Rufus King was an attorney, politician, and diplomat. He served Massachusetts as a delegate at the Continental Congress and at the Constitutional Convention where he signed the United States Constitution. He represented New York in the United States Senate, and he also served as Minister to Britain. He was a candidate for the Federalist Party for both Vice President (1804, 1808) and President of the United States (1816).
King was born on March 24, 1755, in Scarborough, Massachusetts, an area that is now Maine. His parents were Sabilla Blagden and Richard King ; his father was a prosperous farmer-merchant. Richard King settled at Dunstan Landing in Scarborough, near Portland, Maine, and had a “modest fortune” by the time Rufus was born in 1755. He was so successful financially that his neighbors were jealous. A mob “ransacked his house and destroyed most of the furniture” after the Stamp Act 1765 was imposed and caused rioting. No one was punished for the deed, and the mob burned his barn the next year. Richard King was a loyalist, but all his sons became patriots in the War of Independence.
Rufus King attended Dummer Academy (now The Governor’s Academy) and Harvard College. He graduated from Harvard in 1777 and began study law. He interrupted his studies in 1778 to volunteer in the militia to fight in the Revolutionary War. He was appointed to the rank of major and served as an aide to General Sullivan in the Battle of Rhode Island. He returned to his apprenticeship after the campaign ended.
King was admitted to the bar in 1780 and started his legal practice in Newburyport, Massachusetts. In 1783 he was elected to the Massachusetts state assembly and each year until 1785. From 1784 to 1787 he represented Massachusetts at the Confederation Congress where he was one of the youngest delegates.
Rufus King married Mary Alsop on March 30, 1786, in New York City during the time he served as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Rufus and Mary became parents of five sons: James G. King, John Alsop King, Charles King, Edward King, and Frederic Gore King. The King family belonged to the Episcopalian church.
Mary was born on October 17, 1769, in New York and died on October 18 in Jamaica, New York. She was the only daughter of John Alsop, a wealthy merchant and a New York delegate to the Continental Congress (1774-1776). She was also a great niece of Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Mrs. King was described as “a lady of remarkable beauty, gentle and gracious manners, and well cultivated mind.” She “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. The latter years of her life, except while in Washington, were passed in Jamaica, Queens, New York.”
While Rufus was at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, he “worked closely with Alexander Hamilton on the Committee of Style and Arrangement to prepare the final draft.” After his return home, he worked to get the Constitution ratified as well as positioning himself to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Massachusetts ratified the Constitution, but King was not elected to the Senate.
King moved to New York City at the urging of Hamilton and was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1789. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1789 and re-elected in 1795. He resigned from the Senate on May 23, 1796, to accept the appointment of U.S. Minister to Great Britain. He had previously declined an offered post of Secretary of State by President George Washington.
As Minister to the Court of St. James (1796-1803 and 1825-1826), King played a “major diplomatic role.” Even though King was a “leading Federalist”, President Thomas Jefferson kept him in office until King requested to be relieved of the duty. “He successfully settled disputes that the Jay Treaty had opened for negotiation. His term was marked by friendship between the U.S. and Britain; it became hostile after 1805.”
King ran unsuccessfully as the Federalist Party candidate for Vice President in 1804 and 1808 and was elected to the U.S. Senate once again in 1813 where he served until March 4, 1819. He ran unsuccessfully for Governor of New York in April 1816 as well as U.S. President later that year. He ran for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1819 but the seat remained vacant until January 1820 when he was elected again. He served in the U.S. Senate until March 4, 1825.
Rufus King opposed the expansion of slavery and slave trade. His stand on this issue was “a product of moral conviction” which just happened to coincide with the “political realities of New England federalism.” He successfully barred the extension of slavery into the Northwest Territory by adding provisions to the 1785 Northwest Ordinance. He supported Senate action in 1817 to abolish the domestic slave trade and “spoke strongly for the antislavery amendment to the Missouri statehood bill” in 1819. “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.” He continued in various ways to support gradual emancipation after the Missouri Compromise.
At that time, King owned “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.
Rufus was not the only King involved in politics. His brother William King was the first governor of Maine and a prominent merchant, and his brother Cyrus King was a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. Rufus has numerous prominent descendants.
King died on April 29, 1827, in Jamaica, Queens, New York, at age 72. His funeral was held at his home in Jamaica, Queens, New York. He is buried in the Grace Church Cemetery in Jamaica, Queens, New York. King purchased the home in 1805 and later expanded it; it is now called King Manor and is a museum open to the public. King Park in Queens is now located on King’s farm.
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 in Madison, Wisconsin. Rufus King High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is named after his grandson, Rufus King, a general in the American Civil War.