WASHINGTON, D.C. (WHNT) — The United States has never elected an Alabamian to the White House – but did you know that one man from the Heart of Dixie made it all the way to the vice presidency?
William Rufus DeVane King served as the 13th Vice President of the United States for just 45 days in 1853. His tenure lasted from his inauguration on March 4 to his untimely death as a result of tuberculosis on April 18. He was 67.
King is the only Alabamian ever elected to executive office in the United States; however, some of his history may have been forgotten due to his incredibly short time in that office.
He also happens to be the only executive official to take the oath of office on foreign soil.
News 19 broke down King’s story from humble beginnings to what some believe to be a romantic relationship with President James Buchanan, the man most historians rank as the worst commander-in-chief in American history.
The story begins…
The story of King’s life and legacy begins way before his short tenure as vice president. It begins in Sampson County, N.C. with his birth on April 7, 1786.
A 2003 article by Daniel Fate Brooks states King was born the second son of William and Margaret DeVane King, a pair of plantation owners.
The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress states King attended various private schools and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1803. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1806.
His political career began shortly after that.
A foray into politics
King’s first stint in public office came in 1808 when he was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons. He served for just one term before becoming Wilmington, N.C. city solicitor in 1810.
He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a congressman for North Carolina’s fifth congressional district in 1810, and served until 1816. He resigned early to take on the role of Secretary of Legation to William Pinckney, the Minister to the Court of Naples and Russia.
King returned to North Carolina the following year, but in 1818, he moved to the newly established Alabama Territory. The Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) reports he settled near the Alabama River in the area that would eventually become Dallas County.
It was this area where he built a plantation, with his home known as Chestnut Hill.
King found his way back to Congress as one of Alabama’s first two United States Senators, serving briefly alongside John Williams Walker, who resigned before his first term was up. For the next 34 years, King served in the Senate, aligning himself with Unionist factions and became a supporter of President Andrew Jackson.
He eventually became a leader in the Senate, securing the position of President pro tempore on two separate occasions.
His relationship with Buchanan
Before the word “homosexual” had even become regularly used, the label was already privately placed on King and his alleged lover, future President James Buchanan.
Biographer Jean H. Baker states in her novel on Buchanan that he and King had a “communion,” lived together and attended public functions as a pair. A novel by Judith S. Neaman and Carole G. Silver states Andrew Jackson referred to the pair as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy,” both euphemisms for effeminate men at that time.
According to a 2019 piece by The Advocate, their living arrangement raised eyebrows. However, the interview subject of the piece, A, was hesitant to label either man’s sexuality definitively.
Despite accusations, no material has produced concrete evidence that King and Buchanan were lovers.
It was a short tenure
Before being selected in 1852, King was shortlisted twice as a possible presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. First in 1838 and again in 1844.
The consideration in 1844 turned into an appointment as Minister to France. His responsibility there was to stop England and France from merging together to stop the United States from welcoming Texas into the union.
By 1852, King was the natural choice for vice president. Contemporaries consider him to be a moderate on issues like western expansion, slavery, and sectionalism — all of which helped contribute to the American Civil War.
In the year he was elected, King was called a “distinguished, long-tried, and ever-faithful senator” by the Alabama Democratic Convention. That notoriety earned him the distinction of becoming the first senator to win a major party’s nomination for the vice presidency. He joined the ticket with Franklin Pierce, who was elected America’s 14th president that fall.
King, however, proved to be ill for most of that successful campaign.
According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, King was diagnosed with tuberculosis and doctors encouraged him to leave D.C. for Cuba, which he did in January 1853. His condition became worse, and he, unfortunately, missed his own inauguration.
King was sworn in as vice president on March 4, 1853 by William Sharkey, a U.S. Consul in Cuba, thanks to a special act of Congress.
At that time, Sharkey wrote of King, “he is very feeble and thus would seem to be but little ground to hope for a recovery. He proposes to leave the island on the 6th of April.”
ADAH states, due to his health, King never formally served as vice president, despite being elected, and returned to his plantation in Alabama. He died at Chestnut Hill and was buried in his family cemetery.
The office of vice president remained vacant until 1857.
Vice President King’s legacy
King was the original namesake of Washington State’s King County. In the 1980s, that county’s “King” namesake was changed to honor Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The change was official on April 19, 2005.
The late vice president’s legacy is also stamped across Selma, a city he helped found.
King, along with a group of settlers, formed the Selma Town Land Company to help incorporate the city in 1820. According to selma-al.gov, since its inception, Selma has become a transportation center during the Civil War, a fixture in Alabama’s Black Belt region, and a historic marker in the Civil Rights movement.
After his burial in the family cemetery, King’s body was eventually moved to Live Oak Cemetery in Selma – the place where he still rests today.