We Have Had a Gay President, Just Not Nixon
In his recent article in the Washington Post "Was Nixon Gay?" journalism professor Mark Feldstein puts down the claim recently made by Don Fulsom in his book Nixon's Darkest Secrets. Almost no evidence supports it, he (rightly) points out. He calls the book a "pathography," using a term invented by Joyce Carol Oates for biographies that emphasize the pathological.
But then he goes on to decry similar claims about Abraham Lincoln, James Buchanan, and J. Edgar Hoover as similarly baseless.
Just as we should not rush to believe all the rumors about the sexual orientations of important past Americans, neither should we rush to deny them. Feldstein implies that history on this issue is just about impossible: "[T]here is almost no way to prove—or disprove—alleged intimacies from so long ago." But there is. It is called evidence.
Consider the case of President Buchanan. For many years in Washington, he lived with William Rufus King, Senator from Alabama. The two men were inseparable; wags referred to them as "the Siamese twins." Andrew Jackson dubbed King "Miss Nancy"; Aaron Brown, a prominent Democrat, writing to Mrs. James K. Polk, referred to him as Buchanan's "better half," "his wife," and "Aunt Fancy." When in 1844 King was appointed minister to France, he wrote 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." After King's departure, Buchanan wrote to a Mrs. Roosevelt about his social life:
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.
King and Buchanan's relationship, though interrupted from time to time by their foreign service, ended only with King's death in 1853.
I find the evidence for Buchanan's homosexuality, summarized above and presented in greater detail with footnotes in Lies Across America, persuasive beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the standard for a criminal conviction. Homosexuality is no longer a crime, however, at least in most of the country, and should never have been in the first place, so the criminal standard should not apply anyway. Surely these facts surpass the "preponderance of the evidence" standard required in civil trials—and for good history.
Does it make any difference? In Buchanan's case, almost surely it does. He became a stalwart of the radically pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party. He supported U.S. expansion into Cuba because he worried that Spain might abolish slavery, leading to another black-run nation like Haiti. He appointed Howell Cobb Secretary of the Treasury; Cobb later became the first president of the Confederacy, before Jefferson Davis. He let his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, soon to become a Confederate general, ship nearly 200,000 rifles to Southern arsenals. In 1860, Buchanan vetoed a homestead bill providing making Western land available cheaply from the government. He did so because planters opposed it: homesteading would have drawn free men, probably free-soil men, to the West. It had to wait until halfway through Lincoln's administration.
Buchanan's faction's newspaper, the Washington Union, even pushed for the United States Supreme Court to take the Dred Scott decision one step further. Dred Scott required the United States to guarantee slavery in every territory, regardless of the wishes of its residents. Buchanan's paper argued that the United States should guarantee its citizens the right to carry their property—all kinds of property—in any state as well. It flatly came out against the very existence of free states: "The emancipation of the slaves of the northern States was then, as previously stated, a gross outrage on the rights of property, inasmuch as it was not a voluntary relinquishment on the part of the owners." [their italics]
Yet Buchanan hailed from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, surrounded by Mennonites and Quakers, the most anti-slavery white neighbors one could imagine. His own church, the Presbyterian, refused him membership for years because of his pro-slavery views. Coming from such a background, why would Buchanan endorse such a position? Surely his pro-slavery politics stemmed, at least in part, from his 23-year connection with King. Certainly Buchanan thought highly of King: "He is among the best, purest, and most consistent public men I have ever known, and is also a sound judging and discreet fellow."
Buchanan's sexual orientation matters in another way, too. It's important for all Americans to realize that gays (and now lesbians) can be president, indeed, can play all sorts of important roles in American society. The best way for us to realize that is by understanding the roles that gays and lesbians have played. Our greatest poet, Walt Whitman, was gay (and as with Buchanan, it influenced his work). Gays have been major composers—Aaron Copland comes to mind first, and although I cannot hear how his homosexuality affected "Appalachian Spring" or "Symphony #3," again, it's important to know it. Otherwise, we may conclude that gays and lesbians have made little impact in our past, so they hardly matter.
Late in his article, Feldstein also denounces conspiracy theories, including those that have sprung up around the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He implies that they are equally baseless. He needs to visit the Museum of the Sixth Floor in Dallas, which does a model job of presenting the various major theories of who shot Kennedy. The museum does not suggest that all conspiracies are equally likely. But neither does it say that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy, and then Jack Ruby, acting alone, killed Oswald. It presents the evidence.
Feldstein complains that revisionism can be "oblivious to facts." So can put-downs of revisionism, as Feldstein lamentably demonstrates. Throwing up our hands with the excuse that "there's no way to know" simply won't do.
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