Rufus King

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Rufus King
Rufus King - National Portrait Gallery.JPG
Rufus King by Gilbert Stuart, 1819
United States Senator
from New York
In office
March 4, 1813 – March 4, 1825
Preceded by John Smith
Succeeded by Nathan Sanford
In office
July 25, 1789 – May 23, 1796
Preceded by None
Succeeded by John Laurance
United States Minister to Great Britain
In office
November 11, 1825 – May 10, 1826
Nominated by John Quincy Adams
Preceded by Richard Rush
Succeeded by Albert Gallatin
In office
July 26, 1796 – May 16, 1803
Nominated by George Washington
Preceded by Thomas Pinckney
Succeeded by James Monroe
Personal details
Born (1755-03-24)March 24, 1755
Scarborough, Massachusetts (now Maine)
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Jamaica, Queens, New York
Resting place Grace Episcopal Churchyard, Jamaica
Political party Federalist
Spouse(s) Mary Alsop King
Children James G. King
John Alsop King
Charles King
Edward King
Frederic Gore King
Profession Lawyer
Religion Episcopalian

Rufus King (March 24, 1755 – April 29, 1827) was an American lawyer, politician, and diplomat. He was a delegate for Massachusetts to the Continental Congress. He also attended the Constitutional Convention and was one of the signers of the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He represented New York in the United States Senate, served as Minister to Britain, and was the Federalist candidate for both Vice President (1804 and 1808) and President of the United States (1816).


Early life

He was born on March 24, 1755 at Scarborough which was then a part of Massachusetts but is now in the state of Maine.[1] He was a son of Isabella Bragdon and Richard King, a prosperous farmer-merchant, "lumberman, and sea captain"[1] who had settled at Dunstan Landing in Scarborough, near Portland, Maine, and had made a modest fortune by 1755, the year Rufus was born. His financial success aroused the jealousy of his neighbors, and when the Stamp Act 1765 was imposed, and rioting became almost respectable, a mob ransacked his house and destroyed most of the furniture. Nobody was punished, and the next year the mob burned down his barn.[2] This statement proves true as John Adams once reference this moment discussing limitations of the "mob" for the Constitutional Convention writing a letter to his wife Abigail and describing the scene as:

I am engaged in a famous Cause: The Cause of King, of Scarborough vs. a Mob, that broke into his House, and rifled his Papers, and terrifyed him, his Wife, Children and Servants in the Night. The Terror, and Distress, the Distraction and Horror of this Family cannot be described by Words or painted upon Canvass. It is enough to move a Statue, to melt an Heart of Stone, to read the Story....[3] It was not surprising that Richard King became a loyalist. All of his sons, however, became patriots in the American War of Independence.[2]

Education, career and early politics

King attended Dummer Academy (now The Governor's Academy) at the age of twelve, located in South Byfield, MA.[4] Later on he attended Harvard College, where he graduated in 1777.[5] He began to read law under Theophilus Parsons, but his studies were interrupted in 1778 when King volunteered for militia duty in the American Revolutionary War. Appointed a major, he served as an aide to General Sullivan [4][6] in the Battle of Rhode Island. [5] After the campaign, King returned to his apprenticeship under Parsons. He was admitted to the bar in 1780 and began a legal practice in Newburyport, Massachusetts.[4][7] King was first elected to the Massachusetts state assembly in 1783, and returned there each year until 1785. Massachusetts sent him to the Confederation Congress from 1784 to 1787.[4][8] He was one of the youngest at the conference.

Politics (Constitutional Convention)

In 1787, King was sent to the constitutional convention held at Philadelphia. King held a significant position at the convention. Despite his youthful stature, “he numbered among the most capable orators”. Along with James Madison, “he became a leading figure in the nationalist causus”. Furthermore, he attended every session. King’s “views underwent a startling transformation during the debates” originally changing a mindset supporting Articles of Confederation and utterly throwing out the idea that it could be sustained.[4] King’s major involvements included serving on the Committee on Postponed Matters and the Committee of Style and Arrangement.[4] Although he came to the convention unconvinced that major changes should be made in the Articles of Confederation, his views underwent a startling transformation during the debates.[4] He worked with Chairman William Samuel Johnson, James Madison, Governor Morris, and Alexander Hamilton on the Committee of Style and Arrangement to prepare a final draft of the United States Constitution. King is one of the more prominent delegates namely because of playing “a major role in the laborious crafting of the fundamental governing character.[9] The constitution was signed on September 17th, only needing to be ratified by each of the subsequent states.[9] After the signing the Constitution, he returned home and went to work to get the Constitution ratified and to position himself to be named to the U.S. Senate.[10] The ratification passed by the narrow margin of 187–168 votes.[9] With the ratification passed, Massachusetts “became the sixth state to ratify [the] constitution in early February 1788.[9] Rufus is indirectly responsible for the passing of this ratification seeing that his “learned, informative, and persuasive speeches” were able to convince a “popular, vain merchant and prince-turned-politicians to abandon his anti-federalism and approve the new organic law”.[9]

Politics (post-Constitutional Convention)

After his early political experiences during the constitutional convention, King decided to switch his vocational calling by “[abandoning] his law practice [in 1788], [and] moved from the Bay State to Gotham, and entered the New York political forum”.[4] At Hamilton's urging, he moved to New York City, and was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1789.[8] He was re-elected in 1795 but resigned on May 23, 1796, having been appointed U. S. Minister by George Washington to Great Britain.[4][8][11] "Even though King was an outspoken Federalist politically, Republican President Thomas Jefferson, upon his elevation to the presidency, refused to recall him. In 1803, King voluntarily relinquished...." this position.[11]

King returned to elected politics, first with little success, but eventually returned to the Senate. In April of 1804, King ran unsuccessfully for the Senate from New York. Later that year, and again in 1808 King and fellow-signer Charles Cotesworth Pinckney were the Federalist candidates for Vice President and President, respectively, but were decisively defeated.[4] In 1812, King led an effort at the Federalist party caucus to nominate a Federalist ticket for the presidential election that year, but the effort failed. As a result some sought to make King the nominee, and though little came of it, he did finish third in the popular vote with approximately 2% of the total. Shortly thereafter, King was elected to his "second tenure on Senate" in 1813.[11] In April of 1816 he ran for Governor of New York and lost to Daniel D. Tompkins. In the fall of that year, he did become the presidential nominee for the Federalist Party, but again lost, this time to James Monroe, whose running mate, coincidentally, was Tompkins.[11] King would be the last presidential candidate to be nominated by the Federalists before their collapse. When he ran for re-election to the Senate in 1819, he ran as a Federalist even though the party was already disbanding and had only a small minority in the New York State Legislature. But, due to the split of the Democratic-Republicans, no successor was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1819, and the seat remained vacant until January 1820. Trying to attract the former Federalist voters to their side at the next gubernatorial election in April 1820, both factions of the Democratic-Republican Party supported King, who served another term in the U.S. Senate until March 4, 1825. During his second tenure in the Senate, he continued his career as an opponent of slavery, which he denounced as anathema to the principles underlying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In what is considered the greatest speech of his career, he spoke against admitting Missouri as a slave state in 1820.

Soon after his second term in the Senate ended, King was appointed Minister to Great Britain again, this time by President John Quincy Adams. But he was forced to return home a few months later due to failing health and retired from public life.[11]


King's nomination to be Minister to the UK (1825)


King played a major diplomatic role as Minister to the Court of St. James from 1796 to 1803, and again from 1825 to 1826.[12] Although he was a leading Federalist, Thomas Jefferson kept him in office until King asked to be relieved.[11] Some prominent accomplishments that King had from his time as a national diplomat include a term of friendly relations with Britain and the United States (at least until it became hostile in 1805).[4] With that in mind, he was able to successfully reach a compromise on the passing of the Jay Treaty being an avid supporter of it.[4] Also, while in Britain, he was in close personal contact with South American revolutionary Francisco de Miranda and facilitated Miranda's trip to the United States in search of support for his failed 1806 expedition to Venezuela.

Anti-slavery activity

File:Rufus King by Peale.jpg
Oil painting of King by Charles Willson Peale (1818)

King had a long history of opposition to the expansion of slavery and the slave trade. This stand was a product of moral conviction which coincided with the political realities of New England federalism. While in Congress, he successfully added provisions to the 1785 Northwest Ordinance which barred the extension of slavery into the Northwest Territory. [7] But he also said he was willing "to suffer the continuance of slaves until they can be gradually emancipated in states already overrun with them." He did not press the issue very hard at this time. At the Constitutional Convention, he indicated that his opposition to slavery was based upon the political and economic advantages it gave to the South, but he was willing to compromise for political reasons. In 1817, he supported Senate action to abolish the domestic slave trade and, in 1819, spoke strongly for the antislavery amendment to the Missouri statehood bill. In 1819, his arguments were political, economic, and humanitarian; the extension of slavery would adversely affect the security of the principles of freedom and liberty. After the Missouri Compromise, he continued to support gradual emancipation in various ways. [13]


At the time of his death in 1827, King had a library of roughly 2,200 titles in 3,500 volumes. In addition, King had roughly 200 bound volumes containing thousands of pamphlets. King's son John Alsop King inherited the library and kept them in Jamaica, Queens, until his death in 1867. The books then went to John's son Dr. Charles Ray King of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. They remained in Pennsylvania until donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1906, where most of them currently reside. Some books have extensive marginalia. In addition, six commonplace books survive in his papers at the New-York Historical Society.

Other accomplishments

In his lifetime, King had been an avid supporter of Hamilton and his Fiscal programs and unsurprisingly that he would find himself also become one of the directors of the Hamilton-sponsored first bank of the United States.[4][11] Among other prominent things that occurred in King's life, he was first elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1805,[14] and was also elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1814.[15] Contrary to his previous position on the national bank of the United States, King found himself denying the reopening of a second national bank of the United States in 1816.[11] Finally, in 1822 he also found himself admitted as an honorary member of the New York Society of the Cincinnati.


Many of King's family were also involved in politics and he had a number of prominent descendants. His brother William King was the first governor of Maine and a prominent merchant, and his other brother, Cyrus King, was a U. S. Representative from Massachusetts.

His wife Mary Alsop was born in New York on October 17, 1769, and died in Jamaica, New York, on June 5, 1819. She was the only daughter of John Alsop, a wealthy merchant and a delegate for New York to the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1776.[16] She was also a great niece of Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She married Mr. King in New York City on March 30, 1786, he being at that time a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress then sitting in that city.[16] Mrs. King was a lady of remarkable beauty, gentle and gracious manners, and well cultivated mind, and adorned the high station, both in England and at home, that her husband's official positions and their own social relations entitled them to occupy.[16] A King family member once wrote to their wife of Mrs. King's beauty and personality as, "'Tell Betsy King [Rufus's half-sister] her sister is a beauty. She is vastly the best looking woman I have seen since I have been in this city....She is a good hearted woman, and, I think, possesses all that Benevolence and kind, friendly disposition, that never fail to find respectable admirers'".[16] As mentioned earlier the he "remarkable beauty" and "well cultivated manner" seems to help the Kings in the type of lifestyle they lives, one where the Kings found themselves in "fashionable circles and entertained frequently"...(potentially helped by how "[Mrs. King] was widely admired in New York society; her retiring nature set her apart.").[16] The Kings found themselves having 7 children (of which 5 managed to live to adulthood).[16] On June 5, 1819, Mrs. King died. "She was buried in the old churchyard of Grace Church". Rufus King remarked on her death regarding his wife, "The example of her life is worhty of the imitation of us all".[17]

Rufus King died on April 29, 1827, and his funeral was held at his N Y in Jamaica, Queens. He is buried in the Grace Church Cemetery in Jamaica, Queens, New York. [18] The home that King purchased in 1805 and expanded thereafter and some of his farm make up King Park in Queens. The home, called King Manor, is now a museum and is open to the public.

The Rufus King School, also known as P.S. 26, in Fresh Meadows, New York, was named after King, as was the Rufus King Hall on the CUNY Queens College campus and King Street[19] in Madison, Wisconsin.

Confusingly, Rufus King International School – High School Campus, formerly Rufus King High School, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is named after his grandson, Rufus King, a general in the American Civil War.


Rufus King's descendants number in the thousands today. Some of his notable descendants include;

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Passos, John Dos (2011). The Men Who Made the Nation: Architects of the Young Republic 1782–1802. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing. p. 480.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ernst, pp. 1–15.
  3. Adams, John (July 7, 1774). "John Adams to Abigail Adams, 7 July 1774" (Web). Founders Online. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved February 2, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 "The Founding Fathers: Massachusetts". The Charters of Freedom. Retrieved February 2, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 Steven E. Siry. "King, Rufus"; American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  6. John Vinci (2008). "Biography of Rufus King". Retrieved November 22, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 Purvis, Thomas L. (1997). A Dictionary of American History. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 214. ISBN 978-1-57718-099-9. Retrieved November 23, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "King, Rufus, (1755–1827)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Congress. Retrieved February 2, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Morton, Joseph C. (2006). Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Biographical Dictionary. Berkeley: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 160.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Morton, Joseph C. (2006). Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Biographical Dictionary. Berkeley: Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 160–161.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 11.7 Morton, Joseph C. (2006). Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Biographical Dictionary. Berkeley: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 161.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Morton, Joseph C. (2006). Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Biographical Dictionary. Berkeley: Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 161–162.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Arbena[page needed]
  14. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter K" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 28, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 McKenney, Janice E. (2012). Women of the Constitution: Wives of the Signers. Lanham: Rrowman & Littlefield. p. 98.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. McKenney, Janice E. (2012). Women of the Constitution: Wives of the Signers. Lanham: Rrowman & Littlefield. p. 100.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Rufus King at Find a Grave
  19. Wisconsin Historical Society (2011). "Origins of Madison Street Names". Retrieved November 22, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Halsey",
  21. Halsey Minor Read the Hook November 27, 2008

Primary sources

  • Arbena, Joseph L. "Politics or Principle? Rufus King and the Opposition to Slavery, 1785–1825." Essex Institute Historical Collections (1965) 101(1): 56–77. ISSN 0014-0953
  • Ernst, Robert. Rufus King: American Federalist. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1968.
  • King, Charles R. The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, 4 vol. 1893–1897.
  • Perkins, Bradford. The First Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1795–1805. University of California Press, 1967.

Further reading

 Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). [ "King, Rufus" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Brush, Edward Hale. Rufus King and His Times. New York: Nicholas L. Brown, 1926.

Ernst, Robert. Rufus King: American Federalist. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

External links

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