Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2003 Issue

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

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As for the claim that President Jackson called him “Miss Nancy,” hey, that’s just Jackson. He was the rugged, backwoods, gun-toting man’s man of the frontier. Jackson would have called John Wayne “Miss Nancy.”

I can only conclude that the attempts to “out” King are at best premature. The circumstances of his life leaves open the possibility he was gay, but by no means does it establish it. Perhaps the law of averages argues for a positive conclusion. Based on the percentage of the population that is gay, some of our presidents and vice-presidents surely must have been, and King and Buchanan would appear the most likely. But that still doesn’t prove anything. Absent the finding of some lost documents with conclusive proof, the answer to this question will probably never be known.

What I do find striking is that the issue was never used against King. Judging by how little evidence was required in those days to make outlandish claims, it’s surprising no charges were made. In that era, claims of this nature, if taken seriously, almost certainly would have ended his political career. Both his allies and opponents were able to leave this one alone, and judge him on his worth as a person. If they could use this standard a century and a half ago, we should be able to do the same today.

This still leaves the issue of slavery. This is one item I cannot understand, nor do I know what to think of its proponents today. And, someone like William King is the hardest of all to deal with. He is a man who, beyond this one issue, seems to be as good as anyone could hope to find in Washington. “I can say nothing but what is good of him, for I have never seen or heard any thing but good of him…” That quote from the Obituary Addresses comes from Senator Edward Everett, an abolitionist from Massachusetts who would later give the two-hour long lead speech dedicating the Gettysburg battlefield (Lincoln gave the brief, other speech that day).

How could people like King have supported slavery? Or, even granting times were different and what is obvious today may not have been quite so obvious then, how could they have apparently not even had any serious qualms about it? I see no sign that King and his proslavery contemporaries were particularly troubled by the institution. There is no indication that they looked for a way for their region to even gradually extricate itself from this horrendous behavior. Why weren’t they at least suggesting a phase out or buy out of slaves financed by the government? The North found sources of cheap labor without slavery. Could not the South have too?

It is never fair to judge people from another time by our standards. When I was young, we all thought women were only suited for a small number of roles: homemaker, teacher, secretary, nurse. We never questioned it. And yet, when the silliness of all this was pushed in front of our faces, we woke up and realized this made no sense. Perhaps if no one ever pushed the cruelty of slavery in front of King’s eyes, I could better understand. However, by 1850, the abolitionists had forced the nation to look this abomination squarely in the eyes. King could not have been unaware of the cruelty of what was being perpetrated; he was a slaveholder himself. How could he not see the wrong?

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>A Record Breaking Season</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> <i>The Book of Mormon,</b> first edition, Palmyra, NY, 1830. Sold Sept. 30 — $112,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> Vincent Van Gogh, <i>Homme à la Pipe: Portrait du Docteur Gachet, Evening,</i> etching, 1890. Sold Nov. 2 — $161,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Edward Ruscha, <i>Stains,</i> title page, one of 70, signed, 1969. Sold Nov. 9 — $112,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> John James Audubon, <i>Carolina Parrot, Plate 26,</i> hand colored aquatint, 1828. Sold Dec.9 — $137,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Edmund Dulac, <i>The Snow Queen,</i> watercolor, gouache, pen & ink, 1910. Sold Dec. 16 — $125,000.
  • <b>Il Ponte Casa d’Aste, Jan. 25:</b> DANTE ALIGHIERI (1265-1321). <i>Commedia.</i> Venezia: Vindelino da Spira, 1477. Estimate: € 40.000 - 60.000.
    <b>Il Ponte Casa d’Aste, Jan. 25:</b> DALI, Salvador (1908-1989) - William SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616). <i>Romeo e Giulietta.</i> Milan: Rizzoli, 1975. Estimate: € 25.000 - 35.000.
    <b>Il Ponte Casa d’Aste, Jan. 25:</b> MALVASIA, Cornelio; MONTANARI, Geminiano. <i>Ephemerides novissimae motuum coelestium.</i> Modena: Cassiani, 1662. Estimate: € 8.000 - 12.000.
    <b>Il Ponte Casa d’Aste, Jan. 25:</b> JANSSONIUS, Johannes. <i>Atlantis majoris quinta pars, Orbem maritimum [Novus Atlas, volume V: carte marittime].</i> Amsterdam: Janssonius, 1650. Estimate: € 12.000 - 18.000.

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