William Rufus King: The Vice President Who Never Served | HistoryNet MENU

William Rufus King: The Vice President Who Never Served

4/6/2016 • American History Magazine

Many people know about William Henry Harrison, the president who died after serving just 31 days. His less well-known equivalent in the ranks of vice presidents is William Rufus King, who lived just 45 days into his term as the No. 2 man in President Franklin Pierce’s administration.

Well-bred and handsome, King was among the antebellum era’s most distinguished statesmen. A son of the North Carolina planter class, he migrated westward as a young lawyer and became one of the driving forces behind Alabama statehood. For the next three decades, he served as one of that state’s senators.

When the modern Democratic Party formed during the 1820s, King was among its earliest loyalists. In 1852 the party rewarded the 66-year-old with a place on the lower half of the ticket for that year’s presidential election. Shortly after the votes were counted, however, the vice president-elect was diagnosed with tuberculosis. On a doctor’s advice, he went to Cuba in hopes that in the tropical climate he would find a cure. Unfortunately, his condition worsened, and by spring 1853, he was too weak to travel back to Washington for the inauguration. Instead, Congress passed a special act that allowed the U.S. consul in Cuba to administer the oath of office to King—the only time such an oath has been taken on foreign soil.

The vice president never had a chance to perform his official duties. Just weeks after assuming the job, it was obvious he would not survive his illness. Wishing to die in his own country, he endured an exhausting two-week return trip to his Alabama plantation. He died the day after his arrival. Following the custom of the time, the vice presidency remained vacant for the balance of President Pierce’s term.

  • A staunch supporter of slavery and a slaveholder himself, King was the original namesake of Oregon’s King County. In 2006 county leaders officially changed the designation to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
  • For a quarter of a century, King and future President James Buchanan—two lifelong bachelors—shared a Washington, D.C., home and their seemingly intimate relationship led to widespread gossip. Some contemporaries referred to King as “Mr. Buchanan’s wife,” or as a “Miss Nancy,” which was a commonly used 19th-century epithet for an effeminate male.

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