I found this recent piece by Jim Loewen in Salon to be quite thought-provoking. Loewen’s main conceit is that James Buchanan (1791-1868), president of the United States from 1857 to 1861, was gay, and that a lot of people in his own time knew this, and didn’t care. I don’t think the author provides nearly enough evidence for that conclusion, but he does go on to ask an interesting question about why our first instinct is to angrily assume that’s impossible. Why do we always unthinkably assume everyone in the past was more intolerant than we are in the present? Why does this have to be true to satisfy our assumptions about the modern world?
I’ve been reading about the poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) lately, another man from the same era who was quite openly gay. He even wrote quite explicit poems about same-sex love. And it was controversial with some people, but by no means defined the man’s reputation, which was of course that of one of the most beloved literary celebrities of the mid-19th century. According to contemporary narrative, this is hard to accept. Logically, Whitman should have been extremely persecuted and marginalized, just as we assume a gay politician would have been.
Loewen argues that American history is better understood by embracing the idea that only the years “between 1890 and about 1940” were uniquely regressive on a whole host of racial, sexual, and religious issues — a “nadir” of tolerance in the United States — and it’s from this nadir that we get our contemporary cliches about how awful the past used to be.
It seems like a useful theory that can be used to explain a lot.