William R. King Biography

William Rufus King, an American politician and diplomat, is often remembered as the shortest-serving Vice President of the United States. Despite his brief time in office, King had a significant impact on American politics. Born into a wealthy family in North Carolina, he pursued a career in law and quickly rose through the ranks of Congress. As a Senator, King staunchly defended the southern way of life and advocated for the expansion of slavery. In 1853, he was elected Vice President under Franklin Pierce and made history by taking his oath of office in Cuba, the only member of the executive branch to do so on foreign soil. Sadly, King’s time in office was cut short by his deteriorating health, and he passed away just one day after returning to Alabama. Despite his short tenure, William Rufus King’s legacy continues to be remembered in American history.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: William Rufus DeVane King
  • Died At Age: 67
  • Born Country: United States
  • Vice Presidents
  • Political Leaders
  • Died on: April 18, 1853
  • Place of Death: Selma, Alabama, United States
  • U.S. State: North Carolina
  • Cause of Death: Tuberculosis
  • Education: University Of North Carolina At Chapel Hill

Childhood & Early Life

William Rufus DeVane King was born on April 7, 1786, in Sampson County, North Carolina, United States, to William King and his wife, Margaret deVane. He belonged to a wealthy and well-connected family that owned a plantation. He received his early education from private schools and later attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he became a member of the Philanthropic Society, an important literary student association. In 1803, he graduated and subsequently became a student of prominent attorney William Duffy, who taught him law and helped him develop political skills. In 1806, King was admitted to the bar and began practicing in Clinton, in Sampson County.


Shortly after becoming a lawyer, William Rufus King gravitated into politics and in 1807, he was elected to the North Carolina State House of Representatives, where he served until 1809. Thereafter, he became the city solicitor of Wilmington, North Carolina. Subsequently, he was elected to the Twelfth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Congresses, serving from March 1811 to November 1816. After resigning as a Congressman, he was appointed the Secretary of the Legation for William Pinkney and accompanied him to Russia and a special diplomatic mission in Naples.

Upon returning to the United States in 1818, William Rufus King moved to Alabama, where he purchased property at what would later be known as ‘King’s Bend’. He established a large cotton plantation based on slave labor, calling the property ‘Chestnut Hill’. Subsequently, King, along with his relatives, formed one of the largest slaveholding families in the state. In 1819, upon the admission of Alabama as the 22nd State, he was elected by the State Legislature as a Democratic-Republican to the United States Senate. Later, King was re-elected to the post again in 1822, 1828, 1834, and 1841, serving from December 1819 to April 1844, until he resigned.

From 1844 to 1846, he served as a US Ambassador to France during the reign of King Louis Phillippe. Upon his return, William Rufus King resumed his services as the Senator of Alabama in 1848. He held his seat for the next four years until resigning in December 1852 because of ill health, after having been elected Vice President. In July 1850, two days after the death of President Zachary Taylor, King was appointed Senate President Pro Tempore. He also served as Chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Pensions.

In the 1852 elections, the Alabama Democrats urged for his nomination as Vice President. Subsequently, he received support and the party nominated General Franklin Pierce as their presidential candidate, with King as his running mate. Pierce and King defeated the Whig Party candidates successfully, but King was ill with tuberculosis and had traveled to Cuba in an effort to regain his health. Therefore, Congress enacted a one-and-only bill which permitted King to take the oath outside the United States, and he was sworn in on March 24, 1853, in Havana, Cuba.

Shortly after taking office, he sailed back to Alabama and subsequently died of his prolonged illness. He remained in office for six weeks, and his position was never replaced.

Personal Life & Legacy

While William Rufus King remained a bachelor all his life, it was rumored that he was a homosexual. These rumors further increased after King developed a close and intimate bond with fellow senator James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. From 1834 onwards, both men shared a Washington boarding house for ten years. The duo often attended social functions together, and neither of them got married.

Shortly after taking the oath for the vice presidency on foreign soil, King left Cuba and returned to Chestnut Hill. He died on April 18, 1853, at his estate in Alabama, following a long illness, without carrying out any duties of the office. He was interred in a vault on the plantation and later reinterred in Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, Alabama, US.

In 1852, the Oregon Territorial Legislature named King County—which later became part of the U.S. state of Washington—in his honor.

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