Rufus King

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Rufus King

Rufus King (1755-1827), American statesman and an important member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, typified the constructive conservativism of the Federalist party at its best. He served as a U.S.senator and as minister to Great Britain.

Rufus King was born in Scarborough, Maine, the son of a prosperous loyalist merchant whose house was twice ransacked by revolutionary mobs. Nevertheless, during the dramatic events leading to the Revolution, Rufus sympathized with the patriots, although he did not join Gen. George Washington's army. King graduated from Harvard College in 1777 and immediately entered the office of one of New England's most learned and gifted law teachers. He served briefly in the militia but devoted most of his energy to his studies. Admitted to the bar in 1780, he quickly established a large and lucrative practice that he continued intermittently throughout his life.

Emerging Federalist

In 1783 King was elected to the Massachusetts General Court. A year later he was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he served for 3 years. He worked for enlarged powers for Congress and also sought to exclude slavery from the Northwest Territory. In 1786 he married Mary Alsop, the daughter of a wealthy New York merchant.

Disgusted with the impotence of the Continental Congress and alarmed by the violence of Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts, King advocated a stronger central government. He was appointed a Massachusetts delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where he spoke often and eloquently in defense of a strong Federal government, the sanctity of contracts, and a government purged as much as possible of the slave interest. He fought every effort to "gut" the new Federal Constitution but remained willing to consider changes accommodating what various states considered their vital interests. When the convention adjourned, King was one of the nation's prominent leaders and a chief spokesman for ratification of the Constitution.

King was elected a U.S. senator from New York, his adopted state, in July 1789. In the Senate for 7 years, he was solidly Federalist, supporting Alexander Hamilton's financial plans, Jay's Treaty (1794), and a strong army and navy. He coupled his political influence with expansion of his legal and commercial interests, becoming by the end of the century one of the wealthiest men in New York.

Minister to Great Britain

In 1796 King began 7 years of distinguished service in the critically important post of American minister to Great Britain. He played a key role in establishing what has been called the "First Rapprochement" between England and its former colonies. Though he defended American interests at every turn, his conciliatory manner gained him the confidence of a succession of English ministers and made him the main channel of communication between the two governments. His last important service was to support English threats to renew war against France should the latter take possession of New Orleans; this proved of considerable value in making President Thomas Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana possible.

After returning to the United States in June 1803, King moved his family to a country estate on Long Island, N.Y., and resumed his legal practice. With Hamilton and John Quincy Adams he opposed disunionist sentiment within the Federalist party. In 1804 and 1808 he ran as his party's vice-presidential candidate. Unsuccessful in both elections, he became a country gentleman, meanwhile serving as a trustee of Columbia College and supporting Trinity Episcopal Church.

Return to the Senate

King was reelected as U.S. senator from New York in 1813. Although critical of President James Madison and the War of 1812, in the crisis following the British capture of Washington, D.C. (August 1814), King loyally marshaled Federalist support to rescue the nation from bankruptcy and strengthen its defense against expected further assault by the powerful British forces. One of the few Federalists who had not been tainted by overzealous opposition to the war, King received his party's presidential nomination in 1816. However, he suffered a crushing defeat in the Electoral College.

Reelected to the Senate, King supported some of the nationalist programs of the "new" Jeffersonian Republicans; but most memorably, he spoke out against admission of Missouri as a slave state in 1819. Hoping to stir the North against slavery and thus create an issue that could revive the fortunes of the Federalist party, he orated, cajoled, and intrigued to place firm legal restraints on the proslavery elements. His disappointment at the passage of the Missouri Compromise (1820) was followed by his failure to prevent the adoption of various democratizing reforms at the New York Constitutional Convention.

Though in declining health, King accepted appointment from John Quincy Adams as minister to Britain. In 1825-1826 he resumed cordial relations with prominent Englishmen but achieved little success in his negotiations. Sick and disappointed, he returned to New York, where he died on April 29, 1827.

Further Reading

Long selections from King's papers and letters are in Charles R. King, ed., The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King (6 vols., 1894-1900). The standard biography is Robert Ernst, Rufus King, American Federalist (1968). Bradford Perkins, The First Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1795-1805 (1955), best describes King's diplomatic contributions. □