MAGNOLIA — William Rufus DeVane King (1786-1853) is memorialized in many places, most notably in North Carolina in Clinton and Chapel Hill; and in Alabama in Selma. His influence was felt in the District of Columbia, the State of Washington, France and Russia.
One account reported that William Rufus King was said by his contemporaries to be a noble specimen of an American statesman and gentleman. Even so, there are few public documents existing on his life and service. One rumor circulated had it that King’s immediate relatives destroyed some of his correspondence after his death, in particular exchanges with James Buchanan, the 15th president of the U.S. (served 1857-1861).
King’s contemporaries included American presidents and vice presidents — as well as senators and representatives and other elected officials — and foreign dignitaries.
King himself stood “one heartbeat from the presidency.” Not once, but twice — once while president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate and once as vice president. He was the 13th U.S. vice president.
King was born in 1786 in Sampson County, one of eight children of William King and Margaret DeVane King, in a family described as large, wealthy and well-connected. In 1790, tax records listed William Rufus King’s father as owning 31 slaves, ranking him as the fifth largest slaveholder in Sampson County. King’s grandfather, a wealthy planter, lived in Cumberland County and owned over a thousand acres of land and numerous slaves. When William Rufus King was 21, his father gave him 600 acres of land.
A prominent statue of King sits within the Sampson County Courthouse Square in Clinton. Facing northwest towards Vance Street, sculpted by Karl Gruppe and dedicated in 1930, the monument’s bronze bust sits atop a granite base. It is said that, for many years, Captain Fitsburgh Whitfield, a Clinton attorney, pushed the idea of a memorial to King.
There’s a road named after him in Sampson County, between Clinton and Newton Grove. A roadside historical marker is at Monks Corner, at U.S. 701 and State Road 1845. When a series of articles was published by The Sampson Independent in the 1990s, King’s boyhood home was reported as still standing.
The road-naming did not come until about 1988, some 200 years after King’s death; the monument erection occurred in 1930.
A West Coast county was named after William Rufus King and a student residence complex was named after him at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One source says that a 1830 portrait of King is held at UNC-CH’s New East Hall in the Philanthropic Chambers by the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, the latter a debating society he joined during college.
Reportedly, the U.S. Senate displays a bust of King in its collection. He served two separate terms in the Senate, 1819-1844 and 1848-1852.
King’s relationship with Washington State and the city of Seattle has varying interpretations. A notable King biographer tells us that in 1852 the Oregon Territorial legislature named King County for him. King County later became part of Washington Territory, which was created in 1853, and which became a state in 1889. As a U.S. senator, King was instrumental in creating the two territories.
In 1986, King County amended its designation and its logo to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., instead of William Rufus DeVane King. The motion to change the historical basis for the name of King County noted that William R. King was a slaveowner and earned income and maintained his lifestyle by using slaves. The county’s action was reaffirmed in 2005 by the State of Washington. Reportedly, in Alabama, King and his relatives formed one of the largest slave-holding families in Alabama, collectively owning as many as 500.
As the Kingdome (1976-2000), Seattle, Washington’s baseball-football domed stadium, was built when King County was still named in honor of William R. King, the arena can be said to have been indirectly named after the vice president.
King was co-founder — and it was named by him — of Selma, Alabama. When he died, King was buried at his plantation, Chestnut Hill, near Selma, on the Alabama River, but in 1882 his remains were dis-interred and re-interred in the city of Selma’s Live Oak Cemetery, under a white marble mausoleum.
In addition to Sampson County, King’s early years were linked to Duplin and Cumberland counties.
King received his earliest education at Grove Academy in Duplin County and at Fayetteville Academy in Cumberland County. A biographer describes Grove Academy as having been chartered in 1785 in the first attempt ever made to provide a school in that part of the state. A promoter of the school wrote in 1786 that it had been placed in the heart of a Presbyterian settlement. (As an adult, King, like his father, adopted the Episcopal faith.)
Grove Academy offered instruction to students from all over North Carolina, including instruction in Greek and Latin and the sciences. From the academies, King transferred to the Preparatory School of the University of North Carolina, set up at Chapel Hill in 1795.
King graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1803 and was admitted to the bar in 1806 after reading the law with Judge William Duffy of Fayetteville, and began practice in Clinton. King was a Freemason, and was a member of Fayetteville’s Phoenix Lodge No. 8.
King’s entry into politics was as a member of the North Carolina House of Commons (1807-1809) then he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Sampson County, serving from 1811 to 1816. He resigned to become Secretary of the Legation for William Pinkney during Pinkney’s appointments as Minister to Russia and special diplomatic mission in Naples.
During his years as a member of the House of Commons, and later, King showed his support of a strict construction of the Constitution, as was his father. Some biographies list his political party affiliations as Democrat, Democratic Republican, Jackson Republican and Jacksonian.
Some colleagues presented William Rufus King as a statesman who clearly understood the nature of American government and the Constitution, was a States’ Rights man but did not love the Union less because he loved Alabama more.
Others compared him to his more illustrious colleague, and intimate friend, John C. Calhoun, contending that he battled for the rights of his state in order to secure harmony between federal and state power.
When he returned from Europe to the United States in 1818, King became part of the westward migration of the cotton culture to the Deep South. He purchased property in the new Alabama Territory on the Alabama River. He developed a large cotton plantation based on slave labor, calling his property Chestnut Hill. It was reported that King and his relatives formed one of the largest slave-holding families, once owning as many as 500 slaves.
When he left Sampson County for Alabama Territory, King was accompanied by his three brothers, four living sisters, moth and grandmother deVane.
King was a delegate to the convention which organized the Alabama state government and when Alabama was admitted to the Union as the twenty-second state in 1819 he was elected by the State Legislature as a Democratic Republican to the U.S. Senate. At the party’s 1824 national convention he received a vote for president. He was re-elected several times as a Jacksonian until 1844, when he resigned, to become Minister to France. He returned to the Senate in 1846, and held a seat until December 29, 1852, after having been elected vice president.
In 1850, two days after the death of President Zachary Taylor, King was appointed Senate President pro tempore. Because Vice President Millard Fillmore ascended to the presidency, the vice presidency was vacant, making King the first in line of succession to the presidency, under the law then in effect.
The 1852 Democratic National Convention held in Baltimore nominated Franklin Pierce for president, and King for vice for president. In the general election they defeated Whig candidates Winfield Scott and William Alexander Graham.
Kine never presided over the Senate, a duty of a vice president, and served only about six weeks. By a special act of Congress, he took the oath of office on March 24, 1853, 20 days after he became Vice President, on a farm known as Adriana, near Matanzas, Cuba, where he had gone because of terminal tuberculosis. He went back to his home in Alabama two days before his death, on April 18, 1853.
King was the first and only person ever sworn into office as vice president of the United States on foreign soil.
With the exceptions of John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, both of whom succeeded to the Presidency, King is the shortest-serving vice president.
He was the third vice president to die in office.
King may have been homosexual, asexual or celibate. He and James Buchanan (1791-1868) lived together in a Washington boardinghouse for 10 years until King’s departure for France in 1844, to serve as ambassador. The two often attended social functions together. Reportedly they planned to run as president and vice president in 1844.
Some of the material for those 1990s Sampson Independent stories came from the writings of Henry Poellnitz Johnston, Sr., author of William R. King and his Kin, and from speeches (copy provided courtesy of Betsy DeVane) given by Johnston at a meeting of the Alabama Historical Association in 1980 and at a 1977 DeVane Family Reunion in southern Sampson County.
(Family lore has it that the DeVane property was originally a 1735 land grant from the King of England, a tract located between Kerr and Tomahawk, in Sampson County.)
This 2018 story borrows from those 1990s stories and from Internet sketches.
New material for this story comes from what may be the most voluminous and extensively researched work on William Rufus DeVane King. It is available courtesy of the late and esteemed Sampson County historian Oscar Bizzell. Several years before his death he provided the author with a 435-page double-spaced typed manuscript titled William Rufus King, Moderate Champion of Southern Rights, by John M. Martin. A letter from Martin to Bizzell dated January 28, 1988 notes that the manuscript had not been yet published.
At the time of his letter to Bizzell, Martin was professor of history at West Georgia College, Carrrollton, Georgia. In that letter to Bizzell, Martin wrote that the University of Alabama press would likely publish his manuscript. Although portions of the manuscript can be found online — as part of a Phd dissertation by Martin — no credible information was found by this author indicating that the manuscript was published as a book, under Martin’s original title.
Martin notes that King left few personal manuscripts and, even after much research through public documents and newspapers, there are many unanswered questions related to King’s political career and the almost total absence of a sustained description of his personal life.
King was first buried in a vault on his Chestnutt Hill plantation, then in 1883 the remains were removed and re-interred in Selma’s Live Oak Cemetery, under an elaborate white marble mausoleum erected by the city.
Even King’s reburial may be the victim of the sparsity of information regarding his life, causing rumors to spring up — one source claims there are different versions of how his body was taken from his plantation and re-interred.
However, this same source is in error about the name of King’s plantation. It states it was called King’s Bend, while others say it was named Chestnutt Hill.
L. E. Brown, Jr. is based in Magnolia. Contact him at [email protected] or leave a message at The Sampson Independent. This story is copyrighted and it is not permissable to reuse without the writer’s permission.