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By Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Exclusively for Between The Lines
National Gay History Project
William Rufus DeVane King, the 13th United States vice president, has the distinction of having served in that office for less time than any other vice president.
He died of tuberculosis on April 18, 1853, just 25 days after being sworn into office on March 24, 1853, according an official biography of King prepared by the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Senate.
Other historians have speculated that King holds yet another distinction — the likely status of being the first gay U.S. vice president and possibly one of the first gay members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
King (1786-1853) served in the House of Representatives from North Carolina for six years beginning in 1811 and later served in the Senate from the newly created state of Alabama from 1819-44, when he became U.S. minister to France.
He returned to the Senate four years later, in 1848, where he served until December 1852, when he resigned after winning election in November 1852 as vice president on the ticket of Franklin Pierce.
A lifelong bachelor, King lived for 15 years in the home of future U.S. president James Buchanan while the two served in the Senate. Buchanan, also a lifelong bachelor, is believed by some historians to be the nation’s first gay president.
“They certainly didn’t have the word gay back then,” said Paul F. Boller Jr., professor emeritus of history at Texas Christian University and author of several books on presidential politics, including the book “Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush.”
In a telephone interview, Boller said Washington insiders at the time speculated over whether King and Buchanan’s well-known close friendship had evolved into a romantic relationship.
“I don’t think the word homosexual was used either,” Boller said. “So they’d sort of use the term ‘a little feminine’ and all of that.”
Boller and historian Jean H. Baker, professor of history at Maryland’s Goucher College and author of a biography of Buchanan, each cite reports that President Andrew Jackson referred to King as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” Aaron V. Brown, who became U.S. postmaster general while Buchanan was president, reportedly referred to King as Buchanan’s “wife.”
Baker reports in her Buchanan biography that King’s and Buchanan’s nieces reportedly destroyed their uncles’ correspondence with each other, fueling speculation that the two men were in a gay relationship that their families wanted to conceal.
In one letter that survived, Buchanan expressed sadness over King’s departure from his house in 1844 to become the U.S. envoy to France.
“I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me,” Buchanan wrote. “I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.”
King’s relationship with Buchanan, who was from Pennsylvania, could have been a factor in Buchanan’s sympathy for the South during Buchanan’s tenure as a senator and later as president from 1857-61.
Most accounts by historians of King’s political career portray him as a moderate southerner who supported slavery while emerging as a strong unionist. King voiced opposition in the Senate to calls by some of his fellow southerners for the South to secede from the United States during the tense decade prior to the Civil War.
“From such a calamity may God in His mercy deliver us,” King wrote in expressing opposition to the growing calls for secession.
King was born in 1786 in Sampson County, N.C., to a family of wealthy planters. His father owned more than two-dozen slaves, the Office of the Senate Historian reports in its biography of King.
It says King attended an elite preparatory school before attending the University of North Carolina, where he studied law. Following a legal apprenticeship, he was admitted to the state bar in 1805 and began a legal practice. He served in the North Carolina Legislature from 1808-09 and won election in 1810 to the U.S. House and began serving as a congressman in 1811 at age 25.
He resigned from the House in 1816 to enter the world of diplomacy by taking a job as legation secretary for William Pinkney, who was appointed by President James Monroe as U.S. minister to Russia in St. Petersburg. King returned to the U.S. in 1818, when he moved from North Carolina to the territory of Alabama, becoming one of the leaders of the Alabama statehood movement.
The Senate historian’s biography says King purchased 750 acres of land in Alabama and established a plantation. He later joined others to form a land company that founded the town of Selma, which King reportedly named. In December 1819, he became one of Alabama’s first two U.S. senators.
As a moderate Democrat, King became an early supporter of Andrew Jackson’s quest to become president, the Senate biography says. It quotes an unnamed critic of King as describing him as a “tall, prim, wig-topped mediocrity,” noting that King wore a wig “long after such coverings had gone out of fashion.”
The biography quotes a fellow senator as having this to say about King: “He was distinguished by the scrupulous correctness of his conduct. He was remarkable for his quiet and unobtrusive, but active practical usefulness as a legislator … To his honor be it spoken, he never vexed the ear of the Senate with ill-timed, tedious or unnecessary debate.”
The Encyclopedia of Alabama reports in a 2003 article that rumors circulating in Washington about King’s sexual orientation increased as his close friendship with Buchanan became widely known.
“Neither man ever married, and by 1836 they were sharing a residence in Washington,” the encyclopedia article says. “Any negative reactions to their relationship appear to have had little effect, and the men continued with their living arrangement and their work as legislators.”
By 1840, newspapers in Alabama supportive of the Democratic Party, of which King was a prominent member, promoted King as a vice-presidential running mate for incumbent President Martin Van Buren. Although King received little support outside Alabama for the vice-presidential nomination, he continued to position himself behind the scenes as a possible vice-presidential candidate for the next two decades, the Alabama Encyclopedia reports.
The Senate biography of King says President John Tyler interrupted King’s vice-presidential ambitions in 1844 when he nominated him to become U.S. minister to France and the Senate quickly confirmed the nomination by a lopsided margin.
The bio says King succeeded in his main mission to persuade France not to oppose U.S. plans to annex Texas, which the U.S. acquired following the Mexican-American War.
King returned to the Senate in 1848, two years after completing his service in France. In July 1850, King became the defacto U.S. vice president when President Zachary Taylor died in office and then Vice President Millard Filmore became president, leaving the office of vice president vacant.
King’s Senate colleagues responded by unanimously selecting him as president pro tempore of the Senate, which normally would have placed him third in line to become president. With the vice president’s post vacant, King emerged as first in line to become president if Filmore were to die in office.
In 1852, after years of vying for the vice-presidential nomination, the constellations appeared to be in perfect alignment with Democratic Party politics for King’s longtime dream. After nominating Franklin Pierce for president on the 49th ballot, the Democratic Convention, convening in Baltimore, nominated King as Pierce’s running mate. In the ensuing months, King campaigned aggressively for the Pierce-King ticket, playing some role in Pierce’s victory in November 1852.
But biographers report that King’s coughing spells became increasingly frequent and painful, leading to a diagnosis of tuberculosis. By December 1852, King described himself to friends as “looking like a skeleton,” the Senate biography reports. Later that month he resigned from the Senate and made arrangements, at the advice of his doctor, to spend the winter in Cuba, where the warm, tropical climate would hopefully help him regain his health.
In early February 1853, King realized his condition was getting worse and he would not be well enough to travel to Washington in time for the March 4 inauguration ceremony.
Upon learning of King’s deteriorating health, Congress took the unusual step of passing a law allowing him to take the oath of office for vice president on foreign soil.
“On March 24, 1853, near Matanzas, a seaport town 60 miles from Havana, the gravely ill statesman, too feeble to stand unaided, became the nation’s 13th vice president,” his Senate biography says.
King boarded a ship to return to the U.S. in April 1853 and arrived home at his Alabama plantation on April 17. He died one day later at age 67.
David Durham, a University of Alabama professor of law and history, said in a Sept. 9 interview that it remains an open question whether King was gay. Durham said it’s also uncertain but a strong possibility that King played a role in shaping Buchanan’s policies and views on the issue of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War.
“I don’t think anybody can prove it one way or the other,” he said in discussing King’s sexual orientation.
“A lot of the speculation comes from misinterpreting, I think, 19th Century lifestyles, where men commonly slept in the same bed and thought nothing of it,” Durham said. “And the kind of terms of affection used in letters and correspondence between males — in our society now it’s like, umm, that’s very interesting. But they thought nothing of it and it didn’t mean there was some kind of romantic attachment,” he said.
“But that’s not to say that there wasn’t,” Durham added.
Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil-rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as senior news reporter for the Washington Blade. In 2011, Chibbaro became the first reporter from the LGBT press to be inducted into the Society of Professional Journalists D.C. Professional Chapter’s Hall of Fame and received the Justice for Victims Crime Award from the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia in 1998. He received a bachelor’s degree with a double major in biology and political science from the State University of New York at Brockport.