Wednesday, April 7, 2010
"One of those eminences whose strong impression on their own times has suffered a
gradual erasure upon the tablets of history."
John Updike on VP William Rufus Devane King.
Hey Vice-Precedence Readers!
Today is the birthday of one of our most obscure VP's. This VP is surrounded by speculation. He was so obscure, and his life leading up to and including the Vice-Presidency so bizarre that he was the VP we decided to make our "taster" -- a short video depicting what we want to do with "Vice-Precedence" -- about.
Yes, its the birthday of William Rufus Devane King. Born on April 7th 1786 in North Carolina. Vice-President under Franklin Pierce. Without a doubt, this is one of our most forgotten and obscure President-VP combos. And with good reason. Pierce is considered one of our least effective Presidents; by then the country was bitterly divided over the slavery issue with "Bleeding Kansas" going on in the West with acts of horrible violence that would be a pre-cursor to the Civil War. Pierce was probably an alcoholic, his son had died in a train crash involving the entire Pierce family days before his father took the oath of office, and his wife believed politics and Washington were evil and had prayed her husband would lose the election -- her beliefs she felt were confirmed by that train accident. So it was a rough four years for Mr. Pierce. Not so much for Vice-President King however. He was long gone by then.
King had had a distinguished career in American politics leading up to his election as VP. He had been a Representative from North Carolina, had co-founded the city of Selma, AL, and became one of that states Founders -- helping to write the Constitution for Alabama and help it attain statehood and became one of her first Senators in 1819. He was very popular there, getting re-elected in 1822, 1828, 1834, and 1841. He served as President pro tempore of the United States Senate during the 24th through 27th Congresses.
He was Minister to France from 1844 to 1846. He was appointed and subsequently elected as a Democrat to the Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Arthur P. Bagby and began serving on July 1, 1848. King was a strong moderate in the Senate -- he believed slavery was Constitutional and should go into the territories but was against secession. This balance would be key during the major conflicts in the Senate -- particularly during the Great Compromise of 1850, as he was the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. President Zachary Taylor had died in office and VP Millard Fillmore had become President, but didn't appoint a VP -- so according to the rules of ascension at the time, King was the next in line to be President -- even before he was elected VP.
King was not a talented speaker or a genius, but was known for his even-temper and kind and generous ways and was seen as perhaps the finest moderator in the Senate who kept the Senate in line for decades. This was the "Golden Age" of the Senate with Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, Stephen Douglas, Charles Sumner, Sam Houston, and Jefferson Davis among others--and it was King who they looked to, even before his election as President Pro Tempore to keep things in order and to moderate their great debates that would shape the future of the country:
"He possessed, in an eminent degree, that quickness of perception, that promptness of decision, that familiarity with the now complicated rules of congressional proceedings, and that urbanity of manner, which are required in a presiding officer."
By the time he was elected VP with Pierce in 1852 he was so weak and frail with tuberculosis that he had gone to Cuba in hopes that its tropical climate could aid his health. It didn't. King took the oath of office there in Cuba, making him the only member of the Executive Branch in U.S. history not to take the Oath in the United States. King came back to the U.S. for two days after taking the oath in Cuba, but never made it to D.C., dying at his plantation of Kings Bend in Alabama on April 18, 1853. He had been VP for only 45 days.
All of these things are established. However, what has fascinated some historians are the events involving Kings personal life. King never married, and even though they were decades out of style he was fond of wearing wigs, jewelry and silk scarves -- looking something like a dandy. His style of dress and behavior led President Andrew Jackson to call him such names as "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy".
Even more intriguing is the fact that for 15 or so years he was roommates with future President James Buchanan. Buchanan had his own troubled past. He had been engaged to be married to an Anne Coleman. Before they were married he paid a call on her and shortly after, Coleman committed suicide. The Coleman family forbade Buchanan from attending the funeral and he never had a relationship with a woman again. It was after that that Buchanan and King met in Washington D.C.
They became very close very fast and moved into together. Sharing living quarters with other politicians was very common at this time--Washington was still not that big a city, and Congressmen and Senators had to keep their cost of living expenses down. All of them had homes and expenses back in their home states, so it was simpler to simply live together as roommates in boarding houses and hotels or homes for rent. So many did. However King and Buchanan seemed a little too close to some. Senator Aaron Brown of Tennessee in a letter to the wife of former President James Polk wrote that he had seen King:
"Aunt Fancy...rigged out in her best clothes."
and he referred to Buchanan and King as: "Buchanan and his wife."
Some of Buchanan and Kings letters to each other are still in existence, including this one from Buchanan to King when he left to be Minister of France in 1844:
"I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection."
King who was lonely and sad in Paris despite all the fashion and extravagance surrounding him wrote back:
"I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation."
All this has led many historians to believe that King and Buchanan were our first homosexual VP and President. Its interesting to note that they often discussed running together for those offices as well. While there is no genuine proof of the sexuality of King and Buchanan, the circumstantial evidence seems pretty solid. When Buchanan died his estate executors retrieved papers kept in a bank in New York that Buchanan claimed would explain the truth about his break-up with Anne Coleman and the real reasons for her suicide. However, when they got the papers they also found a hand-written note from the late President instructing them to not open or read the papers and to burn them immediately. So the truth was tossed in the flames--a mystery forever. One wonders however why more homosexual groups don't make a bigger deal out of King...perhaps because he fits too many stereotypes and because he was a slaveholder?
Anyway, all this made King the perfect person for us to make our "taster" about, and I am very proud of the short we made. I hope you will enjoy it as well. It can be seen on YouTube here.
We also have buttons available with Kings picture reading: "I Fancy Miss Nancy!" that I know you'll want to get. They, along with other Vice-Precedence merchandise can be purchased through our website for the film: www.viceprecedence.com
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Thanks for your support and HAPPY BIRTHDAY AUNT FANCY!