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

- by Michael Stillman



Sadly, King had been stricken with tuberculosis earlier, and at this point his condition began to deteriorate rapidly. He was already ill at the time of the election, and by December 20 was so sick that he was forced to resign his seat in the senate. In January he traveled to Cuba, hoping the warm climate might restore his health before the inauguration (at that time, inaugurations were in March). However, the climate offered no cure. King was too ill to return to Washington for his inauguration.

Once more, his colleagues showed King their great respect. For the only time in U.S. history, Congress authorized an executive officer to take the oath of office outside of the country, making King the answer to that trivia question. On March 24, 1853, the sickly King took the oath of office in Matanzas, Cuba. Two weeks later, with no hope for recovery, he elected to return home. He sailed back to the U.S., reaching his Alabama home one last time on April 17. A day later, April 18, 1853, King died.

King would receive one more honor from his colleagues in Congress, and it is contained in the book which spurred me on to learn more about this man. It is the Obituary Addresses on the Occasion of the Death of the Hon. William R. King, of Alabama, Vice-President of the United States. While no one would expect anything but compliments at a time like this, the obvious level of affection for this man is moving. What we learn from this book is that he was genuinely liked, but was a lousy orator. Time and again, colleagues talk about how important he was for the country despite the fact that he was not a great speaker. As Senator Robert Hunter said in his eulogy, “He was no orator, and yet from the force of character he could wield an influence which mere oratory never commanded.” The fact that he was not a great speaker did not prevent King from achieving great influence in his day, but it left him forgotten to future generations while others, no more than his equals at the time, are still famous today.

One wonders if this great conciliator had lived another decade, would he have altered the course of history. The answer is almost certainly no. The divisions were far too great for anyone to have held the Union together. This would undoubtedly have deeply saddened King, who spent so much of his career attempting to preserve the Union, but there is little he could have done. And ultimately, with his basic states’ rights beliefs, he probably would have followed the other southern senators out the door, rather than joining Andrew Johnson as a lone southern senator to remain loyal to the Union. But, I believe it would have pained him more than most others. Maybe it’s just as well King did not live to face that day.

King’s story does not end in 1853. His name has been resurrected twice in the past two decades, more than a century after it was forgotten. It’s unlikely King would have enjoyed either.

There were quiet rumors that King was gay for many years. These rumors were brought out in the open in James Loewen’s 1999 book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. The rumor was not so much focused on the forgotten King, but on his supposed partner, President James Buchanan. It appears there might have been some suspicions in their time, but there are other explanations for the evidence that’s been raised.