He was a senator and a diplomat, but William Rufus DeVane King is probably best known as the 13th vice president of the United States. He was also the only person to hold high office who was sworn in while not on U.S. soil.
So why did this United States vice president take his oath in Cuba? And what is it about his personal life that is still getting attention?
The Making of a Vice President
King, who became known as a "natural mediator," was born on April 7, 1786, in North Carolina to a plantation owner. He trained as a lawyer before joining the U.S. Congress, serving from 1811 to 1816, then resigned to serve as a diplomat to Russia and the Kingdom of Naples. By 1818, he had returned to the United States and settled in Alabama, where he was elected as one of the newly formed state's United States senators. He went on to serve for nearly 29 years in the U.S. Senate.
Despite his long political service and reputation for a calm demeanor, King was not a political star. One unnamed political compatriot called him a "tall, prim, wig topped mediocrity." Others were kinder in their approach, if not blander, writing that King was "remarkable for his quiet and unobtrusive, but active, practical usefulness as a legislator." As the presiding officer of the Senate, he urged members to address each other with decorum, and was known for reconciling disparate factions.
His rise to the vice presidency was driven by the Democrat party, whose members sought a presidential running mate who was politically experienced, popular and a good match for presidential hopeful Franklin Pierce. It was to become King's highest political aspiration — and his most short-lived. But before delving into King's vice presidency, it's worth investigating an aspect of his personal life less discussed.
Solitary and Alone
Some historians believe that more than 150 years ago, before King's vice presidency materialized and as he was increasingly entrenched in the nation's political machinations, that an intimate relationship with future President James Buchanan emerged.
Buchanan, who would serve as President from 1857 to 1861, never married and shared a home with King. While he wrote in letters of his "communion" with King, few clues are left as to the true nature of their relationship, which was likely more complex than any label it would be retroactively given. Andrew Jackson is said to have referred to the two men as "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy". Other contemporaries made similar comments about King's effeminate mannerisms, perhaps revealing that his rumored sexuality was a well-known topic. Some members of congressional delegations called King "Mrs. Buchanan."
Buchanan, who was at one time engaged to a woman and whose sexuality is both largely unknown and irrelevant to his political aptitude, ordered his correspondence to be burned upon his death. However, a few surviving letters remain, including an 1844 missive that Buchanan addressed to a woman named Mrs. Roosevelt, after King moved to Paris to become the American ambassador to France. The letter stated: "I am now 'solitary and alone,' having no companion in the house with me. I have gone wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them."
Whether they were simply bachelors with a "bromance" or had a more serious relationship may never be determined with any certainty. What is certain, however, is that King's political career came to a rather abrupt end after tuberculosis set in.
An Oath for the Ages
King battled against his own health from the time of his November 1852 election as Franklin Pierce's vice president, to his oath of office in March 1853. A persistent and violent cough left him emaciated and weak, prompting an early resignation in December 1852 from his Senate seat in the hopes that warmer weather would aid his recovery. He set out for Cuba, and by early February reached Havana, where he remained ill with tuberculosis.
It didn't take long for King, then 67, to realize he was too sick to make it back to Washington, D.C. in time to accept the vice presidency. By the time King was to be sworn in, it literally required an Act of Congress for him to enter into office.
Thus, for the first and so far only time in U.S. history, Congress passed legislation allowing the VP-elect to be sworn in outside of the country. On March 24, 1853, King took his oath of office near Matanzas, Cuba, a seaport town 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of Havana. He was too ailing to stand without help, but he was able to repeat the oath and become America's 13th vice president.
Within a month, desperate to return to the United States, King set sail for Alabama — and died April 18, 1853, the day after he returned to his Southern estate. He never presided over a session of Congress as vice president — though in an odd twist of fate, he had acted as President pro tempore of the Senate in 1850, when Zachary Taylor died and then-VP Millard Fillmore assumed the presidency.
Following King's death, the nation went nearly four years without a vice president until March 1857, when John C. Breckenridge filled the position, serving alongside none other than President James Buchanan, King's longtime friend and companion.