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This Day in History: Rufus King, lesser-known Signer of the Constitution

On this day in 1755, a signer of the United States Constitution is born. Rufus King would go on to become the last Federalist candidate to run for President. What if he’d succeeded? America’s fifth President would have been President King!


As it would turn out, King wasn’t even close to earning the title. When he ran for President in 1816, he won only 34 electors to James Monroe’s 183.

King was born in modern-day Maine to a prominent farmer-merchant. Unfortunately, his family fell on hard times when his father suddenly passed away. King was left studying law and monitoring his business interests at a time when others were joining the Revolutionary War effort.


At the time, some questioned his patriotism, but King wanted to support his stepmother and siblings.


In the end, King did serve in the war briefly, but only when his region was threatened. Perhaps his approach was not so odd in a day and age when people felt more loyalty to their states than to any national entity?


King was slowly but steadily earning the respect of those around him. He was elected to the state legislature. He served in the Confederation Congress. His legal practice was thriving. By 1787, he was elected to represent Massachusetts at the Constitutional Convention.


By then, Shays’ Rebellion had rocked Massachusetts. The incident left King more open to the idea of a stronger national government, and discussions at the Convention further convinced him that the Articles of Confederation simply were not working. King became an important figure in crafting the compromises in our Constitution—and in getting that document approved by his home state.


It would be one of the last things he would do for Massachusetts. He was becoming more of a national figure. He married the daughter of a New York merchant and moved to New York, first home of the new United States government.


King served in many capacities in the new American government, but perhaps he should be better known for one important position he took: King worked against the introduction of slavery into new American territories and states.


“To suffer the continuance of slaves until they can gradually be emancipated in states already overrun with them,” a peer wrote King in 1785, “may be pardonable, because unavoidable . . . but to introduce them into countries where none now exist, countries which have been talked of—which we have boasted of—as an asylum to the oppressed of the Earth—can never be forgiven.”


King agreed wholeheartedly, responding: “Your ideas on this unjustifiable practice are so just that it would be impossible to differ from them.” By then, he’d advocated in the Confederation Congress for the exclusion of slavery from the Northwest Territory. Later, as a United States Senator from New York, he would make similar arguments against allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state.


The man who had been born into a slaveholding family had come to see how incompatible Revolutionary War principles were with the institution of slavery. Indeed, it was a revelation that many in the founding generation had, although they don’t always get much credit for it.


“Among the Founding Fathers,” two Army historians write, “King probably traveled the longest philosophical distance. Beginning his career as an isolated, provincial scholar, he matured into a unionist of broad vision. This transformation left him optimistic about the nation’s future. The United States, he claimed, ‘on account of the freedom of their government, and the vigor and enterprise of their People, have the Right as well as the Power to take the lead in whatever may affect or concern the new world.’”


Primary Sources:

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