Trivial Pursuit?<br>Collecting Vice-President William R. King

- by Michael Stillman

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His mission completed, King returned to the states and tried to regain his old seat in the senate. In a three-way contest, King was unsuccessful, the only loss of his electoral career. However, it was only a few months later that Alabama’s other senate seat became vacant and King was appointed to complete the term. He ran for a full term later in 1848 and was again victorious. And, once again, King’s name would be raised as a possible vice-presidential nominee, finishing third in the balloting at the Democratic convention of 1848.

The senate to which King returned was a more rancorous body than the one he left. The Mexican War resulted in new territories, which in turn reignited the slavery-antislavery issue. Ultimately, there was no resolution short of war, but as the first half of the nineteenth century drew to a close, Congress was still trying. With California now petitioning to join the Union as a free state, and the South vehemently opposed, the new term would see the Compromise of 1850. While this too would be primarily the work of the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay, King, as a southern moderate, would also play a role in its adoption. While the Compromise of 1850 was a bundle of laws, its most notable features were that it allowed California to enter the nation as a free state while, in exchange for southern support, it strengthened the fugitive slave laws. This delayed a split for the moment, but the fugitive slave provisions requiring free states to enforce slaveholders’ rights within their boundaries exacerbated the divisions between north and south. This was a compromise that sowed division, not harmony.

It is a mark of how his colleagues respected King that in the midst of these divisive times, when the death of President Zachary Taylor elevated Millard Fillmore from the vice-presidency and its responsibility for presiding over the senate, William King was again elected President Pro Tem. And, in a break with tradition, only King was nominated for the post and was elected unanimously. In a time when there were few things senators from different parties, factions, and regions could agree upon, the choice of King as their leader was a rare exception.

King’s role in effecting his nation’s history was now coming to an end, although he was still to reach his highest office. The great leaders of the senate from the first half of the century would quickly disappear. Calhoun died in 1850, Clay and Daniel Webster in 1852. It would also be 1852 in which King would achieve his highest office, but also contract the disease which would end his life.

1852 would bring a restoration of King’s Democratic party to the presidency, as the Whigs disintegrated from internal conflicts. With New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce to be the presidential nominee, the party wanted a southerner to balance the ticket. King, the popular Alabama moderate, was the ideal choice. Finally, his ambitions for a vice-presidential nomination were realized, and Pierce and King cruised to an easy victory in the election of 1852.