinating enigma. So many questions remain to be answered about him. It’s tempting to speculate that King may have had a sexual relationship with Bell. Given that he took Bell with him to Paris, I can’t also help but think of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings and her brother James Hemings, who both joined Jefferson in Paris, also as American Minister to France. At the same time, Southern political leaders long held particularly close relationships with their valets. The example of George Washington and Billy Lee, who was also freed outright on Washington’s death, comes to mind. In his will, King provided that his nephew take Bell out of Alabama, as a way to provide him with a better life.
By comparison, the Lincolns enjoyed a much more equal relationship with their free African American servants. Mary Todd Lincoln, in particular, valued her friendship with Elizabeth Keckley, her seamstress and dressmaker. All the same, even Keckley faced discrimination following Lincoln’s death and died impoverished in Washington, D.C.
The 19th century was patriarchal in structure, yet women still found ways to exert influence over the political system. Can you discuss Sarah Polk, and her marriage and political partnership with President James Polk?
Sarah Polk represents a model of conservative political activism by a 19th-century woman. Called the “Lady Presidentress,” Sarah Polk enjoyed an equal partnership with her husband. The couple never had children, which freed her from childrearing responsibilities that so often prevented women from engaging more fully with the public sphere.
It’s interesting to note too that one of the gossipiest letters about Buchanan and King was written by a Tennessee politician to Sarah Polk (and not her husband). As a woman, she was in a position to spread rumors about her husband’s political opponents among other women in her social orbit. Such private letters provide a fascinating glimpse into how Sarah Polk worked behind the scenes to attack her husband’s enemies. That being said, once in Washington, Buchanan was a social favorite of the Polk White House. His niece, Harriet Lane, was well liked and helped to ease the middle-aged bachelor from taking on further marital duties.
Can you sum up the King-Buchanan friendship and partnership, their successes and failures, and how you think it should be remembered historically?
In brief, I think that they should be remembered for sharing an intimate male friendship that shaped the course of national politics. While both men lived, they wanted nothing more than to unite the North and the South through the institution of the Democratic Party. That this meant the enslavement of millions of African-Americans should not be, and has not been, forgotten. Still, they were not alone in thinking this way. Since both men achieved great political success in their day, it’s important to understand just how they did it. Later politicians also relied on friendship to advance politically, and I think it’s an important lesson that still applies to American politics today.