Image collage by Tyler Simnick.

A History of Intimate Male Friendship in Antebellum America

Oxford Academic
Aug 8 · 4 min read

In this excerpt from Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, Thomas J. Balcerski explores the moment of final separation between Buchanan and King in the spring of 1844 to reveal their intimate personal and political relationship.

In early May 1844, Buchanan and King collected their thoughts and recorded them in long, heartfelt letters to one another. The exchange of letters revealed much about the intertwined nature of their long-standing bosom friendship. A persistent theme of isolation ran throughout the correspondence. Equally, their letters produced two of the most often quoted lines about their relationship: “I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them,” Buchanan reported, to which King replied, “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.” But what do these lines really mean?

While in New York, King stayed as the guest of former Democratic congressman James J. Roosevelt and his wife Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt.

Within days, King had made the necessary arrangements for his trip; he also found time to write Buchanan. “Could I have taken you by the hand to say God bless you, before leaving Washington,” he intoned, suggesting that his had been an unexpected departure, “I should have left it without regret.”

Perhaps the impending separation was too painful: King avoided saying good-bye in person and later “regret[ted] now that I did not do so, but the truth is I wished to avoid the pain of saying farewell.” The separation had been understandably difficult for the two men, both in the unexpected conclusion of their shared domestic arrangement and in the many political uncertainties that lay ahead. To close the letter, King added a telling interrogatory, “Did you not write to Mrs. Roosevelt?”

In fact, Buchanan had written to Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt. Given its proximity to their separation, Buchanan’s letter dated May 13, 1844, provided one of the few written accounts of his feelings of bosom friendship with King. To begin, he described the typical routines of Washington society. But he soon turned his attention to the more attractive image of the gathering of his friends in New York, playfully remarking to Mrs. Roosevelt: “I envy Colonel King the pleasure of meeting you & would give any thing in reason to be of the party for a single week.” Then he fretted: “I am ‘solitary & 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.” As a result, he predicted that he “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 & not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.” Loneliness thus consumed him.

Understandably, though inaccurately, many have interpreted these sentimental expressions as clear evidence of a sexual relationship between the two men. However, many of these same expressions undergirded the language of intimate male friendship during this period. Moreover, such phrases commonly appeared in their correspondence with other public men. For his part, King quite frequently used the phrase “take by the hand.” In another letter written shortly after his May message to Buchanan, he declared: “I shall be very happy to take by the hand my old & valuable Friend [Commodore Jacob] Jones before leaving the country.” That King wished to “take by the hand” his friend Jones, who at the time was commander of the port of New York and by no means an intimate friend, suggests a more prosaic meaning. Rather than expressive of sexual intimacy, the phrase conveyed the desire of one public man to reinforce the sometimes-distant ties that bound them together.

The letter of May 13, 1844, from Buchanan to Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt also illustrated the practical difficulty of finding new messmates with whom to “unite.” Whether or not he cared to admit it, Buchanan had thrown in his political and domestic lot with his bachelor messmates, of whom King had been the last surviving member. Most likely the unnamed “several gentlemen” whom Buchanan “wooed,” or asked to join him at the mess on F Street, were quite content with their own living arrangements. They may also have been uninterested in joining the mess of an old bachelor and waning political operator. Thus rejected, Buchanan sought epistolary refuge in his bachelorhood, a recurring theme throughout his letters to female friends. His lament for “some old maid who can nurse me” was more theatrical performance than reality, for he had already hired Esther Parker to keep house back in Lancaster.

Yet even at age fifty-three, a marriage to an “old maid” — a term to describe an unmarried woman beyond the socially accepted age of marriage — was not out of the question for an “uncertain” bachelor. Such a pairing would have relieved him of the “ardent or romantic affection” expected by a younger, more amorous female partner.

This outcome must have appeared attractive to Buchanan. In fact, he would pursue exactly this sort of union in the years ahead.

Thomas J. Balcerski is presently assistant professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University, where he teaches early American history. He lives in Connecticut.

History Uncut

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History Uncut

Articles and excerpts from Oxford University Press exploring history and biography across the globe.

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