WHY HE NEVER SET FOOT IN THE CAPITOL AS VP
Remember the old Jimmy Stewart classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”? It’s about a political novice who is appointed U. S. Senator out of the blue and then, well, goes to Washington. (I’m not spoiling anything for you if you’ve never seen the movie; it’s in the title.)
More than 160 years ago, a man became Vice President of the United States without going to Washington. He never even set foot inside the Capitol the entire time he had the job. Here’s why.
There was a heap of celebrating in the Heart of Dixie in December 1819. Alabama had just been admitted to the Union as the 22nd state. Much of the hard work in securing statehood had been done by a 33 year-old lawyer named William Rufus DeVane King. (He also wrote the state’s first constitution.)
Born into a wealthy North Carolina planter family, he’d only arrived in the Alabama Territory the previous year. King created a cotton plantation called Chestnut Hill on land that became known as “King’s Bend” outside the city of Selma (which he selected the name for, by the way, taking it from the 18th Century poem “The Songs of Selma”).
Alabama’s state legislature showed its gratitude for all of King’s efforts by making him one of the state’s first U.S. Senators. He quickly got on the fast track, becoming President Pro Tempore (click here to read about King’s predecessor in that position) and a behind-the-scenes power broker. Over the next 30 years he helped pass such landmark measures as the Compromise of 1850, as well as serving a stint as Ambassador to France.
But King’s home life set Washington’s tongues wagging. He shared a house with fellow senator and lifelong bachelor James Buchanan. There were lots of whispers and finger-pointing about the pair’s, uhm, closeness. (Andrew Jackson called King “Miss Nancy.” Let’s leave it at that.)
When the 1852 election rolled around, King’s Democratic Party picked former senator and general Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire as its presidential nominee. (Click here to learn that man’s sad secret.) Back then, when a northerner was selected for the top of the ticket, a southerner was selected as his running-mate (or vice versa) to balance things.
That made Democrats, and apparently a whole lot of Americans, happy because the Pierce-King ticket won in a landslide so large, it killed the rival Whig Party. (When you drive your opponents to extinction, that’s a serious victory.)
But amid the Democrats’ jubilation, there was a very serious problem. Although it wasn’t widely known among everyday Americans, King was seriously ill.
He was so sick with advanced tuberculosis, in fact, that when Inauguration Day arrived on March 4, 1853, King wasn’t on hand for the ceremony. He was in Cuba, where it was hoped the warm winter weather would preserve his deteriorating lungs. (It didn’t.)
So Congress passed a special act allowing him to take the oath of office outside the United States. King was sworn in as America’s 13th vice president in Matanzas, Cuba on March 24, 1853.
He grew so weak, it was obvious he would never see Washington again. He was taken home to his beloved Chestnut Hill plantation in Alabama, dying there on April 18, just two days after his arrival.
Rufus King never presided over the Senate or performed any other official duty. He only held the position for 25 days, the shortest tenure of all 47 vice presidents and five fewer than William Henry Harrison’s 30-day presidency. His face has never appeared on any coin, currency or postage stamp.
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