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social sciences

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Buchanan, James (1791-1868)  
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Buchanan may never have seriously considered marriage again, but he alluded to it--albeit in a jesting tone--in an 1844 letter to a friend, Mrs. James J. Roosevelt. Declaring himself "solitary and alone," Buchanan wrote, "I . . . 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."

The reason for his temporarily solitary state was the departure of his longtime companion William King (who was carrying the letter to Mrs. Roosevelt) to serve as minister to France. On the eve of embarking for Europe, King wrote of his feelings on being apart from Buchanan: "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 there I shall have no Friend with whom I can commune as with my own thoughts."

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Buchanan and King, since their meeting a decade before, had roomed together in Washington and were known as close companions.

Andrew Jackson referred to King as "Miss Nancy," a term that indicates that he considered him effeminate and possibly what would today be termed gay. In an 1844 letter Aaron Brown, a congressman from Tennessee, called King Buchanan's "better half" and "his wife" and used feminine pronouns to refer to him.

Assessing the Buchanan-King Relationship

In his The Invention of Heterosexuality Jonathan Ned Katz cautions against the application of contemporary terms regarding sexuality to other times and societies in which "[w]ays of ordering the sexes, genders, and sexualities have varied radically." He further points out that in the "pre-Freudian world [of early-nineteenth-century America], love did not imply eros"--although neither, of course, was an erotic component excluded.

The details of the relationship between James Buchanan and William King can never be known and in the greater scheme of things may be of little relevance. It is clear, however, that theirs was a long, close, and caring bond, the most important romantic relationship in either's life. The apparent acceptance of their relationship by their friends and colleagues, notwithstanding some snickering, may also indicate how same-sex romantic friendships were accommodated under certain circumstances in nineteenth-century America.

Given the principals' dedication to public service, the Buchanan-King relationship was, moreover, an association with implications beyond their personal happiness. Buchanan's friendship with King and his good working relationships with other Southern politicians tended to cause him to adopt a more conciliatory stance toward the Southern states than did many of his Northern brethren. Had he taken a confrontational tack, the train of events would have changed in unknowable ways. The Southern states might have seceded sooner, or some other result might have ensued.

There is no doubt that the friendship of James Buchanan and William King affected the course of American history.

Linda Rapp

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Barzman, Sol. "William Rufus De Vane King." Madmen and Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States. Chicago: Follett Publishing Company, 1974. 91-95.

Curtis, George Ticknor. Life of James Buchanan. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. The Invention of Heterosexuality. New York: Dutton, 1995.

Loewen, James W. Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. New York: The New Press, 1999. 367-370.

Sellers, Charles. James K. Polk: Continentalist 1843-1846. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.


    Citation Information
    Author: Rapp, Linda  
    Entry Title: Buchanan, James  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated January 31, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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