Rufus King, an American statesman, born in Scarborough, Me., in 1755, died in Jamaica, L. I., April 29,1827. His father, Richard King, a successful merchant, gave him the best education then attainable. He was admitted to Harvard college in 1773, graduated in 1777, and went to Newburyport to study law under the direction of Theophilus Parsons. In 1778 he served as aide-de-camp to Gen. Glover in the brief and fruitless campaign in Rhode Island. He was admitted to the bar in 1780, and at once entered upon a successful practice in Newburyport. He was an ardent patriot, and in 1782 was chosen a member of the general court or legislature. In that body, to which he was repeatedly reelected, he took a leading part, and successfully advocated, against a powerful opposition, the granting of a 5 per cent. impost to the congress, as indispensable to the common safety and the efficiency of the confederation. In 1784 he was chosen by the legislature a delegate to the continental congress, then sitting at Trenton. He took his seat in December, and in March, 1785, moved a resolution: "That there be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the states described in the resolution of congress of April, 1784, otherwise than in punishment of crime whereof the party shall have been personally guilty; and that this regulation shall be made an article of compact and remain a fundamental principle of the constitution between the original states and each of the states named in said resolves." This resolution was, by the vote of seven states (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland) against four (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia), referred to a committee of the whole, where for the time it slept.
The ordinance offered by Thomas Jefferson in the previous year (April, 1784) proposed the prospective prohibition of slavery in the territories of the United States after the year 1800; Mr. King's proposition was for its immediate, absolute, and irrevocable prohibition. When, two years afterward, the famous ordinance of freedom and government for the N. W. territory was reported by Nathan Dane of Massachusetts (July 11, 1787), Mr. King, who was a member of that congress (then sitting in New York), had gone to Philadelphia to take the seat to which he had been elected by Massachusetts as a member of the convention for framing a constitution for the United States; but his colleague embodied in the draft of his ordinance the provision, almost word for word, which Mr. King had laid before congress in March, 1785. While occupied with his duties as a member of congress, he was designated by his state as one of the commissioners to determine the boundary between New York and Massachusetts, and was empowered with his colleague to convey to the United States the large tract of lands beyond the Alleghanies belonging to his state.
On Aug. 14, 1786, Rufus King and James Monroe were appointed a committee on behalf of the congress to wait upon the legislature of Pennsylvania and explain to them the embarrassments of the finances of the United States, and to urge the prompt repeal by that state of the embarrassing condition upon which it had voted its contingent of the 5 per cent. impost levied by the congress on all the states. The speech of Mr. King on this occasion, though no notes of it remain, is commemorated as most effective and brilliant. On May 25,1787, he took his seat in the federal convention. The journals of the convention and the fragments of its debates which have come down to us attest the active participation of Mr. King in the important business before them; and, although one of the youngest members of that body, he was selected as one of the committee of five to which it was finally referred to "revise the style of, and arrange the articles" agreed on for the new constitution. Having signed the constitution as finally adopted, Mr. King went back to Massachusetts, and was immediately chosen a delegate to the state convention which was to pass upon its acceptance or rejection. Fierce opposition was made in that convention to this instrument, Mr. King successfully leading the array in defence.
In 1788 he took up his permanent residence in New York, where in 1786 he had married Mary, daughter of John Alsop; and in the following year he was elected a representative of that city in the assembly of the state. In the summer of the same year he was chosen by the legislature the first senator from the state of New York under the new constitution, having for his colleague Gen. Schuyler. In this body he took rank among the leaders of the federal party. In the bitter conflict aroused by Jay's treaty he was conspicuous in its defence, both in the senate and as the joint author with Alexander Hamilton of a series of newspaper essays, under the signature of Camillus. In 1795 he was reelected to the senate, and while serving his second term was nominated by Washington minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain, having previously declined the office of secretary of state, made vacant by the resignation of Edmund Randolph. He embarked with his family at New York in July, 1796, and for eight years ably fulfilled the duties of the office. No foreign minister was probably more sagacious in ascertaining or divining the views and policy of nations, or more careful in keeping his own government well informed on all the public questions of the day.
His diplomatic correspondence is a model both in style and in topics. The federal party having lost its ascendancy in the public councils, Mr. King, shortly after Mr. Jefferson's accession, asked to be recalled. He was however urged by the president to remain, as he had in hand important negotiations. The recurrence of war in Europe, consequent upon the rupture of the peace of Amiens, leaving little hope of success on the point to which his efforts had been chiefly directed, that of securing our seamen against impressment, he renewed his request to be relieved; and accordingly a successor was appointed, and Mr. King returned to his country in 1804, and withdrew to a farm at Jamaica, L. I. In 1813, during the war with Great Britain, he took his seat for the third time as United States senator. Yielding no blind support to the administration, and offering to it no partisan opposition, he yet was ever ready to strengthen its hands against the common enemy. When the capitol at Washington was burned by the British forces, he resisted the proposal to remove the seat of government to the interior, and rallied the nation to defend the country and avenge the outrage. His speech on this occasion in the senate was one of those that marked him as a great orator.
At the close of the war he applied himself to maturing the policy which should efface its evils as speedily as possible, and build up permanent prosperity. To a bill, however, for a United States bank with a capital of $50,000,000, he made earnest opposition. He resisted the claim of Great Britain to exclude us from the commerce of the West India islands; and to his intelligent exposition of the laws of navigation and of the mercantile interests and rights of the United States we are indebted for the law of 1818. He likewise early discerned the danger of the sales on credit of the public lands, and by his bill substituting cash payments and a fixed but reduced price for these lands, and stipulating a remission of interest and of a portion of the principal of the debt then due therefor, he averted a great political peril, and gave order and security to the receipts from the sale of those lands. In 1819 he was reelected to the senate, as in the previous instance by a legislature of adverse politics to his own. In 1816 he had been, without his knowledge, named as the candidate of the federal party for governor of New York. He reluctantly accepted the nomination, but was not elected. Shortly afterward the so-called Missouri question began to agitate the nation.
Mr. King was pledged against the extension of slavery; and when therefore Missouri presented herself for admission as a state with a constitution authorizing the holding of slaves, he was inexorably opposed to it. The state of New York, by an almost unanimous vote of its legislature, instructed him to resist the admission of Missouri as a slave state; and the argument made by Mr. King in the senate, though but partially reported, has been the repertory for almost all subsequent arguments against the extension of slavery. He also opposed the compromise introduced by Mr. Clay, which partially yielded the principle, and voted to the last against it. His fourth term in the senate expired in March, 1825, when he took leave of that body, and as he hoped of public life, in which for 40 years he had been engaged. One of his latest acts was to present a resolution, Feb. 16, 1825: "That as soon as the portion of the existing funded debt of the United States for the payment of which the public land of the United States is pledged shall have been paid off, then and thenceforth the whole of the public land of the United States, with the net proceeds of all future sales thereof, shall constitute and form a fund which is hereby appropriated, and the faith of the United States is pledged that the said fund shall be inviolably applied, to aid the emancipation of such slaves within any of the United States, and to aid the removal of such slaves and the removal of such free persons of color in any of the said states, as by the laws of the states respectively may be allowed to be emancipated or removed to any territory or country without the limits of the United States of America." The resolution was read, and, on motion of Mr. Benton of Missouri, ordered to be printed.
John Q. Adams, now become president, urged Mr. King to accept the embassy to England, with which country unadjusted questions of moment were pending, and which the president believed Mr. King was specially qualified to manage. He reluctantly accepted the mission; but his health gave way, and after a few months spent in England, where he was warmly welcomed, he resigned and came home. - His son John Alsop, born in New York, Jan. 3, 1788, was several times elected to the state legislature, was a member of congress in 1849-'51, and governor of the state in 1857-9. He was for many years president of the state agricultural society, and died in Jamaica, Long Island, July 8, 1867. - His second son, Charles, born in March, 1789, was for some time a merchant, member of the legislature in 1813, from 1823 to 1845 editor of the "New York American," afterward associate editor of the " Courier and Enquirer," and from 1849 to 1864 president of Columbia college. He died in Frascati, Italy, Sept. 27, 1867. He was the author of a " Memoir of the Croton Aqueduct" (1843), "History of the New York Chamber of Commerce," "New York Fifty Years Ago," and other historical pamphlets.