Rufus King was born on March 24, 1755, at Scarboro, Massachusetts. After Maine achieved statehood in 1820, King’s hometown became Scarborough, Maine. He was the eldest son. His parents were Richard King and Sabilla Blagden King, and his father was a prosperous farmer-merchant. His father – who had fought in the French and Indian War in the successful assault on the French Fortress at Louisbourg, Canada, was a staunch Loyalist. He supported the unpopular Stamp Act – and had his home ransacked by local Sons of Liberty in 1766. In 1774 a force of local militia visited the King home, demanding the elder King recant publically his support for the Crown. The elder King died soon after, and his death instilled in his son a true passion for law and order – and a society controlled by rational men.
He received an elementary education at local schools, and at the age of 12 received a classical education at Dummer Academy in South Byfield, Massachusetts. In 1777 he would graduate from Harvard.
During the American Revolution, King would serve briefly in the Massachusetts militia as an aide to Brigadier General John Glover – whose Massachusetts “Marbleheaders” had ferried Washington and his troops across the Delaware to the Battle of Trenton two years earlier. King would serve as a Major in the militia, and participated in the siege of Newport, Rhode Island.
While his military career was short-lived, it did broaden King’s political horizons. Instead of viewing the war and the world from simply a New England perspective, his view was now more encompassing and national in outlook. It also illustrated to King the need for a strong central government that could protect interstate commerce to help the nation grow.
After his experiences in the military, he decided to pursue a legal career – studying under noted lawyer and legal philosopher, Theophilus Parsons – and entered the legal practice in 1780 in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
King had an oratorical gift, and a personal presence and bearing that soon led him into a political career. He was a member of the Massachusetts legislature from 1783 to 1785, and was sent to the Continental Congress from 1784 to 1786. He gained a reputation in the Continental Congress both as a brilliant speaker and an early opponent of the institution of slavery.
He married Mary Alsop, the daughter of a wealthy New York merchant, on March 30, 1786 during the close of his tour in the Continental Congress. She was described at the time as a great beauty, and between her appearance and her father’s prestige, she found herself a much sought-after lady of society.
“her face was oval, with finely formed nose, mouth, and chin, blue eyes, a clear brunette complexion, black hair, and fine teeth. Her movements were at once graceful and gracious, and her voice musical”King performed his final duties to his home state of Massachusetts by representing her at the Constitutional Convention. King was – at the age of 32 – one of the youngest of the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention – but was also one of the most capable orators there. He attended every session, and became – along with James Madison – one of the leading figures in promoting a true national concept of government. He took numerous notes during the proceedings – which have been studied and analyzed by historians since then.
After these duties were discharged in 1789, he moved permanently to New York to pursue his legal and political career.
In New York he was elected to the state legislature in 1789 and, just prior to the opening of the state’s legislative session, was appointed to the U.S. Senate as one of New York’s first Senators. King represented New York as a U.S. Senator for two terms.
During that time he was one of the Senate’s Federalist leaders and demonstrated a keen and insightful understanding of military issues. He became one of the key proponents for the permanent establishment of a U.S. Navy. He also supported Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal program, as well as being a strong proponent of the unpopular Jay’s Treaty. In 1791 he also became one of the directors of the First Bank of the United States.
King declined President Washington’s offer of a Cabinet post, but after his reappointment as Senator in 1796 did accept the offer to become the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. He would hold this position during the administration of three Presidents, and was a key figure in Britain during a difficult time of relationships between the two countries. He was instrumental in negotiating a settlement of Revolutionary War issues with the British, as well as initiating discussions on European interests in Latin America that would ultimately be expressed in the Monroe Doctrine.
King returned to the United States in 1803 – returning to his career in politics. In 1804 and 1808 he was the Federalist Vice Presidential candidate – with fellow Constitution signer Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as the Presidential candidate. He was defeated. He would run as the Federalist candidate for President in 1816 – losing to another signer of the Constitution, James Madison.
In 1805 he purchased a farm on Long Island and built a home there known as King Manor, which is a museum today. He enjoyed the peace – as well as the occasional political discussions with guests invited to dinner – during his years out of political office.
He was reappointed to the U.S. Senate by New York, where he served from 1813 – 1825. An early critic of the War of 1812, he changed his view after the British burned Washington, D.C. in 1814, because he became convinced that the U.S. was fighting a defensive war. He lent his considerable support to the war effort during the final part of the conflict.
In 1820 King expressed his views on slavery by denouncing the Missouri Compromise. In 1817 he had voted to end the slave trade. Now, three years later, he believed that there should be no compromise on the issue of slavery, but that the issue must be settled immediately and forever by the establishment of a system of compensated emancipation and resettlement of the former slaves in a colony in Africa.
King retired from the Senate n 1825 because of ill health. However, his country called on his services again in the form of President John Quincy Adams, who persuaded him to once again be the U.S. Minister to Great Britain. However, illness forced him to resign from that task a year later, and on , 1827, he died at the age of 72.
He was buried near his beloved King Manor in the cemetery of Grace Episcopal Church, Jamaica, Long Island, New York.
King was a realist, and therefore willing to change his views when the practical outweighed the philosophical. His changing view from sectional to national politics; increased power of a central government; and his dealing with Great Britain allowed him to serve his country faithfully, honorably and well.
National Archives: America’s Founding Fathers
National Park Service
Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution
Oil Portrait of Rufus King by Charles Wilson Peale: Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution
Portrait of Mary Alsop King: Women of the Republican Court
Portrait of King: Public Domain blog
King Manor: King Manor Museum
Rufus King grave: Find A Grave