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

- by Michael Stillman

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William Rufus King was born in Sampson County, North Carolina, in 1786. By 1808, he was already serving in the North Carolina legislature. His turn to politics is not surprising. His father had been a legislator, justice of the peace, and served in the North Carolina state convention which ratified the Constitution. His father was also a slaveholder.

King was elected to Congress from North Carolina in 1810. He was a Jefferson Republican (the party would later be known as the Democratic). Among his freshman class was John Calhoun and Henry Clay, the latter whom he would challenge to a duel three decades later. At this time, all were “warhawks,” favoring expansion and war with England. They got their way in 1812. However, King would resign from the House at war’s end to join William Pinckney, who had been appointed minister to Russia. In 1818, King returned, but rather than go back to North Carolina, he decided to settle in the Alabama territory. He purchased land outside of Cahaba, and was one of the founders of Selma. Ironically for this voice for moderation, Selma, more than a century later, would become one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the civil rights movement.

King was soon back in politics in his new home. He was chosen to serve at the convention which wrote Alabama’s constitution, and in 1819, was selected as one of that state’s first two senators. Except for a stint as minister to France in the 1840s, he would continue in that post until ill health forced him to resign in 1852.

King’s return to Washington came at the height of the “Era of Good Feeling.” There was a minor bump in the road in the form of debates concerning the addition of slave vs. non-slave states, but this would be resolved for the time being by the Missouri Compromise. The Era would come to an end after the disputed election of 1824, which saw Quincy Adams chosen over the vote leader, General Jackson. King would be one of the leading Jacksonian Democrats, and they would get their revenge in 1828.

The 1830s would see King gain in influence as the times became more contentious. The Jackson years were anything but peaceful, but one event perhaps stands out in relation to the awful split which would occur less than three decades later. South Carolina proclaimed its right to nullify federal tariffs imposed on its port. Designed to protect northern manufacturing, tariffs of 1828 and 1832 had the effect of increasing the cost of goods in the south, and risked retaliatory tariffs against their exports. South Carolina’s assertion of a right to nullify federal laws, a position promoted by Calhoun, threatened to split the Union in 1832.

It didn’t happen. Henry Clay led the compromise which enabled South Carolina to back down. South Carolina had hoped for more southern support, but it did not come. King was among those who saw the potential for the dismembering of the Union as nothing short of a tragedy. And while he stood for the southern position of “states’ rights,” he would also be a loyal defender of the Union until his death. Henry Clay was the “Great Compromiser” in name, but William King was probably even more conciliatory in nature, just not as good an orator.