The recent hit movie “Selma” recounts the historic civil rights marches 50 years ago orchestrated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through that Alabama city. Meanwhile, on April 28 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.
These events eerily intersect locally now that I am New To Seattle, which sits in King County. It officially is named now for Dr. King, and his face is the logo. But when created in 1852, the county was named for William Rufus DeVane King. Who he? King was the slave-holding vice president-elect of the United States who co-founded the city of Selma–and who probably was gay and in a de facto marriage with a future president of the United States.
Do I have your attention please?
In 1852 what is now Washington State was part of Oregon Territory. On December 22 of that year, the Oregon Territorial Legislature created new counties in the north around Puget Sound. In a blatant attempt to curry favor for eventual statehood, jurisdictions were named after newly elected national leaders: Pierce County (where Tacoma is), for soon-to-be-President Franklin Pierce, and, farther north, King County, for soon-to-be-veep William King.
Born in 1786 in North Carolina, King earned a degree from the University of North Carolina, became a lawyer and served as a Congressman and diplomat. He then moved in 1818 to fertile Alabama amid the Alabama Fever land rush of settlers and speculators to make his fortune as as a planter. King laid out the city of Selma, naming it after Scottish poetry. He eventually established one of Alabama’s largest cotton plantations. That also made King one of the state’s largest slaveholders, with as many as 500 slaves.
After Alabama became a state in 1819, King, already an accomplished politician, returned to the Other Washington as one of its first two senators. He was popular with his colleagues, although, as Time Magazine once wrote, he was a “foppish dresser who wore powdered wigs long after they were fashionable.”
King never married or had children. He became the roommate in Washington, D.C. of another senator, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, five years his junior, who also never married or had children. They lived together for 16 years, interrupted in 1844 for two years when King was ambassador to France.
A number of writers and historians believe it likely that King and Buchanan were in some kind of a committed relationship. The own words of the politicians are quoted. “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation,” King suggestively wrote Buchanan from Paris, as quoted in Presidential Sex: From the Founding Fathers to Bill Clinton, by Wesley O. Hagood.
According to Affairs of State: The Untold History of Presidential Love, Sex and Scandal, 1790-1900, by Robert P. Watson, shortly after King’s death, Buchanan wrote one female friend, “I am now ‘solitary and alone’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any of them.” The implication seemed clear. Various associates described the two men using other euphemisms of the era for homosexuals, such as “Siamese twins,” slang then for a gay couple.
In 1852 the Democratic ticket of Franklin Pierce and William King trounced two others to win the White House. But as it turned out, King had tuberculosis and was dying. Looking for a cure, he traveled to Cuba and was actually sworn in as vice president there in March 1853–the only national leader to take such an oath on foreign soil. He soon returned to the U.S. and, at 67, died a day later on his plantation in Selma. King was in office just 46 days and never presided over the U.S. Senate as vice president or otherwise took up his duties. The man for whom King County was originally a namesake is buried in a mausoleum at Live Oak Cemetery in Selma.
As for Buchanan, he was elected President in 1856–beating, among others, John C. Frémont, the fledgling Republican Party’s first national candidate (and in my opinion, a war criminal) and the man for whom Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood was indirectly named. Buchanan’s supporters fended off rumors about his personal life by noting he once was engaged to a woman (who, for some reason, killed herself). But in office Buchanan did such a poor job that his one term ended with the start of the Civil War.
To this day, Buchanan and King remain the only bachelors among U.S. presidents and vice presidents.
More than 130 years after William King’s death, the King County Council in 1986 changed the historical basis for the county’s name by a narrow 5-4 vote. The resolution called King a “slaveowner” who “earned income and maintained his lifestyle by oppressing and exploiting other human beings.” Of course, there was no mention of his sexuality; it wasn’t relevant to his career and background on King wasn’t as available as it is today. But the measure certainly helped to atone for Seattle’s protracted and not-so-ancient history of racial segregation.
Now, 1986 was long before the current rise of gay consciousness, Seattle’s emergence as a center of gay culture and Washington State’s path-breaking act in 2012 to legalize same-sex marriage by a vote of the citizenry. Were a county-name-basis-changing proposal to be made today, I can only imagine the debate that might rage between various liberal special-interest groups around Seattle all vying for historical vindication.
Makings of another good movie–or lawsuit.