“Do you, James Buchanan, solemnly swear that you will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of your ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States?” Chief Justice Roger Taney spoke out clearly so not only the crowded East Portico of the Capitol could hear him but large and distinguished crowd on the ground below.
James Buchanan suppressed a roiling gut as he pronounced, as loud and clear ass the dysentery that plagued him would allow. “I do.” He heard the first notes of a military band playing “Hail to the Chief”, hiding a grimace that came more from his habitual reserve than his belly. He thought to himself, “Well, Rufus, here I am. Like it or not.” He thought he could hear a rueful chuckle, so well remembered, so long missed.
Buchanan gritted his teeth and began the rounds of shaking hands, making no effort to press through the people who reached out their hands like baby birds squawking for what their mother brought them to eat. He concentrated on breathing deeply and slowly. He caught sight of Franklin Pierce’s sallow visage. The now former President had gotten sick at the National Hotel as did everyone in the inauguration party. Bad water, it was said.
Just before Buchanan had given his inaugural address, one in which he counseled calm, honesty and fairness and announced he would not seek a second term, Taney had come to him, pressing his shoulder against Buchanan’s and whispered in his ear, “We’re going with Sanford. Seven to two against Dredd Scott.” Taney frowned at Buchanan’s sour look. “I thought you would be pleased that we held for the Constitution.”
With a shake of his head, Buchanan, who had overwhelmingly captured the popular vote, explained, “Oh I do. I just don’t feel at all well.” The truth was that he was unsure how he felt about the court’s decision that Africans brought to these shores as slaves had no standing in its eyes. It would take a Constitutional amendment to change that. In the meantime, it was a matter of constitutional law, and Buchanan was a strict Constitutionalist.
Rufus would nod with a supercilious air, “I told y’all so, Jamie. Now just stop fussing and get back to the business of government.”
But then Rufus was a slaveholder himself. During their fifteen year relationship, officially as housemates but in reality far more intimate, Senator William Rufus King had belabored the point seemingly endlessly. Desirous of peace and calm above everything else, especially at home, James learned early on that his best bet was smiling acquiescence. If he didn’t want to find Rufus’s bedroom door locked from the inside, that is. The Southerner, Rufus, was generally a moderate on these divisive issues, but he also ruled the roost, and everyone, even those who did not grasp the nature of his and James’ friendship, knew that. “Mr. and Mrs. King”, they were called by Old Hickory and his cronies.
Now, four years since Rufus’ death and more from their parting, James remembered how lost he had felt without that particular rooster.
Stepping up into the brougham and seating himself next to Pierce, James Buchanan groaned. “I can’t face a big supper. Do you think they would let me slip out and get some rest?”
“What are they going to do, impeach you?” the likewise queasy Pierce said. “Janie and I are going home.”
Pierce’s wife, sitting on his opposite side, put a hand on her husband’s arm and spoke past him, “James, you should just tell them what you want. Perhaps you can make the ball later, if you get a chance to sit back and read a newspaper or something. Let Harriet look after you for a few hours?”
James thought about his niece. Harriet Lane was in her element. Always frustrated by the social scene back home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, she was about to be the central figure of Washington parties, teas, and suppers. He might be President now, but he was an old man, dowdy, quiet, entirely uninteresting. “No, she’s got her hands full with preparations for the ball and such like.”
The footman offered a gloved hand to the president as he stepped out of the carriage in front of the White House. His dark skinned face showed no emotion, no reproach, no approval, but just the same deference to which Buchanan had grown accustomed.
“Thank you, uh, what is your name?”
“Louis, Mr. President, sir,” the impeccably dressed servant responded. “I believe are several visitors waiting for you inside, sir.”
“Damn,” Buchanan muttered irritably. ”Have someone show me to the residence, and you go tell them I’m resting.”
Louis nodded, signaled to another colored man, thankful someone else would have to plow a furrow among the attention seekers who would protest the new President’s retirement to his quarters.
The liveried servant led the new President to a large sitting room with elegantly upholstered divans and chairs. “The bedroom and your dressing room are through there, sir. May I assist you with anything?”
Buchanan looked about at the tastefully decorated sitting room. “Uh, no, not for now. Thank you.” What he wanted was time to be alone, time to rest, and time to let his bellyache subside.
The servant bowed respectfully and pointed to a bell rope. “If’n you need anything, Mr. President, sir, just pull on that.” He bowed again and backed out of the room, shutting the door.
Buchanan stood for a while surveying the room’s appointments, then slowly turned and headed for the doorway to the bedroom. It itself was large but somehow cozy. He imagined it had something to do with the colors and fabrics. “Rufus would know. He always had good taste.” He glanced at the canopied bed. He thought to himself, “A man knows when he is getting old when he looks at a bed and thinks of sleep, not love making. I suppose your illness made you old before your time, my dear. I wasn’t with you then. We had long since parted company, my Rufus.”
Buchanan sought the door to the dressing room, thinking to get out of his formal jacket and into a dressing gown. He was impressed with the capacity of the room. Along one wall were the doors of what looked to be wardrobes, and along the other at least two dozen drawers built into the wall. A full length mirror covered the entire back wall. He walked to the small dressing table that stood out from the mirror and grimaced into the face of the man who looked back at him. “You look dreadful, Jamie,” he thought.
He also thought he heard a quiet murmur of assent. It came from behind his left shoulder. When he snapped his attention to that spot in the mirror’s reflection, he saw nothing.
The President went to the bank of drawers and one by one drew the top ones out just far enough to see what was contained in each. An impulse caused him to lean down to the bottom drawer in the middle bank. He pulled it out and reached in his hand. Someone, a servant or his niece Harriet had taken responsibility for his personal things. The thought that Harriet may have done it cause him to search in the drawer with some trepidation. If Harriet had found the letters she may very well have done what she always threatened, to destroy them. No, there they were. They were in a bundle tied with a black ribbon. Rufus’s letters from during their various times apart, when he was in London or Russia, or Rufus was in Paris. Other times too.
James held the bundle in his hand and looked around to locate a chair. There were three, again beautifully upholstered. He went to the closest and sat. He gazed at the letters, reached to pull one out, and set the rest on a small table. He opened the letter and began to read.
“Jamie dear,” it began. He brought the letter to his lips and kissed where the endearment was an inscribed.
“You would adore Paris, Jamie. It is so full of life. During the daytime, of course, you would not believe how such magnificent buildings could be so dull and dreadful. But at night there are the concerts and balls and restaurants. Those last are a revelation, Jamie. Paris is a far cry from what we are used to. I hear London is no better than America, but in Paris men may congregate together in cafes, and you see them walking out together with locked arms and no doubt of an assignation. I must admit to feeling both cheated and relieved it is not so back at home. Too much temptation. But fear not, my love. I am ever faithful. Are you?”
Buchanan smiled at his lover’s words: “so full of life. “ That had been what drew him to the Southerner when they were first senators. He himself was a staid, boring, homebody. Rufus King was something of a dandy. He was very good looking, well dressed, cultured, but with a wicked streak. Inevitably it was he who made the first move to being more than mere colleagues. James would never have had the courage. The “twiddle-did less*” as Rufus would say to shock him.
Rufus lingered after he, James and a few others new to the Senate had met for drinks at the National Hotel. Perhaps James had known what he was after, because he allowed himself to stay until only he and the Southerner were left in the suite. He had feigned drunkenness to give Rufus the entree, and he had taken it, asking James to help him put on his frock coat, then leaning into him when his hands were on Rufus’s shoulders. James froze, then felt Rufus slowly rotate so they faced each other with no room between them. The look Rufus had given him that invited intimacy. A kiss, and so much more. They spent the night at the hotel, a fact that James had thought about as he stayed in the hotel the last two nights prior to the inauguration.
The President sighed deeply, then carefully put the letter away in the bundle, slipping it into the middle. He gazed at the stack and wondered if it was safe or if he needed to find another place to keep it. Harriet had found them a couple years back and threatened to burn them. He tried to explain them away as a typical florid Southerner’s words, completely innocent, but she did not believe him. He put the letters back where he found them, determining to find another hiding place for them soon.
For now he was tired, lonely and sick. He divested himself of his coat, found a dressing gown and donned it, and went back to the sitting room and let himself doze off in a sitting position.
Some servant or perhaps the military guards made sure the President was left alone. No knock, not even a voice disturbed his nap which he took sitting in a chair in his private sitting room. He was exhausted, rather dehydrated from the effects of the disease, and he slept hard, dreamless.
Harriet finally breached the human fortifications. “Uncle James! Where have you been? Everyone has been asking for you. The President of the Senate, the Cabinet members, even the wife of the Ambassador from the Court of St. James!”
Buchanan awoke with a snort. “What? What is that? Oh, yes, of course. What time is it? Will you hand me my coat, Rufus?”
He looked into his niece’s disapproving face. “Uncle James, it’s Harriet. That Senator King… he’s dead. You aren’t losing your memory, are you?”
He did not hide his disappointment. “I remember,” he said dispiritedly. “All too well.”
“You have to get ready for the ball. It’s almost nine o’clock. I was beginning to think you did not want to attend your own inaugural ball.” She shook her head at the speculative shrug her uncle gave. “I’ll send your man in.” With one last frown, Harriet turned in her wide hooped skirt and somehow made it through the door. He heard her voice as she spoke to a servant, who came in as she went away, fetched to get him ready for the Presidential Ball.
Buchanan finally made his entrance about eleven o’clock. No one appeared to have missed him all that much, though the lead musician apparently had had an eye out because the small string quintet struck up a spirited “Hail to the Chief”. The room where the festivities took place was large, the brightness of dozens of candles dimmed by the smoke they gave off. The chatter was deafening. The President, already not feeling well, knew the evening would end with a terrible headache and worse. For a moment he regretted running for office.
“Uncle James!” Harriet bustled over to him as he entered, a look of castigation and relief simultaneous on her face. He noticed she had a sort of wake, a collection of young and middle aged men who seemed drawn along behind her.
He kissed his niece’s cheek and murmured, “I see you have made your mark already.”
She tapped his chest with her fan. “Now, Uncle… I hope you at least plan to grace us with your presence for the rest of the evening.”
“I will try. I truly am not well, my dear.”
She frowned prettily, though she was not a pretty woman. What she was was ambitious, someone who would change the image of the First Lady from now on. “Well, come along, then. No time to waste. You must shake hands with all the important people here.”
She was not flattered when he took her hand, kissed it, and said, “You are the most important person here, at least to me.”
The string quintet playing some of the well-loved pieces from the last century, as well as some newer sensations: Offenbach, Verdi, even Bizet. Nothing popular. This was a solemn occasion. If Rufus was here… well perhaps they would have some more lighthearted tunes, like Foster’s Gentle Annie. Though, maybe not. Everyone seemed to think that James would become maudlin if that piece was played, that it would remind him of his dear departed fiancée, Anne. Enough people seemed to entertain the belief that his lifelong bachelorhood was the result of grief at losing her. He did little to dissuade them. But he did like the song.
The President made the rounds of the dignitaries and their wives and daughters as long as he could hold out. He did not need to worry about maiden aunts and ingénues being pushed at him, not as he had when he first came to Congress at 30. He was an old man now. And he was no prize catch, not wealthy to speak of, and enough people had more than inkling what Rufus and he had been to each other.
He was startled when he was introduced to a striking young man who was in the uniform of the Russian Czar’s military. The face was identical to Nikolai’s . The explanation came with the young man’s name, “Nikolai Nikolayevich Brilev”. Buchanan realized that he must be Nikolai’s son. Nikolai, who had made his time as a diplomat in Imperial Russia so passionate. Nikolai who had invited him to his lavish estates and seduced him with caviar and kisses sweeter than wine. He managed to regain his composure. The boy would have had no idea of his father’s relationship with the American. With a bittersweet smile he remembered that he had never told Rufus either. That was his one indiscretion, his one moment of infidelity. He never regretted it. He was perfectly aware that, in spite of protestations to the contrary, Rufus had never lacked for bedmates on his travels. After all, Jamie was one person who understood how irresistible his lover was. Again, the light chuckle, only now with an appreciative note to it.
The ball was still well underway when the President managed to slip out. He hurried away knowing that if she caught him leaving, Harriet would come after him. He thought he would fall asleep the moment his head touched the pillows in that big canopied bed. He hoped he would dream, dream not of Nikolai but of Rufus, the love of his life.
But instead he lay on his accustomed side of the bed, this time in the Presidential quarters of the White House exhausted but far too keyed up to sleep. He had heard the clock chime the three o’clock hour, knowing that morning was both too long and too short a time for his weary mind and body. He congratulated himself on his promise, in his inauguration speech, not to run for a second term. He did not think he could take another day like the past one.
“Ah, Rufus,” Buchanan sighed aloud. He patted the counterpane next to him. “I don’t imagine they would have let us share this bed. But I still miss you and wish you were here.”
As he lay on his back with his hands folded prayerfully on his chest he thought he felt the edge of the bed sink under some pressure.
“But Jamie, I am here.”
James stiffened. He dared not turn his head toward the familiar drawl. “Rufus?” he croaked.
“Yes, it is I. You do not think I should leave you alone this night of all nights, do you?”
James slowly turned his head to find the elegant figure of William Rufus King sitting smiling on the side of the bed. “Rufus, you look so… young. And well.”
Rufus preened. “It’s the one good thing about being dead. You get to be whatever age you want to be. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to be old. I am happy to be the handsome young gentleman I once was.”
“Then it is true, you are dead?” James’s clear eyes were as round as pennies.
The apparition cocked his head to one side. “You know I died, Jamie. I’ve been gone these past three years and more. How could you not know?”
James sat up, noting that the coverlet shifted under Rufus without the apparition being disturbed. “No, I know you had died. I meant what I am seeing now is your… ghost? Do you haunt the White House?”
Rufus King chuckled. “Not the house, just you, Jamie. And just for tonight. I made a bargain that I should get one last on Earth to wish you well on your Inauguration day. And to warn you.”
The gathering pleasure in the president’s face faded. “Warn me? What about?”
Spectral shoulders rose and fell in a deep sigh. “Jamie, dear, hard times are coming. I am glad that you do not intend to run again. The year you leave office as it is will be one of great strife and division. I came to tell you… there is nothing you can do to stop it.”
“But… but I have worked for peace and compromise all my life…”
Rufus shook his head. “Always so sure you can smooth it all over. You believe in compromise .”
James Buchanan frowned. “Not compromise. The vox populi. The rule of law.”
The pale hand that rested on one of James’ was more than feather light. He could not feel the touch at all. “Jamie, dearest, you know we broke the law just by being together. Both the law of the people and of God. Though as it turns out, there is no Hell. No Heaven. Just…” He made an indeterminate gesture with his hand.”
Buchanan averted his eyes and would not look back. “How can you say that, Rufus? I loved you. I love you.”
“And I loved you, once.”
A wave of pain crossed the President’s face. “Once?” he asked weakly. When his lover did not answer, he went on, “Rufus, why did you leave me?”
The wry chuckle he heard hurt his pride. “I was sick, Jamie. You know that.”
Looking down James said quietly, “But I would have cared for you…”
The hurtful chuckle came again. “No you would not have. Remember that letter you sent to that woman friend of yours when I was envoy to France? How you were so alone and how you should look for some old woman to care for you when you were ill and make you fine suppers when you were well? You always wanted me to take care of you. Not the other way around.” Rufus gazed at James’ averted face. “And you told her you went wooing. Wooing gentleman.”
James’ face flashed around indignantly. “I meant wooing them to come and share my rooms, my house.”
Rufus King’s shade stood and seemed both to walk and float about the large bedchamber. “Our rooms, Jamie. Our house.”
After a pause, the man in the big bed said ruefully, “Well, I failed. No one accepted my invitation. But you left me anyway.”
“Now, Jamie, do not be so dramatic. I stayed with you for several more years.” The ghostly face seemed larger than it should have from where it floated atop the body that stood at the foot of the bed.
“Why? Why did you leave? We had such wonderful years together. You were so handsome, so dashing, like you are now. Oh won’t you come and get in bed with me? I have missed you so.”
The figure vanished, but before James could cry out with dismay, it appeared again sitting close to him on the near side of the bed. “I cannot. It is not permitted. If I really touched y’all, I would spend more time between the veils to work it off.” He saw the disappointment in Buchanan’s face. He reached to stroke his cheek but there was no touch. He made a soft clucking sound with his tongue and teeth. “There, there, I am sorry, my love. Yes, we were happy. So happy we could hardly hide what we meant to each other. Even when Old Hickory made sport of us. Do you remember?”
“Do I? He called us ‘Mr. and Mrs. King.’ He called you worse names. Aunt Fancy and Uncle Nancy. Why was he so cruel to us?”
The joking grin on the spirit’s face made James’ heart ache. It had been so long since he saw that sparkle in Rufus’ eye. When they were young and could not get enough of each other. “He was not being cruel. He was just… well… Old Hickory. The man who put a big cheese in the White house and invited anyone in to slice off a piece and jaw all he wanted.”
“He was quite a character, was Mr. Jackson.”
Rufus nodded. “But decisive. Not like you, my dearest. Y’all never would take a stand on anything replete with conflict. Like the slave state question.”
Buchanan sulked. “You know I am a pragmatic man. It would not matter how I felt about slavery. It’s not going away. If it did this great nation would collapse. Half the country depends on it to keep a hearty economy. It would be disaster if the slaves were freed.”
Rufus’s face softened. “Yes, it will be. You won’t be able to stop the dissolution.”
“What do you mean?”
The ghost looked uncomfortable. “What I came to tell you, Jamie, is that sometimes trying to calm people down is the worst thing you can do. Like stepping between two drunken, angry teamsters. All you accomplish is a big black eye for yourself.”
James leaned forward and tried to put his hand on King’s arm, but snatched it back when his hand went through it. “But I am talking about the good of a nation. Not a mere brawl.”
Laughing that knowing laugh again, Rufus joked, “’Mere’ it won’t be. It will be a mighty, magnificent brawl.”
The President glared at the phantom in his bedchamber. “Riddles? Is that all you have?”
“You wouldn’t listen if I listed every cause and effect from here until 1865. So why should I speak plainly? That’s why I left, Jamie. I was tired of your always making peace. I wanted you to see the world as it is. Not as you want it to be.”
James seemed to diminish within his own skin. “That was what Anne said.”
“Anne? Your betrothed? The one who took her own life?”
James crossed his arms over his chest in a defensive manner. “No one knows whether she took that laudanum on purpose. She was prone to migraines, you know.”
Sitting back, crossing one leg over the other and holding onto the upper knee with his clasped hands, Rufus king grinned wickedly. “You know, I never could get you to confess why she did it. Why her family would not let you come to her funeral. Now that I am dead, I know the whole story.”
“How? How could you know?” James face was pale.
“Hunnicut,” the spirit said significantly.
Hands over his face, Buchanan moaned, “When did you talk to Hunnicut?”
“There is no when after death. It could have been yesterday, or it could have been two years ago. He’s dead, you know. Just like I am.”
“Hunnicut is dead? How?” A wistful tone underlay the president’s questions.
A sour smile appeared on the spectral lips. “So he was right. You never quite got over him, did you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. That was … years and years ago. In college.”
The ghost drew himself up and began to pace again, the natural grace even for the dapper William Rufus King making the new president nauseous. “Yes, college. Your illustrious career at Dickinson. Hunnicut told me how the two of you would go away for days and sleep through your classes when you came back. He was finally expelled, but somehow you managed to talk them out of it. You got away with what Hunnicut, your passionate flame, did not.” He chuckled again. “Oh and you asked how he died. Ruffians beat him to death when he was in England. That was about the time you were there too. When you were the envoy to the Court of St. James.”
“He was there then?” James’ voice was hushed.
“Now he is here. Anne is here too you know. In the afterlife. She and Hunnicut made it up between them long ago. You know why she killed herself…” he led.
Buchanan put his hands over his ears. “No, I don’t, and I don’t want to.”
“Hunnicut said she took seeing you two together very badly. Most tragic. She shakes her head about it now. What a huge step for what was after all just a kiss and a grope.”
They remained in silence for several minutes, Rufus hovering at the end of the bed and James looking miserably down at his hands, loosely clasped together.
“They called us Siamese twins, you know,” James finally said.
“Well, we were. Someday historians will gloss over what that means now, that we were a couple, a couple of sodomites.”
James’ gaze was distant. “And what else will these historians say of us. Of me?”
Rufus sat on the side of the bed again, having not moved but simply changed his place. “You do not want to know.”
“No, please, tell me. I need to know!”
The apparition seemed to weigh its options. “Well, my dearest, it is not all bad. In fact you will be mostly forgotten. The man who will follow you in office will be the most celebrated president of all. A socialist, as it happens, though he will mostly be remembered for freeing the slaves and for being shot and killed by a bad actor.”
“Who? Stephen Douglas? Breckinridge?”
Rufus waved a hand airily. You will be one of the least known presidents. All that compromising, all that getting along. In better times you may have been revered for your common sense and moderation. In some time though the only thing that will interest anyone about you is whether you and I shared a bed as well as a house.”
James Buchanan’s face drained of color. “No. It can’t be.” He let himself lie back. He put his arms over his eyes. “No, please, don’t say that.”
“Poor Jamie. Born too early or too late. Victim of other men’s greatness. Some day reduced to a cartoon. And what of me? Why, in a brilliant irony, one day a county out in Oregon Territory named after me will be renamed for some nigger preacher. How’s that for justice?”
“But I made sure it was named for you. A sort of gift.”
“That was sweet. Thank you anyway.”
But Rufus’s voice had started to fade. When James uncovered his eyes the figure on the side of the bed was almost invisible. “Don’t go, Rufus. All we have done is quarrel. Give me another chance.”
“That’s why I really left, you know. You had your head very thoroughly shoved up your own behind. You didn’t argue. Y’all just went silent. You were so absent you didn’t even realize I was so ill And then at the last you deserted me. I may have left, but you failed to come when I was dying. Nevertheless I forgive you. And it shan’t be long before we see each other again. It will be a crowded afterlife then, with thousands upon thousands of young souls lining up to pass through the veil.”
“Y-you forgive me?”
Buchanan did not receive any word of comfort, a lump forming in his throat as the figure of his lost love faded from view. “Oh, Rufus, you are wrong. I will hold this country together.”
Was it a lack of conviction or simple drowsiness that robbed the statement of force?
Just as he started at last to fall asleep, he felt it. The light touch of lips on his forehead.
No one really knows if James Buchanan and William Rufus king were lovers. Their two nieces burned all their letters. They did live together for fifteen years, and Jackson and others did refer to them with terms that at the time signified a homosexual relationship. Buchanan was nearly expelled from college for lack of discipline, and his fiancée, Anne Caroline Coleman, did die of an overdose of laudanum. Her father refused to let Buchanan attend her funeral. Hunnicut is my invention, as is Nikolai. The letter Rufus cites where Buchanan told a fried he was wooing “gentleman” is one of the few letters in his hand that exists.
The author of “The First Gay President? A Look into the Life and Sexuality of James Buchanan, Jr.” Jim Nikel after outlining much of the evidence that supports the nature of the relationship between Buchanan and King nevertheless concludes that they must not have been a couple because they never defended themselves against the rumors. This conclusion takes many things for granted, that they did not, for one, and further that the relationship would be troubling to those around them. The author of this story believes that men and women who loved their own sex have always been known and when they were of a certain class would at worst be regarded as peculiarities and permitted to live and even prosper. For more on this issue, see “From History to Herstory to Our Story”.
Whatever James Buchanan’s strengths or weaknesses as a constitutionalist president, his time in office will forever be forgotten. His successor, Abraham Lincoln, and the horrendous years of the Civil War, will forever erase his memory.
Christopher Moss Kit Moss is a gay trans man and author of mostly historical fiction. He lives in the Seattle area with his long time partner and their cats.