Saturday, March 9, 2013

Flashback, March 1853: King, Unusual VP, Takes Oath in Unusual Place

William Rufus King is not an instantly recognizable name, but in his extremely short tenure as Vice-President under Franklin Pierce, he still recorded some firsts.

For one thing, he became the first—and, to date, still the only—Veep to take the oath of office outside the U.S., and on a date different from his running mate. Second, he assumed office when he, and just about anyone else with any knowledge of the situation, was aware that he was gravely ill. In fact, it required an act of Congress that his swearing-in occur not March 4—the way all Presidents and Vice-Presidents had done (and would do) from Washington’s second inaugural to FDR’s first—but March 24. Third, it is very possible that he was the first homosexual to achieve the Vice-Presidency—and his purported lover may have been the first homosexual President of the U.S.

Several years ago, a controversy flared up over C.A. Tripp’s claim that Abraham Lincoln was gay. Not only was the explanation highly speculative, but the supporting “evidence” was threadbare. As it turned out, many gay-rights advocates might have ignored a considerably more likely prospect: Honest Abe’s predecessor, James Buchanan.

Tripp made much of the 16th President’s closeness to the friend of his young manhood, Joshua Speed. But they stopped being on easy terms with one another after Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd. Lincoln would go on to father three sons. Even during his time in office, when enemies seized on any remotely plausible rumor to cast doubt on his personality and policies, nobody thought to throw this particular rumor about intimate relations with men at him.

Nevertheless, who can blame gays for claiming the Great Emancipator as an Executive Branch role model? Certainly, you wouldn't want Buchanan, nor the good friend of his listed by Time magazine as among the 10 worst U.S. Vice-Presidents. (This ranking, by the way, was patently unfair: King had only three weeks to live after his inaugural oath, so he did not have time to cause mischief, as, for instance, Spiro Agnew and Dick Cheney did. By rights, Time should have given him no more than an incomplete.)

But it is important to recall this about King's short tenure: the Vice-Presidency—a position only the proverbial heartbeat away from the most powerful office in the nation—would be occupied by a man who himself was already dying of tuberculosis.

In a couple of ways, it seems inconceivable today to anoint for such a job an old party warhorse such as King:

*The fear that the President might die in office has been so frequently justified by events that parties are loath to nominate someone who is not physically vigorous—or, at least, who is not constantly monitored by physicians (e.g., cardiac patient Cheney). King was the same age at the time of his election as Joe Biden, but modern medical, nutritional and exercise knowledge enable Obama’s Veep to endure the stress of a campaign and office better than the running mate of Pierce. (Screening has allowed doctors to test whether additional problems are surfacing from Biden’s two aneurysms from 25 years ago.)

*Parties and Presidential candidates no longer fear running mates with their own independent sources of power, as Aaron Burr had when he vied with his ostensible boss, Thomas Jefferson, for the Presidency in the House of Representatives, in the disputed election of 1800.

*Vice-Presidential candidates are no longer content to sit at home, awaiting the verdict of voters, but instead are expected to barnstorm across the country, appearing in all media, all the time.

And yet, in another sense, our age can identify all too readily with King. Those living in a bitter era when a Congressman can leap to his feet and shout “Liar!” at the President during a State of the Union message can begin to understand an antebellum Congress in which duels were not uncommon and a U.S. Senator (Charles Sumner of Massachusetts) could be nearly caned to death right on the floor of the chamber over the slavery issue. King himself almost became involved in two duels, and he was considered one of the more even-tempered men of the Senate.

In fact, King was thought of as one of the above-average members of that body. He was certainly not intellectual, nor oratorical, so he, by default, could not be considered in the same breath as the “Great Triumvirate” of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. But, for all his sympathies as a slaveholder, he continually tried to tamp down secessionist fervor in the South (even joining in the desperate effort to craft the Compromise of 1850). Furthermore, even though he insisted on wearing powdered wigs long after they had gone out of fashion, his bearing was consistently acclaimed as handsome.

In short, he looked and acted like a Senator. His colleagues thought so well of him that, between 1836 and 1850, King won a record 11 elections to the post of Senate president pro tempore, the constitutionally recognized officer of the Senate who presides over the chamber in the absence of the vice president.

One Washington figure to whom he especially endeared himself was Buchanan. King met the future president in 1834, began rooming with him two years later, and continued to do so (except for King’s break for a diplomatic posting to France) until his final illness.

By itself, men sharing the same house, even the same bed, was not unusual in 19th century Washington, since lack of ready transportation forced Congressmen into unusual arrangements. Some historians have pointed to a broken-off engagement that ended tragically with his fiancee’s early death as the reason why Buchanan never married, rather than any repressed homosexual leanings. Moreover, imposing post-Freudian understanding of relations between men up through the 19th century can be an anachronistic exercise, as expressions of friendship tended to be more effusive in those days.

But the relationship between Buchanan and King was close enough to set off more gossiping than normal, marked by the following:

* The two men were nicknamed “the Siamese Twins”;

* Andrew Jackson (whose lead King followed on Capitol Hill) dubbed the Alabaman "Miss Nancy," and

* Buchanan and King were lifelong bachelors, without children.

In other words, even much contemporary comment took note of them. 

One incident in particular fueled speculation about King. The origins of his near-duel with Clay are well-known (recorded in Congressional remarks), but not what lay behind an incident involving Major Michael Kenan back in Cahaba, Alabama. The major’s insult led King to withdraw a dagger from his cane and pass it across Kenan’s chest. Kenan then sent a challenge to King, which the senator refused to accept because of the nature of the insult. Kenan then induced a neighbor to challenge King, and this duel was only averted when the neighbor, after due consideration, decided it wasn’t worth engaging in an affair of honor when he was totally unaware of what it was really about.

One of my college professors, taking note of Buchanan’s childless status, suggested that lack of potency (wink, wink!) also underlay the president’s ineffectual attempts to head off secession. Nowadays, that kind of insinuation would have landed my professor before an academic committee, where he would have been fortunate to emerge unscathed. (In any event, his assumption is simply not historical: under the same reasoning, two reputed homosexuals or bisexuals, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great--legendary masters of the battlefield--would have to be regarded as ineffective. The idea is preposterous on its face.)

Absent documentary evidence, any conclusions about the sexuality of King and Buchanan, like that of Revolutionary War general Baron von Steuben (discussed in a prior post of mine), can only rest on speculation. What is not speculation is that, when Buchanan’s bid for the presidential nomination at the 1852 Democratic Convention foundered, King was offered the consolation prize—the Vice-Presidency—to placate his close friend and allies in the Southern wing of the party, who had pushed his candidacy for the office for the last dozen years.

Shortly after he and running mate Franklin Pierce won the subsequent election, King fell ill. With doctors diagnosing tuberculosis, King journeyed to a sugar plantation in Cuba in the hope that a warm climate would help. Eventually, he notified Congress that he was too sick to make it back to Washington in time for the inauguration, so his former colleagues passed an act enabling him to take his oath outside the U.S. 

King was so frail when the oath was finally administered that he had to be lifted to his feet by two soldiers, the better to see the brown mountain peaks in the distance. With his condition deteriorating rapidly, he determined to leave Cuba so he could die at home. He was back at his Alabama plantation, Chestnut Hill, for only one day when he passed away on April 18, 1853, less than a month after perhaps the most unusual Vice-Presidential inauguration in American history.

In the end, it matters less whether Buchanan was literally intimate with King than that the future President— whose Mennonite, Quaker, and even many Democrat neighbors in the free state of Pennsylvania regarded slavery with horror—was metaphorically involved with the slaveholding class served by King—a group that gave Buchanan crucial support in his successful election in 1856, before undercutting him in the run-up to the Civil War. How King might have reacted to this turn of events regarding his very close friend rests on the same kind of speculation that has accrued ever since on the real nature of their relationship.

(The perhaps somewhat idealized image of King accompanying this post, taken from around 1840, comes from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)  

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