Statesman, Diplomat, U.S. Vice President
One hundred and fifty years ago, William Rufus DeVane King became the only
Alabamian elected to executive office of the United States and the nation's
only official to take the oath of office on foreign soil. He died less than
a month after his inauguration as vice president, but his life chronicle as
the first U.S. senator from south Alabama, ambassador to France and statesman
for over four decades records a distinguished legacy of service.
King, who was born in North Carolina in 1786 and attended the University at Chapel Hill, began his career as a lawyer. He served his native state as legislator and congressman, and in 1816, he became secretary of legation to the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the Court of Russia and the Two Sicilies. Returning to America the following year, he moved to Alabama before statehood in 1819. He settled on the Alabama River in Dallas County, built his plantation and helped expand a bustling river community he named "Selma." King was selected to help prepare the state constitution and was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served almost continuously for the next 34 years. In 1844, he became the ambassador to France. As a result of his diplomacy, the United States was able to annex Texas and resolve other territorial matters without European intervention. Returning to the senate in 1848, he was elected for a second time as president pro tempore. The last years of his political career placed him in the national forefront of westward expansion, sectionalism and slavery. A strong Unionist, King helped draft and win passage of the Compromise of 1850.
In 1852, King was elected vice president of the United States on the Democratic ticket with Franklin Pierce. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and advised to seek a healthy refuge in the warm climate of Cuba. There, by a special act of Congress, he was sworn into office on March 24, 1853. Realizing that death was imminent, he wished to return to Alabama. William Rufus King died at his beloved plantation, Chestnut Hill, on April 18, 1853.