The office of Vice President was merely an afterthought to our Constitution’s founders. It was so insignificant that for nearly 39 years(!), the office remained empty.
The Early VEEPS
For the first twelve years of the USA being the USA, the Vice Presidents (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) were serious political heavyweights. Both were unquestionably qualified to serve as President, which they both did.
After the murky Vice Presidency of Aaron Burr (Jefferson’s first VEEP), the office itself seemed tainted, and with the exception of John C. Calhoun filling the second spot for both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, the Vice President was a non-entity position. It became a geo-political accommodation, handed to either an “elder statesman” as a lifetime achievement award, or to a pleasant but non-threatening politician to balance North and South, or East and West.
The Hon. William King
William Rufus DeVane King (1786-1853) was a well-born son of North Carolina. Educated at the University of North Carolina as an attorney, he gravitated early into politics, and became a Congressman at only 25. A few years later, he followed his family in a move to Alabama, where he remained for the rest of his life. Within two years of the move, he became Alabama’s first Senator. A lifelong Democrat, he was elected four times.
King’s family was very wealthy, and became one of the largest cotton planting families in the State, necessitating a slave-labor force of more than 500. As Senator, King was a proponent of the “southern” way of life. He supported the “gag rule” of the early 1840s, prohibiting “discussion” of anti-slavery petitions in Congress, opposed prohibiting slavery in the District of Columbia, and supported the expansion of slavery into the territories, believing that the “peculiar institution” was protected by the Constitution. On the other hand, he was strongly opposed to secession, and was never considered among the “Fire Eaters” of Southern politics.
Following a two-year stint as Polk’s Minister to France, he returned to Washington, and was reappointed (and subsequently re-elected) as Senator from Alabama.
The Personal William R. King
There is little question that William King had what could be termed “effeminate” mannerisms. Andrew Jackson himself referred to him using the common phrases “Miss Nancy” or “Aunt Fancy.” When King became acquainted with Senator James Buchanan, also in the “Nancy-Fancy” mold, the two men became close friends, and shared bachelor quarters in Washington for the next ten years.
Homosexuality in the nineteenth century was considered an aberration; deviant behavior. If there was any “improper” behavior between them, it remains secret, unproven and conjectured. Both of them were far too experienced in politics to allow any stigma to be attached to their personae. Both Buchanan and King were considered viable for higher political office. They both knew it, and had even considered a Democratic ticket of “Buchanan and King.”
But the truth was that they were indeed extremely close friends, and when apart (due to overseas assignments) they wrote each other regularly, albeit sharing little private information other than an occasional cryptic line about missing each others’ company.
The Veep-hood Comes to King
The office of Vice President was a position of honor with no onerous duties. During the 1840s, when VP John Tyler became President after the death of William Henry Harrison, the office remained empty, but King had the experience of serving for several years as Senate President Pro Tempore. Again, in 1850 when Vice President Milliard Fillmore assumed the presidency after the death of Zachary Taylor, the office remained empty, and in effect, King, as Senate President Pro Tem, was “next in line.” He had seniority and the genuine respect of his colleagues. He had wanted the Vice Presidency since 1840, but despite making his wishes known, the office still eluded him.
By 1852, the clouds of secession, of abolition, of slavery and states’ rights were darkening the political horizons. Northerners would never vote for a slave-owning Southerner; Southerners would never consider a Northerner with abolitionist tendencies.
It took 49 exhausting ballots for the Democrats to nominate Franklin Pierce, a New Hampshire man, an ex-Congressman and ex-Senator who had been absent from the national scene for a decade. Possibly as an afterthought, they finally nominated William R. King to be Vice President, but it was too late. King was dying of tuberculosis. He declined, but giving the Vice Presidency it usual short shrift, the committee obviously didn’t care. He was on the ticket. Pierce and King won.
The Inauguration of King
In 1852, King was sixty-seven years old and had suffered from the disease for perhaps two years, but now he took a turn for the worse. When his doctors advised that a warm climate might be helpful, King went to Havana, Cuba, and was thus out of the country on inauguration day.
Knowing the extenuating circumstances, Congress enacted a one-and-only bill to permit the Vice President to take the oath of office in a foreign land. An emaciated and frail William King was sworn in, and shortly after, perhaps in a desire to die in his own bed, he sailed back to Alabama. The throngs that met his ship (since he was the highest ranking Alabaman ever elected to national office – to this day!) were subdued and respectful.
He died two days later.
He had been Vice President for six weeks.
His position was never replaced.
Franklin Pierce served without a Vice President for four years – minus six weeks.
Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974
Purcell, L. Edward, (Editor) Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – 2005, Facts on File Publishing