Our first gay president?

Brion McClanahan Author, The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution
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Newsweek has proclaimed Barack Obama to be America’s “first gay president.” This, of course, is a play on Bill Clinton’s image as the “first black president” and is not meant literally. But it begs several questions. First, who was the first actually gay president? Second, was Obama’s statement that he personally supports gay marriage in fact “historic,” as liberals have claimed in the days since the president’s “Good Morning America” interview with Robin Roberts? And third, what is the real motivation behind Obama’s move, and should Americans pay any attention to it (this article notwithstanding)?

The first actually gay president was probably either James Buchanan or Abraham Lincoln. Both men were accused by contemporaries and later historians of being at the very least bisexual. Buchanan, who was elected in 1856, was a life-long bachelor. He was engaged as a young man to the daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania family, but he spent little time with his beautiful fiancée and is rumored to have had several affairs during the engagement. She believed the rumors, canceled the wedding, and died shortly thereafter of a laudanum overdose, apparently induced by a broken heart and hysteria. Buchanan wrote that his interest in the fairer sex died with his fiancée. Though he continued to court for several years (possibly in an attempt to “marry up” for convenience), there were whispers that no woman would have been able to corral Buchanan’s heart.

Buchanan lived in Washington, D.C., for 15 years with William Rufus King of Alabama. According to Buchanan, the two men shared a special relationship, and he was devastated after King died in 1853. Andrew Jackson referred to Buchanan and King as “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy” while Aaron V. Brown, postmaster general in the Buchanan administration, named the two “Buchanan and his wife.” Buchanan and King were labeled “Siamese twins” around Washington, a slang term for same-sex couples in antebellum America, and King was often branded “Mrs. James Buchanan.” President James K. Polk privately called Buchanan an “old maid.” The correspondence between King and Buchanan was destroyed by their nieces after their deaths, possibly in an attempt to cover up the relationship. The press wondered if the rumors were true, and in 1844 when Buchanan was away from King for an extended trip in France, he wrote that he had gone “wooing to several gentlemen” for companionship and fretted that he should simply marry “some old maid” who could nurse him and provide him suppers as long as she did not require much romantic affection.

As for Lincoln, the evidence is more circumstantial. Lincoln had a strained relationship with his wife, and though the two had four children, there were always questions about the affection and intimacy the two shared. Lincoln was frequently depressed and melancholy, traits some historians have attributed to his difficult personal life and perhaps an internal struggle with his own sexuality.

Lincoln was close friends with Joshua Speed, a man considered effeminate by contemporaries, and the two shared both living quarters and a bed for four years. This was not highly unusual for the time, as men often slept together because of a lack of money or space, but the relationship may have been more intimate than a deep friendship. Lincoln wrote what many consider to be a homoerotic poem about Speed, and Lincoln broke off his engagement to Mary Todd when Speed left Illinois to concentrate on his own marriage and business pursuits. It was only after a respite from work and his personal life at Speed’s plantation in Kentucky that Lincoln reconsidered marriage. This certainly does not prove Lincoln was bisexual, but the circumstantial evidence points in that direction.

Additionally, Lincoln’s bodyguard, Captain David Derickson, reportedly shared a bed with the president when Lincoln’s wife was out of town and had a close personal relationship with Lincoln that extended beyond business. Again, this was a rumor, and some historians have discounted it as hearsay, but the fact that Washington society was aware of it might indicate an element of truth. Interestingly, Lincoln’s supposed homosexuality led to the establishment of the Log Cabin Republicans, a modern political organization predominantly comprised of homosexual Republicans dedicated to same-sex issues.

But the important point isn’t whether Buchanan and/or Lincoln were gay. Regardless of the rumors, both men had successful political careers in a time when homosexuality was certainly more taboo than it is today. How is that possible? Simple: It was possible because their personal interactions had no bearing on their jobs in Washington. Marriage was an issue for the church and by default the states in 1856 and 1860, and just as today was outside the purview of the federal government. Obama said as much in his “historic” interview. His personal opinion may have “evolved,” but Obama cannot make law by decree (even if he wants to) and the states still have the final say on this issue. Obama didn’t say anything to the contrary. Neither the Congress nor the president has any control over what constitutes marriage. Such is not an enumerated power of the general government, and as I pointed out in my book “The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution,” never was under the original so-called “Privileges and Immunities Clause” of the Constitution. This is how most Americans see the issue and Obama’s “evolution” does nothing to change that.

Most important, Obama’s “historic” move is a perfect example of deflection. The United States is headed over a financial cliff, the dollar is being run into the ground, the debt tops $100 trillion with unfunded liabilities added to the mix, unemployment is at Great Depression levels, the economy cannot and will not rebound under the Democrats’ failed policies, and Obama knows it. Same-sex marriage is a distraction from the real issues at hand. Obama would love nothing more than for same-sex marriage to take center stage for the next six months. That would allow him to rake in millions of dollars from his Hollywood friends, print catchy T-shirts and political propaganda, and avoid talking about his destructive economic policies.

Unfortunately for the Obama campaign, polling data indicate that this strategy has already backfired in several key states. Still, those on the right should ignore the issue and instead focus with laser-beam precision on the economy and the Constitution. If not, America is doomed. Social issues will not win or lose this election. The economy will.

As my friend and fellow Daily Caller contributor Jack Hunter said recently, “I would vote for a gay Obama married to Mitt Romney if he would cut government, shrink debt, bring home troops and follow the Constitution. I would also vote for a candidate opposed to gay marriage if he would cut government, shrink debt, bring home troops and follow the Constitution.” Yes.

Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D in American history from the University of South Carolina. He is the author of The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), Forgotten Conservatives in American History (with Clyde Wilson, Pelican 2012), and The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009).