Gays in Government

Portrait of King, painted by George Cooke in 1839

Although it has never been proven, there is a good chance that one or two members of the executive branch, both elected by the Electoral College, were gay.

William Rufus De Vane King was elected Vice President in 1852 as Franklin Pierce’s running mate. King, the only bachelor Vice Presdient, was the “stereotype of the effeminate homosexual” and never denied the allegations and rumors. He continued the fashion of wearing powdered wigs long after they went out of fashion. He has been described as a “flowing dandy who favored silk scarves, brilliant stickpins, and glittering accoutrements.” Andrew Jackson referred to him as Miss Nancy and a Democratic Senator from Tennessee nicknamed him Aunt Fancy.

While many plantation owners were rumored to have affairs with their slaves, King was rumored to have had “sexual liaisons” with his male salves. All this would have been forgotten by history had it not been for his alleged affair with a fellow Senator with whom he shared rooms, James Buchanan who went on to be the 15th President of the United States, and was the only bachelor to be President.

King was elected to Congress in 1810. In 1819, he was elected to the Senate. Buchanan arrived in the Senate in 1834. The two became fast friends, and moved in together and shared rooms for many years.

Before his election to the Senate, Buchanan had been engaged to Anne Coleman. Two years before Buchanan was elected to the Senate, Anne Coleman broke off their engagement and committed suicide. Anne’s father would not allow Buchanan to attend to funeral. The rumor was that she discovered his homosexuality and could not face the humiliation.

In 1844, Buchanan was a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for President. He and King began thinking about running as a team, with King taking the second place on a Buchanan ticket. Buchanan was defeated by a surprise candidate, James K. Polk who had been considered a leading candidate for the Vice Presidential nomination. Buchanan was one of the leading candidates in 1848 and 1852, and finally got the nomination in 1856. King was a leader for the Vice Presidential nomination again in 1848, and got the nomination in 1852.

After he lost the Vice Presidential nomination, President Tyler named King to the position of minister to Paris, the fashion capital of the world. Although he initially enjoyed France, he began to miss Buchanan and wrote him letters that survived.

King wrote, “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 will feel lonely in the midst of Paris….” When Buchanan did not respond quickly enough, King sulked and pouted, writing, “this verified the old adage, out of sight, out of mind.” Finally, lonely and hurt by Buchanan’s apparent rejection, King suggested that someone “who has more the spirit of a man” replace him as minister to France.

Whether or not King and Buchanan were lovers will never be known for sure. The truth about the matter may have gone up in smoke, literally. When Buchanan was in his seventies, he deposited in New York City some letters that he said would explain the reason for his breakup with Anne Coleman. He had sent these letters along with other documents to New York City to protect them from Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

After Buchanan’s death, the executors of his estate met to read the documents. They found a note in Buchanan’s handwriting that instructed them to burn the letters without reading them. They followed his instructions, destroying what may have been the only source of the truth.

Editor’s Note: Quotes from personal letters taken from Steve Tally’s book, “Bland Ambition” published by Harcourt, Brace, Javonovich.

The copyright of the article GAYS IN GOVERNMENT in American Presidents is owned by John S. Cooper. Permission to republish GAYS IN GOVERNMENT in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.