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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Bosom Friends’

The intimate world of James Buchanan & William Rufus King.

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Bosom Friends: The
Intimate World of James Buchanan & William Rufus King
• by Thomas J. Balcerski
• 2019
• Oxford University Press
• 337 pages
• $34.95/higher in Canada

Tethered by a cord. That’s what people think when they see you and your closest pal: that you’re tethered by some sort of invisible cord. You think alike, talk alike, you sometimes mirror each other’s actions. Where there’s one, there’s the other—even when, as in the new book Bosom Friends by Thomas J. Balcerski, you’re often poles apart.

In the years prior to the Civil War, our nation’s capital was “very much a work in progress.” Roads were little more than mud, neighborhoods were far apart, and Washington D.C. was indeed a swamp into which most congressmen had to travel. Since nearly all were landowners elsewhere, few elected officials brought their families to the city with them; those who came solo needed places to live, so boardinghouses—called “messes”—sprung up to house the politicians.

It was at one such “mess” that William King met James Buchanan.

King was born to be a politician: educated at the University of North Carolina, he almost immediately went into politics after graduation. He was a social man, and very charming, but he never married, blaming it on a broken heart over a princess who was angered by a perceived insult. Balcerski hints that the princess story was a convenient ruse.

Buchanan was also educated and politically minded, but his personal life differed: he was engaged to be married, but a misunderstanding caused his fiancée to call off the nuptials. Before Buchanan could patch things up, she fell ill and died. For the rest of his life, he, too, claimed that a broken heart kept him from marrying.

At that time in history, says Balcerski, homosexuality was strictly forbidden, but deeply “intimate friendships” between men were common and even encouraged. It seems likely that King and Buchanan formed one of these while living at the “mess,” partaking in debates together and working at the Capitol. Their “bosom friendship,” however, appeared exceptionally close: tongues wagged, and others publicly teased the politicians about their particular bond.

But were they lovers, as rumors have claimed for over 170 years?

It’s inconclusive, as you’ll see in Bosom Friends. There are many reasons to think either way; although author Balcerski says they weren’t, evidence to the contrary is tantalizing.

To get there, though, will take some rock-climbing.

To understand the lives of King and Buchanan, one must inherently understand politics, of which much of this book consists. This is necessary, since it also shows divisions between the two men (ultimately both physically and emotionally), their scrappy political competition, and an untraversable gulf of disagreement—facets that, individually and together, are fascinating. Readers will clearly see the affection between the two men here, though we’ll never completely know the true nature of it. (Written communication between the two, which might have proved conclusive, disappeared shortly after the Civil War.)

That sets up a delicious double-mystery that leaves you to make up your own mind: letters lost or tossed? Bosom friends, or more than that? If you’re curious to know, this book will keep you tethered to your chair.

This article appears in the October 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terry Schlichenmeyer is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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