Siamese Twins: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Thomas J. Balcerski, Eastern Connecticut State University
The political and personal partnership of James Buchanan (1791-1868) of Pennsylvania and William Rufus DeVane King (1786-1853) of Alabama was one of the most significant cross-sectional partisan collaborations in the antebellum period of the United States (commonly defined as the years from 1815 to 1861). Nevertheless, the partnership of James Buchanan and William Rufus King has not been lost with the passage of time, as their relationship continues to attract attention in the pages of popular histories and in countless articles on the Internet. Almost without fail, historians, popular writers, and bloggers have made much of their perceived “gay” relationship, with one historian of the private lives of U.S. Presidents going so far as to assert that they “were likely gay, although we may never know the true answer.”

In this paper, I present the story of the personal and political partnership of these two misunderstood figures from the nineteenth-century past and address the questions that have arisen about the pair in modern times. As such, I consider the scholarly methodologies that have been utilized in analyzing similar same-sex relationships and, through such a consideration, argue that intimate male friendships were commonplace among politicians in these years. Most significantly, I find that the relationship of James Buchanan and William Rufus King tested the limits not only of a same-sex friendship, but of the possibilities for cross-sectional cooperation in an increasingly divided Democratic Party and nation. Among the last practitioners of an older generation of political leaders, their relationship would powerfully shape the contours of national events in the two decades before the Civil War. Ultimately, this paper gestures towards how intimate male friendships among politicians were, and continue to be, an important part of political success in the American nation.

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