Talk of James Buchanan’s sexuality has surfaced again.
Any “evidence” that Buchanan was homosexual is as flimsy as a house of cards. Still, some people seem determined to prove the unprovable.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss is the latest to claim he understands the sexuality of Lancaster County’s most famous resident. In his highly acclaimed “Presidents of War,” Beschloss cites “the fact that Buchanan was widely thought in Washington to be gay.”
That claim, as far as this columnist knows, has not been made previously by a serious scholar. As his authority for the statement, Beschloss cites historian Jean Baker. But in her 2004 biography, “James Buchanan,” Baker only says “there has long been suspicion that our only bachelor president was a homosexual.” Then she debunks the idea.
While acknowledging that no one will ever know, Baker concludes that “the best speculation” is that Buchanan “had little interest in sex.” So where does Beschloss get his “fact” that 19th-century Washingtonians thought Buchanan was gay?
He seems to have created it while introducing a new gay friend for Buchanan. The man’s name is John Nugent, a reporter for the New York Herald. In early February 1847, Nugent wrote a story about the impending treaty that would end the Mexican War. The treaty was not yet public information. President James K. Polk, who supported the treaty, was irate about the leak to the press.
Polk, according to Beschloss, concluded that James Buchanan, his secretary of state, leaked the story to Nugent for two reasons: Buchanan opposed the treaty as written and, as implied by Beschloss, Buchanan and Nugent had a gay relationship that apparently included sharing such information.
Nugent is barely mentioned in other Buchanan biographies, and never as Buchanan’s possible lover. But Beschloss says Polk wrote in his diary that he was shocked Buchanan would have “constant and intimate intercourse” with Nugent and feared he “has placed himself in his power.”
Beschloss further relates that senators investigating the news leak told Polk that Buchanan was “in habits of intimacy” with Nugent and had reported they often had difficulty contacting Buchanan “because this fellow, Nugent, was closeted with him.”
“Intimacy” and “closeted” don’t necessarily suggest sexual relations, especially in 19th-century language and at a time when homosexuality was illegal. If Buchanan had been “widely thought” to be in a homosexual relationship with Nugent or anyone else, that revelation would have destroyed his political ambitions.
U.S. Sen. Rufus King was Buchanan’s Washington roommate for four years and is the usual target of “gay Buchanan” fans who like to view 19th-century relationships through 21st-century eyes. Beschloss barely mentions King in a political footnote. But Jean Baker calls King “the only man to whom [Buchanan’s] name was ever erotically connected.”
So why did Beschloss nominate Nugent?
Buchanan’s sexuality is a mystery. He was engaged to a Lancaster woman who “traveled to Philadelphia and died under mysterious circumstances.” He liked women and spent much time in their company throughout his life. He liked men, too. He was a convivial bachelor.
When a historian with the reputation of Michael Beschloss makes an unsupported statement about what the president’s contemporaries thought about his sexual preference, he does history a disservice.
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Wednesday. He welcomes comments and contributions at firstname.lastname@example.org.