Sunday, September 17, 2006

James Buchanan: A Lesson In Name Calling

Since I teach children who are not even teenagers yet I try to stay away from certain topics. I don’t talk about certain subjects like abortion and homosexuality because my students are still at an age where some know about these subjects while others do not. It is not my place to tell them. Not yet. It’s amazing though how these types of topics creep into my classroom when I least expect them.

The question “What is a homesexual?” is not one of the questions I feel comfortable answering. Neither is “What is oral sex?” or “What is virginity?” Believe it or not these are questions I have been asked before during class. Was the inquiry a real wonderment on the inquisitor’s part or was it for shock value to disrupt? I tend to think it is generally for the latter since these types of questions come up at the strangest times from students I suspect already know the answer. Needless to say I don’t take the bait. I certainly don’t need little Bobby or Sue to go home and say, “EHT says a homosexual is someone who….”

It’s not my place.

Michael, who so kindly allows me to take up space here at his spot on the Internet, recently provided a link to a very interesting web site called Tall, Slim, and Erect. I clicked on several presidents and read the information presented there. The information concerning James Buchanan gave me pause. It reminded me of a predicament I got myself into soon after I had started teaching.

Fifth grade students were assigned a president to research. I have quite a collection of presidential trivia books, and our media center has an extensive collection of short presidential biographies, so it really is a good topic for fourth or fifth grade to put their research skills in action.

So that particular year one eager student was assigned James Buchanan. The student arrived on the due date with paper in hand along with the required poster. The poster was exquisite. It was almost too perfect, if you get my drift. As teachers we all experience this when we assign home research projects. Parents get involved and they finally get to do the project they didn’t get to do because their parent horned several years before. It’s a rite of passage, isn’t it?

The student in question was one of those young men who was never organized, who had physician handwriting, and usually turned in things that looked like they had been up his nose or some other cavity before he turned them in. I usually needed a clothespin and rubber gloves to grade his assignments.

My fine young historian had elected to present his research in the form of a concept web on a red piece of posterboard. The name James Buchanan was in the middle written in crayon with fine script writing on white paper. Each entry was also framed with a piece of blue construction paper that peeked out from the edges of the white. The handwriting was an appropriate height. Black lines spread out from the middle to each concept and wrapped around the entries giving them focus and depth. It was a stunning poster… could read each entry from half a classroom away.

There were several ideas spread out around Buchanan’s name….lawyer, state representative, senator, diplomat, and finally my gaze fell upon the final entry………gayfer. GAYFER. GAYFER?

I’d been had. Not just by a parent who relived their childhood by completing their son’s project for them, but by a parent who wanted to push the envelope a bit to see what I would do.

Pushing the envelope is fine but in the immortal words of Dirty Harry, “A [teacher] has to know their limitations.” Some envelopes are razor thin and leave nasty paper cuts if you push back too hard, however, allowing the poster to go up in the hallway with a slur towards a particular group of people would not do.

As far as James Buchanan being gay it is more than likely true.

Many historians would agree that James Buchanan was not our best president though he seemed to be adequately qualified for the role. He had a fine pedigree as his family was directly descended from King James I of Scotland. He was the first to volunteer for service in his area during the War of 1812 and helped to defend the city of Baltimore following the burning of Washington D.C. He served five times in the House of Representatives, a decade in the Senate, and was a Minister to Russia. He was President Polk’s Secretary of State and Pierce’s Minister to Great Britain.

He threw his hat in the ring several times for the presidency (1844, 1848, and 1852), but was finally successful in 1856. Many feel he was finally sucessful because he had been out of the country serving as a diplomat and had been out of many of the domestic squabbles leading up to the election.

This is probably true since the country had been on a long slow road to war from the 1820s due to the slavery issue. The country began to divide even more rapidly after Buchanan’s election due to his inability to see what was going on. He did not understand how sectionalism had changed the political landscape of our country and could not understand that the Constitution alone could not heal the chasm forming between the north and south. Buchanan was fortunate enough to be president not only during the beginning of the secession crisis he also was president during the Panic of 1857, the John Brown/Harper’s Ferry incident, and the Dred Scott decision.

Buchanan never married though he was engaged for a time. The engagement was tragically broken when Buchanan’s fiance learned that Buchanan had visited the home of another young lady before coming to see her after being out of town. The finance refused to see Buchanan and soon left town where she mysteriously died. There have been hints of suicide. The finance’s father refused to allow Buchanan to attend the funeral.

One of the best sources to read about the allegations of homosexuality is in the book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James W. Loewen. In his book Lowen assets that Buchanan didn’t try very hard to hide his preference. He lived with William Rufus King, a Senator from Alabama, for many years. King had served as Pierce’s vice president in 1852. Many referred to them as “the Siamese twins,” a known reference to a homosexual couple. Lowen asserts that Andrew Jackson dubbed King “Miss Nancy,” and Aaron Brown, a prominent Democrat, writing to Mrs. James K. Polk, referred to him as Buchanan’s “better half,” “his wife,” and “Aunt Fancy…rigged out in her best clothes.”

Lowen’s research further found a letter that King wrote to Buchanan in 1844 upon his move to France in which he said, “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 seperation.”

A letter from Buchanan to a Mrs. Roosevelt dated May 13th stated:

“I am 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.

Many speculate that Buchanan who hailed from an anti-slavery Pennsylvania began to form pro-slavery views through his relationship with King who was a planter form Alabama. Buchanan called slavery a “moral evil” and thought the question of it should be handled by the states. He dreaded what he said would be chaos if the slaves were freed. Regarding sesession Buchanan wrote, “The South has no right to secede, but I have no power to prevent them.”

For even more information regarding whether he was or was not gay this article here has some interesting points.

Does it matter to me if Buchanan was gay? No, it really doesn't. What I find interesting about the possibility is the span of time between then and now and how supposed evidence of it would have been handled in the press. Today's press would have had a field day.

So, you may be wondering how I handled my poster with the homosexual slur. I simply went over to the student privately and told him we couldn’t display the poster in the hall with that particular word on it.

He asked, “Are you going to call my Dad? I told him I didn’t think you’d let me put it up like that. ”

“Why, is he one that actually did the poster?” I countered.

“Yeah,” was the response. I didn’t refer to it again. I gave the young man a list of words that would describe Buchanan that he had not already used including the term homosexual. He chose the words “bachelor president” and taped it over the word gayfer. The poster was well received in the hall when it went up with the others. The parent was probably waiting for an angry phone call from me, but I didn’t make one. It wasn’t worth it.

So, did I continue my tradition of presidential research. You bet I did, however, there was one little change. The president project is now done in my Language Arts classes and is researched and written entirely at school under my supervision.

State research is now one of home projects I assign. I think I’m safe. I haven’t ever heard of a gayfer state.


Onyx said...

Well done!

M said...

Excellent and well done! Thanks for this thoughtful look at this president and how you dealt with a tough teaching moment.

Lady Strathconn said...

Really? What do they think of Vermont?

Jude said...

I do an annual presentation for 5th graders on my Civil War ancestors, during which I sing Civil War era songs (which they sing along with me). After the first time, I learned that even 5th graders giggle when you sing "And we'll all feel gay when Johnny Comes Marching Home" so now I talk about how "gay" meant "happy" not that long ago. That way we can get through the singing without the giggling. I had to look up "gayfer" though. I never was good at derogatory slang.

Spangles said...

What a great story!

I too follow the "I can't hang this up in the hallway" rule. It's a good rule for talking about war; you can show guns but you can't show people USING guns.

And I also do my research projects in language arts. The part that parents get their fingers in? Taking notes. I send home our note-taking charts and the reference materials. This seems to produce mostly positive results and gives parents insight into their child's abilities.

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

I LOVE it! I also love that he was so innocent it didn't occur to him to vehemently deny that Daddy did it.

trlkly said...

Wow. Normally most blogs I ready are either poorly written or boring. You were neither. When I read that you teach a language arts class, I was not surprised. Keep up the good work.