Monday, March 30
Shadow

Friends in high places History today


James Buchanan, around 1850. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington DC.

In the past decade, interest in the personal behind the political in relation to America's legislative landscape has increased in the 19th century. This study with two of the country's most active politicians is a very good example of the value of this approach. Much more than a traditional biography, Breast friends spotlights the long and sometimes very close friendship of William Rufus King from Alabama and James Buchanan from Pennsylvania, a friendship that crossed the increasingly inconsistent sections of Antebellum America and lasted until King's death at the relatively young age of 67. Just six weeks before his death in the spring of 1853, King had become Vice President of the United States, the sole holder of this office from Alabama. Buchanan, who became president (1857-61), lived a decade longer and died with his political reputation in ruins at the age of 77 in 1868. As the White House website says, Buchanan & # 39; remains the only president who was chosen from Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania to remain a lifelong bachelor & # 39 ;. Which of the two granted him the greater distinction may depend on the reader.

In some ways, Buchanan's unmarried status prompted Balcerski's study; or rather the unmarried status of Buchanan and King in the context of their close friendship. This has led to speculation over the years about the nature of this relationship. Alabama Local News summed it up in an article in 2019 about King entitled "Senator, slave owner and possibly gay, Alabama's William Rufus King was the 13th Vice President of the country". The writer John Updike, as Balcerski reminds us, examined the idea in his play. Buchanan dies (1974) and Roman, Ford Administration memoirs (1992) and came to the conclusion that there is little evidence of “homosexual passion”. Buchanan's biographers, none of whom seem to have liked him very much, generally do not focus on his sexuality or conclude that he was celibate.

Balcerski sees that more precisely. He places the debate about men's sexuality in the context of the expanding field of LGBT history, but concludes that their friendship, which began in the male "chaos" world of Antebellum Washington, is more intimate in an observable pattern male friendships corresponded to that in the first half of the nineteenth century ’. As Balcerski shows, these friendships were central to the political sphere of antebellum America. In the relationship between Buchanan and King, he has found an insightful new way into this world.

This was a time of political upheaval in the United States, during which the Democratic Party struggled to remain relevant, and the Whig Party, which was eventually replaced by the Republicans, who in 1860 nominated the candidate to replace Buchanan, disappeared would President: Abraham Lincoln. The debates about slavery became increasingly violent, often violent, both in Congress and at the border. As a result, the north and south grew further apart. This was the world of King and Buchanan, and their maneuvers through them, their struggles at the head of an unstable political cluster, much thanks to the friendship ties they had made in their political childhood. "To move forward politically," Balcerski concludes, "hugged each other." Buchanan saw the viewpoint of the slave-holding south, while King emphasized the importance of the union. He died before this union fell apart; Buchanan came to bear part of the blame for his dissolution. Balcerski's original study helps us better understand the reasons behind Buchanan's bad reputation. When we bring King and Buchanan together, we see them and their world with far greater clarity.

Thomas J. Balcerski
Oxford 320pp £ 22.99
Review by Susan-Mary Grant

Susan-Mary Grant is Professor of American History at Newcastle University.

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