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Who is William Rufus King?
Daniel F. Brooks, Birmingham
Correlates to the Alabama Course of Study 10th Grade Content Standard 9, p. 73

William Rufus DeVane King holds the distinction of being the only Alabamian to be elected to executive office of the United States and the only official to take the oath of office on foreign soil. King was born in 1786 to a prominent North Carolina planter. He received his education from local academies and at the University of North Carolina, where he developed an interest in law. In 1808 he was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons. Two years later, King was elected to Congress, where he aligned himself with John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and the cause of the War Hawks. He supported the Madison administration and the use of tariffs to promote American manufacturing, and he favored involvement in the War of 1812. In 1816 King resigned his congressional seat to become Secretary of Legation to William Pinckney of Maryland, the newly appointed Minister to the Court of Naples and the Court of Russia. During his stay in Europe, he gained important diplomatic experience.

photo of William Rufus King

King returned to North Carolina in 1817, but in 1818 moved to the newly opened Alabama Territory, settling near the Alabama River in what would become Dallas County. There in the rich Black Belt, he owned a large plantation, built his home, Chestnut Hill, and was instrumental in founding the city of Selma. When Alabama became a state in 1819, King was chosen as one of Alabama's first United States senators. During the next thirty-four years, he served almost continuously in the Senate.

In most cases, King, a Democrat, was a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson and was a loyal Unionist throughout his career. During the Democratic Convention in 1832, he proposed a rule that provided for a two-thirds vote to nominate a candidate. This rule was used by the party until its repeal in 1936. King was considered a likely Democratic candidate for Vice-President in 1838 and again in 1844. However, by April of 1844, President John Tyler had appointed him as Minister to France and assigned him the responsibility of preventing France and England from combining against the annexation of Texas by the United States.

Sectional controversy, the problems of slavery, and westward expansion dominated King's last years as a statesman. Throughout many bitter debates, he remained a moderate who always looked for compromise. When California sought admission to the Union, King served on a select committee who drafted the Compromise of 1850. In January of 1852, the Alabama Democratic Convention endorsed King for Vice President by calling him, "the distinguished, long tried, and ever faithful senator." At the national convention the following June, he was selected as nominee for Vice President to run with presidential candidate Franklin Pierce—a ticket that would prove victorious.

King was pleased with his nomination but his health was failing. Throughout the campaign he had been ill. His doctors diagnosed him with tuberculosis and encouraged him to leave Washington and rest in the warm climate of Cuba, which he did in January of 1853. Unfortunately, his condition worsened and it became apparent he would be unable to return to Washington for the inauguration. By a special act of Congress, King was allowed to take the oath as Vice President in Cuba. After the inauguration, his health declined even more and he knew he would never formally serve as Vice President. King wanted to go home to his plantation in Alabama. On April 19, 1853, King died at Chestnut Hill, and was buried in the family cemetery on the plantation. His body was later moved to Live Oak cemetery in Selma.