Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2003 Issue

Trivial Pursuit?<br>Collecting Vice-President William R. King



Here’s what we know. King was the only bachelor to serve as vice-president; Buchanan was the only unmarried president. For around twenty years before either reached his highest office, the two roomed together. Evidently they were close friends and allies, and some people think King’s southern roots and influence with Buchanan made the latter more sympathetic to slavery than one might expect from a Pennsylvanian. There is no record of King ever having a close relationship with a woman, but Buchanan, when a young man, came very close to marriage. His bride-to-be broke it off at the last minute and promptly committed suicide. Why has never been known, though it is known her family would not allow Buchanan to attend the funeral. Buchanan expressed great love for her at the time, but some have speculated that her family’s wealth and social prominence indicate that the young Buchanan may have had more than romance on his mind.

As for their rooming together, to be fair we must point out that many senators and congressmen room together today. They do so because rents in Washington are so outrageous that they can’t afford private apartments. Undoubtedly most are friendly with their roommates, even while having spouses and children back home. What does this prove?

There are also letters between the two written while one or the other was on some diplomatic mission. The tone is affectionate, but not improper. Today, they might raise eyebrows, but this was an era of flowery praise. Clearly, many of the speakers quoted in the Obituary Addresses loved this man, but that doesn’t imply they loved him in that manner.

There are also comments alleged to have been made about King or this odd couple. I have not done the research necessary to confirm that these things were actually said. So here’s what I’ve heard was said. President Jackson allegedly referred to him as “Miss Nancy.” Others, supposedly, as “Aunt Fancy,” still others, again supposedly, referred to King and Buchanan as “Siamese twins.” A Democratic official named Aaron Brown is said to have described King, in a letter to President Polk’s wife, as Buchanan’s “wife,” and “better half.”

Even if these things were said, and I am not certain they were, how much does this prove? How many people go through their lives without anyone ever implying something about them that isn’t true? Perhaps what’s more telling is that there weren’t more comments, considering the two were never married and living together, which must have been unusual for major political figures at the time. It’s not that politics was cleaner back then. Charges, slanders, and outright lies were the norm in politics of the nineteenth century. One of my favorites is the charge against King’s 1852 running mate. Franklin Pierce, they said, was "a hero of many a well-fought bottle." Actually, this one might have been true, but surely not the 1844 charge against Henry Clay that "Clay spends his days at the gambling table and his nights in a brothel." That’s not why they called him the “Great Compromiser.”

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>A Record Breaking Season</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> <i>The Book of Mormon,</b> first edition, Palmyra, NY, 1830. Sold Sept. 30 — $112,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> Vincent Van Gogh, <i>Homme à la Pipe: Portrait du Docteur Gachet, Evening,</i> etching, 1890. Sold Nov. 2 — $161,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Edward Ruscha, <i>Stains,</i> title page, one of 70, signed, 1969. Sold Nov. 9 — $112,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> John James Audubon, <i>Carolina Parrot, Plate 26,</i> hand colored aquatint, 1828. Sold Dec.9 — $137,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Edmund Dulac, <i>The Snow Queen,</i> watercolor, gouache, pen & ink, 1910. Sold Dec. 16 — $125,000.
  • <b>Il Ponte Casa d’Aste, Jan. 25:</b> DANTE ALIGHIERI (1265-1321). <i>Commedia.</i> Venezia: Vindelino da Spira, 1477. Estimate: € 40.000 - 60.000.
    <b>Il Ponte Casa d’Aste, Jan. 25:</b> DALI, Salvador (1908-1989) - William SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616). <i>Romeo e Giulietta.</i> Milan: Rizzoli, 1975. Estimate: € 25.000 - 35.000.
    <b>Il Ponte Casa d’Aste, Jan. 25:</b> MALVASIA, Cornelio; MONTANARI, Geminiano. <i>Ephemerides novissimae motuum coelestium.</i> Modena: Cassiani, 1662. Estimate: € 8.000 - 12.000.
    <b>Il Ponte Casa d’Aste, Jan. 25:</b> JANSSONIUS, Johannes. <i>Atlantis majoris quinta pars, Orbem maritimum [Novus Atlas, volume V: carte marittime].</i> Amsterdam: Janssonius, 1650. Estimate: € 12.000 - 18.000.

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