Politician, statesman, and U.S. vice president William Rufus King (1786-1853) was a complex figure who lived during a tumultuous period in Alabama and U.S. history. He served in the U.S. Senate for more than 30 years and was a loyal Unionist and a moderate on most issues. King was elected vice president on the ticket with Franklin Pierce, but he died soon after. He holds the distinction of being the only member of the U.S. executive branch to have been sworn into office on foreign soil.
William Rufus King was born on April 7, 1786, to William and Margaret DeVane King on the family plantation in Sampson County, North Carolina. King was educated in private schools and entered the University of North Carolina in 1801, where he joined the Philanthropic Society, an important literary student association. In 1804, King left the university before completing his education to pursue the study of law. He spent the next several years under the tutelage of prominent attorney William Duffy in his Fayetteville law offices. In addition to training in the law, Duffy also worked with King to develop his political skills. In 1808, King opened his own law office in the Clinton, in Samson County. Soon after, he won election to a seat in the North Carolina House of Commons. In 1811, he was elected to the first of three consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he established himself as a supporter of President James Madison. He was also a firm advocate of the War of 1812.
In 1816, at the age of 30, King was able to realize his lifelong dream of traveling outside the United States when he was appointed to the staff of William Pinckney, the new U.S. minister to Russia and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (which included Sicily and much of southern Italy). During his time in Europe and Russia, King wrote extensively of his experiences and developed considerable diplomatic and political skills. When his position ended, King traveled through Europe and then in late 1817 returned to North Carolina.
During this time, the Alabama and Mississippi territories were experiencing a land rush, as eastern settlers moved west in search of good farm land. King's older brother, Thomas DeVane King, had already established a plantation on the Black Warrior River in present-day Tuscaloosa County, and he urged William to follow suit. In early 1818, King purchased land on the Alabama River in Dallas County and established a plantation he named Chestnut Hill. King became a leader in the community that grew up in the area, which he named Selma after a city in a favorite poem.
When Alabama became a state in 1819, King's popularity in Dallas County earned him a place among the group of men selected to draft the state's constitution. He was also elected to the U.S. Senate, where he was described by peers as an able legislator and impressive speaker. King was re-elected to serve four consecutive terms and earned a solid reputation as a moderate, pro-business Jacksonian Democrat.
During the early 1830s, King was involved in an incident that reflects speculation about his sexual orientation that continues to the present day. King was challenged to a duel, never carried out, with Dallas County planter Major Michael Kenan about a personal insult. Rumors also circulated in Washington, D.C., at the time, and they increased after King entered into a close friendship with fellow senator James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. Neither man ever married, and by 1836 they were sharing a residence in Washington. Any negative reactions to their relationship appear to have had little effect, and the men continued with their living arrangements and their work as legislators. As the 1840 Democratic Convention drew near, Democratic newspapers in Alabama began to promote King as a running mate for incumbent President Martin Van Buren. King received little support outside of Alabama, even in his home state of North Carolina, and he soon withdrew his name. Richard Mentor Johnson was again chosen as Van Buren's running mate, but their ticket was defeated by that of Whig William Henry Harrison and Democrat John Tyler. When the 1844 presidential election approached, some Democratic Party members suggested a Buchanan-King ticket, but the pairing gained little traction. The nomination instead went to James K. Polk and George M. Dallas.
In 1844, tensions over the status of the territory of Texas had strained relations between the United States and France. Fearing that France might join forces with Great Britain in thwarting U.S. interests in Texas, President John Tyler appointed the erudite and politically skilled King as minister to France. King, along with his niece, Catherine Ellis, two nephews, and a servant traveled to France and met with King Louis Philippe. King skillfully negotiated the politics of the French court and entertained the monarch and other important figures at lavish events, eventually gaining the king's promise to remain neutral in the Texas issue. Having successfully completed his mission, King returned to Washington with his family members in 1846 and began a campaign for his return to the Senate. In 1847, he ran against ardent states' rights supporter Dixon Hall Lewis. The men shared largely equal support, and the Alabama legislature was evenly divided in its support of the candidates, but Lewis ultimately won the seat.
Despite his defeat, King maintained support in Alabama, and he was appointed senator by Governor Reuben Chapman when Arthur Bagby was appointed minister to Russia in 1848. King was re-elected to a full term in 1849 and became president pro tempore of the Senate in 1850. Ever the moderate, King tried in vain to calm the rising tensions over slavery and sectionalism and was a member of the committee that drafted the Compromise of 1850. In acknowledgement of his efforts and considerable political skills, Alabama Democrats again lobbied for his nomination as vice president in the 1852 election. This time, he received support from the national party and led the field of candidates as Buchanan worked to defeat his three rivals for the presidential nomination. In the end, the party nominated New Hampshire veteran General Franklin Pierce, with King as his running mate.
During the subsequent campaign, King became increasingly ill, showing the signs of worsening tuberculosis. He continued to campaign tirelessly for a Democratic victory, which he believed essential to keep the country united. Although the ticket was victorious, King was forced to leave Washington, D.C., soon after the general election, taking his physician's advice to seek a warmer climate. In late 1852, he resigned from the Senate and set sail for Havana, Cuba. He settled at Ariadne, the home of Colonel John Chartrand set on a large sugar plantation outside the town of Limonar. Despite the improved climate, King's health continued to deteriorate. The U.S. Congress was thus forced to pass special legislation and make arrangements for King's swearing-in as vice president in Cuba on the grounds of the plantation. As King's condition worsened, he decided that he would prefer to die at his home at Chestnut Hill and left Cuba in early April. King arrived at his home on April 17, 1853, and died the following evening. He was buried in Live Oak Cemetery in Selma.
King was a popular and striking figure, and his likeness was captured by a number of artists. Two of the finest portraits
of him can be found in Selma at the Selma-Dallas County Public Library and the Vaughn-Smitherman Museum. King's home, Chestnut
Hill, burned in the 1920s.
Brooks, Daniel Fate. "The Faces of William Rufus King." Alabama Heritage 69 (Summer 2003): 14-23.
Daniel Fate Brooks
Published December 10, 2008
Last updated May 23, 2011