William Rufus King was born on April 7, 1786, to William and Margaret DeVane King on the family plantation in Sampson County, North Carolina. King was educated in private schools and entered the University of North Carolina in 1801, where he joined the Philanthropic Society, an important literary student association. In 1804, King left the university before completing his education to pursue the study of law. He spent the next several years under the tutelage of prominent attorney William Duffy in his Fayetteville law offices. In addition to training in the law, Duffy also worked with King to develop his political skills. In 1808, King opened his own law office in the Clinton, in Samson County. Soon after, he won election to a seat in the North Carolina House of Commons. In 1811, he was elected to the first of three consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he established himself as a supporter of President James Madison. He was also a firm advocate of the War of 1812.
In 1816, at the age of 30, King was able to realize his lifelong dream of traveling outside the United States when he was appointed to the staff of William Pinckney, the new U.S. minister to Russia and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (which included Sicily and much of southern Italy). During his time in Europe and Russia, King wrote extensively of his experiences and developed considerable diplomatic and political skills. When his position ended, King traveled through Europe and then in late 1817 returned to North Carolina.
...During the early 1830s, King was involved in an incident that reflects speculation about his sexual orientation that continues to the present day. King was challenged to a duel, never carried out, with Dallas County planter Major Michael Kenan about a personal insult. Rumors also circulated in Washington, D.C., at the time, and they increased after King entered into a close friendship with fellow senator James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. Neither man ever married, and by 1836 they were sharing a residence in Washington. Any negative reactions to their relationship appear to have had little effect, and the men continued with their living arrangements and their work as legislators.
...King maintained support in Alabama, and he was appointed senator by Governor Reuben Chapman when Arthur Bagby was appointed minister to Russia in 1848. King was re-elected to a full term in 1849 and became president pro tempore of the Senate in 1850. Ever the moderate, King tried in vain to calm the rising tensions over slavery and sectionalism and was a member of the committee that drafted the Compromise of 1850. In acknowledgement of his efforts and considerable political skills, Alabama Democrats again lobbied for his nomination as vice president in the 1852 election. This time, he received support from the national party and led the field of candidates as Buchanan worked to defeat his three rivals for the presidential nomination. In the end, the party nominated New Hampshire veteran General Franklin Pierce, with King as his running mate.
During the subsequent campaign, King became increasingly ill, showing the signs of worsening tuberculosis. He continued to campaign tirelessly for a Democratic victory, which he believed essential to keep the country united. Although the ticket was victorious, King was forced to leave Washington, D.C., soon after the general election, taking his physician's advice to seek a warmer climate. In late 1852, he resigned from the Senate and set sail for Havana, Cuba. He settled at Ariadne, the home of Colonel John Chartrand set on a large sugar plantation outside the town of Limonar. Despite the improved climate, King's health continued to deteriorate. The U.S. Congress was thus forced to pass special legislation and make arrangements for King's swearing-in as vice president in Cuba on the grounds of the plantation.