Trivial Pursuit?<br>Collecting Vice-President William R. King
Considering the conciliatory nature of the two, it’s odd that they would end up in a confrontation that almost concluded with a duel. When the senate passed from Democratic to Whig control after the election of 1840, Clay set about removing the official Senate printer, a Democrat whom Clay despised. An angry debate ensued, Clay said something less than complimentary about King, and King responded with a challenge to a duel. If only our senators today behaved so responsibly, instead of arguing incessantly on television talk shows.
Cooler heads prevailed. No one wanted another Aaron Burr – Alexander Hamilton. Clay apologized, as did King, and the two made up. It’s unlikely either would have wanted this incident remembered. In Clay’s case, the incident does seem forgotten, while in King’s case, unfortunately, it seems his entire career has been forgotten.
By 1840, King had become an important figure in the senate. He was not a dominant figure. He was evidently a quiet, parliamentary type of individual working behind the scenes to keep the institution functioning. This was a time of great orators: Clay, Webster, Calhoun, Benton. King wasn’t one of them. Perhaps this is why he has been forgotten. He left no memorable speeches to ring through eternity. He was not a leader of groundbreaking causes. He was a quiet conciliator, keeping the wheels of government turning and trying to hold the Union together in troubled times. King was an important figure during his era, but one whose unobtrusive manner allowed this point to be overlooked by history.
His respect among his colleagues was such that he was on several occasions elected president pro tem of the senate. At the time, this selection was only made during the absence of a vice-president, and this officer presided over the senate. He was also next in the line of succession. Had Tyler or Fillmore died in office, he would have been president.
His name was also tossed around as a potential vice-presidential nominee for his party throughout the 1840s. It was an honor King welcomed, but it did not come. Then, as now, vice-presidential nominees were frequently used to balance a ticket, both geographically and politically. Part of the balancing had to do with the political ambitions of King’s ally and roommate James Buchanan. Ultimately, neither achieved their ambitions in the 1840s, but both would succeed in the following decade.
Second prize in 1844 for King was his appointment as minister to France. The unpopular President Tyler had been unable to get an appointment to this sensitive post through the senate. Naming King, well-liked by his senate colleagues, enabled Tyler to finally fill the post. It was here, after 25 years in the senate, that King had what some observers feel were his most important triumphs. The U.S. was in the process of annexing Texas, a move opposed by both England and France. The last thing this still young nation needed was those two acting together. King succeeded in getting a pledge from France not to act in response to an annexation, allowing the U.S. to move forward without fear of reprisals from Europe. It was a fitting bookend to his support for expansion at the time of the War of 1812.