William Rufus King was born on April 7, 1786 in Sampson County, North Carolina. His father was a leader in the American Revolution and he served in the North Carolina legislature as well as the convention that adopted the Federal Constitution.
King graduated in 1803 from the University of North Carolina and studied law with William Duffy in Fayetteville. In 1808 he was elected to the state legislature and in 1810 to the United States House of Representatives. In 1816 he became a diplomat serving with the William Pinckney delegation and he spent two years in Naples, Italy and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Upon returning to the United States, King moved to Dallas County, Alabama Territory and purchased a large plantation. He helped establish the city of Selma. King became involved in Alabama politics and was a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1819. He was a member of the three person committee that drafted the final document. In 1819 he was selected as United States Senator and served with only a four year break until 1853. King supported the Missouri Compromise, land relief legislation, and President Andrew Jackson in the controversy over a National Bank. He opposed the tariffs of 1828 but he also opposed South Carolina’s Acts of Nullification. From 1836 to 1841 King served as President Pro Tem of the Senate.
In 1844 President Tyler appointed Senator King as minister to France. The President knew of his diplomatic experience and King persuaded France not to get involved in the matter of Texas and Mexico which action could have brought England into the controversy. In 1848 King returned to the Senate where he supported Henry Clay’s last great compromise – the Compromise of 1850.
In 1852 the Democratic Party honored King for his many years of service by nominating him for Vice-President on the ticket with Franklin Pierce. He won the nomination on the second ballot defeating his principal opponent – Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. In the general election, the Democrats won all but four states.
Although William Rufus King reached the pinnacle of political success in 1852, his health declined due to tuberculosis. He sought relief in Cuba during the winter and Congress passed special legislation allowing the U. S. Consul in Havana to administer the oath of office to King on March 4, 1853, thus creating his distinction of being the highest ranking U. S. government official to assume office on foreign soil.
King’s health did not improve and he returned to Alabama, landing in Mobile. The trip from Cuba diminished his already weakened condition and he arrived back at his home in Selma on April 16, 1853. He died two days later on April 18 at the age of 67. He is buried in Live Oak Cemetery in Selma.
For all of his contributions to our state and nation, the lawyers of Alabama honor William Rufus King by his induction into the Alabama Lawyers’ Hall of Fame.