William Rufus King

Today's post takes us beyond the borders of Montgomery County for the first time.  45 miles due west of Montgomery, down the Alabama River, you'll find the town of Selma.  In the 21st century, Selma is synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement, and in the future we'll definitely cover that section of the story.  For the purposes of this post, we're visiting Selma to learn about the highest political office holder who ever called Alabama home, Vice President William R. King.

William Rufus King (portrait courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History)

If we're judging strictly by resume, it's possible that no Vice President has ever been sworn in with more preparation to do the job, but tragically King never performed a single act in his new role.  Before we get to that, let's go back to the beginning.

King was born in North Carolina in 1786.  He came from a wealthy family, and they sent him to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1806, and began practicing law soon after in the town of Clinton.  A year later he was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons.  A few years after that he was named city solicitor for Wilmington, and a year after that he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  For two years he served as part of the U.S. diplomatic team in Russia and then in Naples.  When that appointment ended, King came back to the U.S. and decided to "head West".

In 1818, the Alabama Territory was the West, and King purchased a large tract of land on the Alabama River in Dallas County.  He named his plantation Chestnut Hill, and he eventually owned nearly 500 slaves, making him one of the largest slave-owners in the territory.  This freed King up to serve as a delegate to the Alabama State Convention, and the newly elected state legislature chose him as one of the original U.S. Senators for the state of Alabama.  King served as a Senator from 1819 to 1844, when President John Tyler named him Minister to France, where he worked for two years.  He was re-elected to the Senate in 1848.

The 1848 Whig presidential ticket of Zachary Taylor and Millard Filmore defeated the Democratic ticket of Lewis Cass and William Orlando Butler by around five percent of the vote, but then President Taylor died after a little more than a year in office.  President Fillmore waited until just a few months before the 1852 Whig Convention to commit to running for a second term, and his hesitation likely cost him the nomination.  He had a plurality of the votes, but not the required majority (sound familiar?), and after 51 ballots one of his largest voting blocs switched to back General Winfield Scott.  Scott and his running mate, William Alexander Graham, faced off against the Democratic ticket of Franklin Pierce and William Rufus King in the general election.  This is where it gets strange on a historic level.

King contracted tuberculosis, and at his doctor's advice traveled to Cuba to combat his symptoms.  He was elected Vice President, which led him to resign his Senate seat, in late 1852.  When the inauguration was set for March 4, 1853, King was still too sick to travel to Washington, D.C., so he missed it.  Congress had to pass a Special Act, which allowed him to take the oath of office outside of the country.  On March 24, 1853, William Rufus King was sworn in as Vice President of the United States in Matanzas, Cuba.  Eager to get to work, he made plans to journey to Washington after a stop off back in Dallas County.  He died a few days after returning to Chestnut Hill, Vice President in title but not in action.

King was initially buried near his home, but eventually he was moved to a crypt in nearby Selma's Live Oak Cemetery.  You can read the text of the historical marker honoring him in this quote or in the following photo.

William Rufus de Vane King

-1786-1853-

Native Sampson County, North Carolina. Admitted to bar, 1806. North Carolina House of Commons 1807-1809. U.S. Congressman 1811-1816. Secretary U.S. Legation Naples and St. Petersburg 1816-1818.

Moved to Dallas County, Alabama, 1818. A founder of Selma; named city. Delegate Alabama Constitutional Convention 1819. U.S. Senator 1819-1844, 1848-1853. U.S. Minister to France 1844-1846. President pro tempore U.S. Senate 1836-1840, 1850-1852. Vice President of United State, 1852.
— Alabama Historical Association, 1972

Historical marker for William Rufus King, Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, Alabama

The next two photos show his crypt, as well as view of the surrounding cemetery.

Crypt of William Rufus King, Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, Alabama

Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, AlabamaT

In addition to the historical marker in the Live Oak Cemetery in Selma, another marker was erected twenty years earlier in Matanzas, Cuba.  I wasn't able to find a photo of the marker, but I did find the text, quoted here.

William Rufus King

Vice Presidente De Los Estados Unidos De America

(1786-1853)

By authority of a special act of Congress, he took the oath of office as Vice-President of the United States at Matanzas, Cuba on March 24, 1853.

He came to this beautiful and hospitable land seeking health.

He died at his home in Dallas County, Alabama, April 18, 1853.

The people of Alabama are honored to join with the people of Cuba in commemorating this historical event which so closely ties our two republics together.
— Alabama Historical Association, Marzo 24 de 1953

Finally, I was able to find an old photo of the Prince Charley Oak, which was given to King by the Marquis de Lafayette during his 1825 visit to Alabama.  This was twenty years before King served as Minister to France, so I'm not sure if the gift was simply a result of King's status as a U.S. Senator, or whether their paths had crossed in some other way.  This is the first mention of Lafayette's visit on the site, but I assure you it won't be the last.

"Prince Charley Oak", gifted to King by Lafayette during his 1825 visit to Alabama (photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History, 1935)

Alabama has never had a President, and it has only technically had this one Vice President, but that means William Rufus King is still a pretty big deal.  

For our next post, we'll go back to the origins of Alabama Fever.