During the founding of these United States, homosexuality was punishable by death or castration. But if the history of queer people tells us anything, it’s that we’ve always been here. To celebrate President’s Day, I thought I’d take a look at the role LGBTQ people played in the founding of our nation. Many historians may rain on our big gay parades by pointing out that passionate friendships between men were common during the time, but gossip is forever. And gossip there was. Here’s a list of presidential(ish) pansies for whom rumors still persist.
Dandy Daddy – Alexander Hamilton
Just when we thought the musical taught us all we needed to know about Alexander Hamilton, (Actually, I’ve never seen it. Can someone get me tickets?) there’s a queer chapter that may have been left out of his life story. Even though he was married and famously admitted to having an affair with a woman, Ham shared a loving friendship with rising soldier and anti-slavery statesman John Laurens.
Over the years, Ham sent Laurens many letters expressing his deep affection for him:
“I wish, my dear Laurens … it might be in my power, by action rather than words, to convince you that I love you.”
First Ally – George Washington
America’s first president may not have been homosexual himself but he may have been an ally. While leading the Continental army, Washington often looked the other way when servicemen were caught engaging in homosexual activity. Rather than sentence these men to the more common barbaric punishments, Washington simply signed their discharge papers.
While that may have been more about pragmatism, Washington encouraged Hamilton and Laurens to bunk up. He even made accommodations for Prussian military genius Maj. Gen. Frederich Wilhelm von Steuben and his alleged young lover, Pierre Etienne Duponceau. It’s argued von Steuben was easily persuaded to help lead the Continental army to avoid punishment in Europe for committing the crime of homosexuality.
The First Gay President? – James Buchanan
Typically seen as the worst president in US History, Buchanan is also the country’s only bachelor and possibly the first gay man to serve as president. Before the presidency, Buchanan developed a close relationship with Alabama senator and later Vice President William Rufus King. So close that the two lived together and were known in political circles as Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy.
When King was sent to Paris to serve as a minister to France, Buchanan wrote to a friend:
“now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”
In return, King wrote to Buchanan hoping that he could not be replaced:
“I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation. For myself, I shall feel lonely in the midst of Paris, for here I shall have no Friend with whom I shall commune as with my own thoughts.”
King was often referred to as Buchanan’s “better half” and the pair lived together on and off until King’s death in 1853.
The Mythical Gay Republican – Abraham Lincoln
Rumors of Honest Abe’s homosexuality have been so famous he’s the inspiration for the name Log Cabin Republicans.
As a young successful lawyer, Lincoln shared a home with store owner Joshua Speed. The two also shared a bed, though this was common during the period the two were older than most bachelors and had the means and space for separate accommodations. Speed was even heavily involved in Lincoln’s legal work and political activities. This relationship was the most intimate of Lincoln’s lifetime and when Speed moved back to his native Kentucky to settle down with a wife, Lincoln experienced a mental breakdown. Historians are still unsure about the cause but it seemed to resolve when Speed invited him to visit. During his presidency, Speed visited Lincoln and the two remained close friends until death.
As president, Lincoln developed a close relationship with his bodyguard David Derickson. When Mrs. Lincoln was away, Derickson was known to sleep in bed with the president and even wear his nightshirt.
It’s difficult to look at these situations outside of the context of modern culture. While intimate relationships between men were common during these eras, it’s clear there’s some evidence of blurred sexualities. What’s your take on the queer history of our founding fathers?