Sunday, April 5, 2009

April 7: “…the Vice President of the United States has passed from the scenes of earth.”

Do you know who this is?
-He was the thirteenth Vice President of the United States.
-He was a bachelor.
-He is the only national-level politician to take the oath of office outside of the borders of the United States.

The Declaration of Independence was a decade old when he was born, and the new Constitution had yet to be written. He was thought by many to be the potentially most capable Vice President of the 19th century – but death robbed the nation of his services during a critical era of our history.

William Rufus de Vane King was born in Sampson County, North Carolina, on April 7, 1786. His parents were prominent North Carolina planters, William and Margaret King.

He attended private schools, and would graduate from the University of North Carolina in 1803, then studied and was admitted to the bar in 1806, setting up a law practice in Clinton, North Carolina.

Government service appealed to William. He served as a member of the North Carolina House of Commons from 1807 to 1809, and was the city solicitor of Wilmington in 1810. He would serve as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the Twelfth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Congresses from March 4, 1811 to November 4,1816. In Congress he was an ally of John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and the cause of the War Hawks. He also was a supporter of President Madison, and believed in the use of tariffs to promote American manufacturing, and he was in favor of becoming involved in the War of 1812, hoping to expand American interests. He resigned from the Congress in 1816 to enter the Foreign Service as a Secretary of Legation at the Court of Naples and later at the Court of Russia in St. Petersburg. During this time he gained important diplomatic experience. He would use that experience in 1844 when he was appointed as Minister to France by President Tyler and charged with the mission to keep Britain and France from opposing the annexation of Texas by the United States.

William would return to North Carolina in 1818, then relocated to Alabama Territory the same year. He would settle near the Alabama River in what later became Dallas County. He owned a large plantation, and built a home which he titled ‘Chestnut Hill’. He was also instrumental in founding the city of Selma.

When Alabama became a state in 1819, William was chosen as one of Alabama’s first U.S. Senators, and would serve almost continuously in the Senate during the next thirty-four years, from 1819 – 1844, then again from 1848 to 1852. He would serve as President Pro-Tem of the Senate from 1850 – 1852.

William was a Democrat, and ordinarily a Unionist – a difficult position for a Southerner as the nation moved toward secession in 1860 - 1861. He was considered a potential Vice Presidential candidate in 1838, and again in 1844, finally receiving the nomination in 1852.

He was still a member of the Senate when he was nominated as a running-mate for Franklin Pierce in 1852, becoming the first sitting Senator to be nominated for Vice President. William was suffering from tuberculosis and alcoholism at the time of his nomination, and decided to go to Havana, Cuba to try and recover. He believed the warm climate of Cuba would be much more conducive to his recovery than the cold winters of Washington DC.

However, by the time of the inauguration, he was too weak to travel to Washington, or even to stand up. He became the only U.S. politician on the national level to be sworn in on foreign soil, receiving the oath of Vice President on March 24, 1853. The privilege of taking the oath of office on foreign soil was granted by a special act of Congress, recognizing his long and distinguished service to the government of the United States.

“The ceremony, although simple, was very sad and impressive, and will never be forgotten by any who were present. To see an old man, on the very verge of the grave, clothed with honors which he cared not for, and invested with authority which he could never exercise, was truly touching. It was only by persuasion that Mr. King would go through with the ceremony, as he looked on it as an idle form, for he said he was conscious he would not live many weeks.”
—National Intelligencer, April 8, 1853
In honor of his inauguration, the newly formed Washington Territory named King County after him. Officially speaking, however, King County, Washington, is no longer named for the 13th Vice President of the United States. In 1986, someone at the King County Council noticed that William R. King had done disagreeable things by modern standards, especially owning slaves. So the council passed a resolution redesignating the county in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. In 2005, the Washington legislature passed a bill, and the governor signed it, to affirm the new choice of honoree for the county.

A month after taking the oath as Vice President, William – a life-long bachelor - returned to his beloved Chestnut Hill home at his Kings Bend plantation in Alabama, where he died two days after his return. He was originally buried on his plantation, but in 1882 his body was reinterred in Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, Alabama – where he was recognized as one of the founding fathers of that city.

President Pierce wrote on December 5, 1853:

“Since the adjournment of Congress, the Vice President of the United States has passed from the scenes of earth, without having entered upon the duties of the station to which he had been called by the voice of his countrymen. Having occupied, almost continuously, for more than thirty years, a seat in one or the other of the two Houses of Congress, and having by his singular purity and wisdom, secured unbounded confidence and universal respect, his failing health was watched by the nation with painful solicitude. His loss to the country, under all circumstances, has been justly regarded as irreparable.”

There are no biographies about William R. King at our local library.


Alabama Moments
Dead presidents blog
Find A Grave
Obituary Google Books
U.S. Congress Biography Guide
U.S. Senate

01. Dageurrotype of King: Library of Congress, digital ID cph.3c09926
02. Sculpted bust of King: U.S. Senate Building, by William C. McCauslen
03. Portrait,: Obituary Addresses on the Occasion of the Death of the Hon. William R. King
04. Gravesite, Arthur Koykka

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