Thursday, April 18, 2013

William R. King, born April 7, 1785

William Rufus DeVane King was born in Sampson County, North Carolina, the second son of William King and Margaret DeVane.  His family was large, wealthy and well-connected. His father, a wealthy planter and justice of the peace, had fought in the Revolutionary War, served as a delegate in the state convention called to ratify the U.S. Constitution, and was an occasional member of the North Carolina state assembly. At the time of his son's birth, he owned more than two dozen slaves. 

William studied at local academies and at the University of North Carolina Preparatory School, a facility established in 1795.  He entered the University of North Carolina in the summer of 1801 and proved to be a capable student, but he left that institution in 1803 at the end of his junior year.  Following a period of legal training with Fayetteville's William Duffy—one of the state's leading lawyers—he gained admission to the North Carolina bar in 1805. 

He died 8 years before the Civil War began.

North Carolina
Admitted to the bar in 1806 after reading the law with an established firm, he began practice in  Clinton, North Carolina. 

King was a prominent Freemason; he joined in 1807, and was a member of Phoenix Lodge No. 8, A.F. & A.M., Fayetteville, North Carolina.

King entered politics and was elected as a member of the North Carolina House of Commons from 1807 to 1809.  He was city solicitor of Wilmington, North Carolina in 1810. 

Henry Clay
He was elected to the Twelfth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Congresses, serving from March 4, 1811 until November 4, 1816.  There he joined with House Speaker Henry Clay, also a freshman member, John Calhoun, and other "warhawks" of the Congress in a determined and successful campaign to initiate hostilities with Great Britain.

In 1816, King was appointed as Legation Secretary to William Pinkney, who had been appointed U.S. Minister to Russia, living in St. Petersburg.  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.

When he returned to the United States in 1818, King joined the westward migration to the Deep South, purchasing property at what would later be known as King's Bend on the  Alabama River in Dallas County, Alabama.  He developed a large cotton plantation based on slave labor, calling the property Chestnut Hill.   King and his relatives together formed one of the largest slaveholding families in the state, collectively owning as many as 500 slaves.

Chestnut Hill
In 1820, King was a co-founder of Selma, a town on the Alabama River.  He named the town after the Ossianic poem The Songs of Selma. 

King was a delegate to the convention which organized the Alabama state government. Upon the admission of Alabama as a State in 1819, he was elected by the legislature to the United States Senate.  He was reelected in 1822, 1828, 1834, and 1841, serving from December 14, 1819, until April 15, 1844, when he resigned. 

King was close friends with James Buchanan, and the two shared a house in Washington, D.C.  for 15 years during their Congressional tenures. King and Buchanan—both lifelong bachelors—became known as the "Siamese twins."  After King left for France, in 1844 Buchanan wrote: 
I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.
James Buchanan
King was appointed as Minister to France from 1844 to 1846. 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.

From Paris, King kept actively in touch with national and Alabama political developments. In April 1846, he wrote his friend James Buchanan, now his boss as secretary of state, "Most sincerely do I wish that we had both remained in the Senate."  King therefore decided to run for his old Senate seat, then occupied by political rival and fellow Democrat Dixon H. Lewis. Desiring to return in time to influence the Alabama legislature's election, he left for the United States in November 1846. 

On July 1, 1848, the Alabama governor appointed King to fill the eight months remaining in previous senator's term. Later that year, in a close race with his nemesis Arthur Hopkins, King won a full term.; he began serving on July 1, 1848.

Arthur Hopkins
During the conflicts leading up to the Compromise of 1850, King supported the Senate's gag rule against debate on antislavery petitions.  He opposed proposals to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.  King supported a conservative, pro-slavery position, arguing that the Constitution protected the institution of slavery in both the Southern states and the federal territories. He opposed both the abolitionists' efforts to abolish slavery in the territories as well as the Fire-Eaters' calls for Southern secession.

As the regional positions hardened in the tumultuous early months of 1850, King lamented the "banefull spirit of party" that in dividing the South encouraged northern extremists. In April, King's seniority and moderate views earned him a place as one of two southern Democratic representatives on the Senate's Select Committee of Thirteen, appointed to review Henry Clay's compromise resolutions regarding territories and slavery. With a majority of the committee's members, he agreed that slavery was a "rightful" subject for legislative attention, but only in the legislatures of states and not of territories. Thus, King took the view of southern conservatives that the Constitution protected owners in their control of slave property until a territory became a state. At home, he met bitter opposition from a faction of "Southern Rights" secessionists who argued that his voting record better reflected the interests of Massachusetts, but an equally large group of supporters praised his support for compromise, union, and peace. He counseled patience, optimistically expecting the North to respect southern rights, but warning that if that section's actions jeopardized those rights—both constitutional and material—all southern men should "hurl defiance at the fanatical crew, and unitedly determine to defend their rights at every hazard and every sacrifice."

King was elected Vice President of the United States on the Democratic ticket with Franklin Pierce in 1852.  King served in the Senate until resigning on December 20, 1852, due to poor health (he was found to have  tuberculosis). 
Franklin Pierce
On January 17, 1853, King left for the warm climate of Cuba, by way of Key West, Florida; he reached Havana in early February. He stayed at La Ariadne plantation, owned by John Chartrand in Matanzas.  

Soon realizing that he would be unable to return to Washington in time for the March 4, 1853, inauguration, King requested that Congress permit him to take his oath in Cuba.  Congress passed a special act to enable this in recognition of his long and distinguished service to the government of the United States.  On March 24, twenty days after he became vice president, King, too feeble to stand unaided, became the nation's thirteenth vice president. 

Deciding that he would return to the United States, King set sail for Mobile on April 6.  He reached his Chestnut Hill plantation on April 17, but the sixty-seven-year-old King died there the following day. 

He was interred in a vault on the plantation.  

Selma city officials and some of King's family wanted to move his body to Selma. Other family members wanted his body to remain at Chestnut Hill. In 1882, the Selma City Council appointed a committee to select a new plot for King's body. 

After 29 years, his remains were removed from his plantation and buried in the city's Live Oak Cemetery under an elaborate white marble mausoleum erected by the city.

King Mausoleum

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