Skip to main content
  1. Life
  2. Society & Culture
  3. Generations

Vice President William King: 25 days in office

See also

William King desperately sought the vice presidency for years until finally reaching his goal. In 1852, the Democrats nominated King to the second spot behind Franklin Pierce on their ticket. Pierce-King won that November, but King did not serve long. Tuberculosis took the vice president's life on April 18, 1853.

Alabama's William King enjoyed a long and distinguished career. He represented North Carolina's 5th district in the House of Representatives for three terms. Then, he moved to Alabama and won a senate seat. King served Alabama in the body from 1819-1844. After a brief stint as Minister to France, he returned to the senate. King also served as the senate's president pro tempore.

King allied himself with the Jacksonian wing of his party. As such, he opposed expansive federal power and the rabid southern fire eaters agitating for secession. The future vice president held moderate views on slavery and westward expansion. He proved a voice of moderation during an exceedingly vitriolic period. Additionally, he helped forge the Compromise of 1850 hoping it would end sectionalism.

The Alabaman's politics made him the perfect choice for vice president. The Democrats nominated northerner Franklin Pierce for president and needed a southerner for regional balance. The party denied King the second spot on the ticket in previous elections. His name began to surface for the position in the 1830s and he developed into a perennial candidate. In 1844, President Tyler went as far as shipping King off to France to blunt the senator's ambitions.

King returned to the United States in 1846 and immediately began to maneuver for the vice presidency once more. Party divisions within Alabama bogged him down in state politics in 1848. As a result, he did not run an effective campaign and finished behind General William Butler. The Democrats lost the election in 1848 leaving 1852 open for King.

By 1852, the senator reestablished himself as a top contender. The Democrats endorsed the Compromise of 1850, which he helped pass. The party selected Franklin Pierce on the 49th ballot at their Baltimore convention. The nomination process turned into a brawl and Pierce's supporters realized they needed an olive branch to the defeated Buchanan wing. They also needed a southerner to balance the northerner Pierce on their ticket. As a result, they finally chose King.

Democrat James Buchanan wanted to be president, but lost at the raucous 1852 convention. Buchanan and King had an especially close friendship. In fact, the two might have been a couple. The pair lived together for a decade, attended parties together, and demonstrated a deep affection for one another. Rumors swirled around Washington about the men. Regardless of their personal relationship, they shared common political views. In the end, King won the vice presidential nomination to help placate Buchanan.

Pierce won the presidency defeating Whig nominee General Winfield Scott. King developed tuberculosis sometime before the election. He believed he contracted it in Paris. The candidate grew more ill as the campaign wore on and worsened in November. President-elect Pierce did not consult with King on cabinet appointments, which soured the vice president-elect's mood further. The vice president-elect resigned his senate seat and traveled to Cuba in order to recuperate. In February, he realized he could not make it to Washington D.C. in time for the inauguration. Congress passed legislation allowing King to take the oath of office in Havana. It remains the only time a vice president was sworn into office outside the country.

The new vice president took the oath of office on March 24, 1853. He could no longer stand on his own. On April 6, he left Cuba for the United States. Vice President King reached his Alabama home on April 17. However, he was terminally ill by this point. He died on April 18, 1853 at the age of 67. His death removed an arbiter of moderation from presiding over the senate. As a result, King missed the rancorous Kansas-Nebraska debate which led to the infamous attack on Charles Sumner. His influence might have calmed some nerves and passions. On the other hand, the country might have been too far gone by this point for moderates like King to have any impact.

William King wanted to be vice president for two decades. Eventually, he achieved his goal. King's politics, tenure within the party, resume, ties to James Buchanan, and southern residency led to his nomination and election. Unfortunately, King developed tuberculosis and died 25 days into office. There is no way to know if his personality and experience would have helped usher the country away from the calamities it suffered in the 1850s.

Advertisement