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Morton: Forgotten King one America's most influential

On this day (April 29) in 1827, the founder, framer, and, in 1816, the last Federalist candidate for president, Rufus King, died at his Jamaica, N.Y., estate after a lingering but unknown illness.

Although not well-known or remembered today, fellow delegate to the 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention William Pierce (Georgia) wrote that King “may with propriety be ranked among the Luminaries of the present age.”

He is, Pierce observed, “much distinguished for his eloquence and great parliamentary talents.”

French traveler Brissot de Warville in his highly regarded, "New Travels in the United States of America" described King, as of August 1788, as “the most eloquent man of the United States. What struck me most in him was his modesty. He appears ignorant of his own worth.”

During what was a long and distinguished political/diplomatic career, King utilized his enviable rhetorical abilities and innate intelligence to gain high political (mostly legislative) offices and important diplomatic posts and to exert significant influence in the formative years of the American republic.

Born March 24, 1755, into the “strict Puritan” family of local politician/merchant Richard King in what is today the state of Maine (then part of Massachusetts), Rufus, as the oldest of nine children, was given an excellent education with the expectation that he would, upon his father’s death, assume the mantle of patriarch of the growing and locally prominent King family.

At age 12, he was sent to Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass., where he studied Latin, Greek and French, all needed to gain admission to Harvard. In the summer of 1773 at age 18, he entered Harvard, where he studied oratory, mathematics, law and history, and from where he graduated in 1777 with high honors in oratory and mathematics.

Upon graduation, King commenced a three-year legal apprenticeship under the tutelage of the well-known Massachusetts lawyer Theophilus Parsons. His legal training was interrupted by a brief stint, in 1778, in the Continental Army as an aide-de-camp to American Gen. John Sullivan.

As a legal apprentice, King honed his skills as an orator and, through diligence and perseverance, learned enough law to pass with ease the bar in 1780. For the next eight years (1780-1788), King made Newburyport, Mass., his home as a practicing attorney and state and national legislator. On March 10, 1787, King was appointed, along with Elbridge Gerry, Caleb Strong, and Nathaniel Gorham, to the four-member Massachusetts delegation to the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

Attending every session from May 25-Sept. 17, King became an eloquent and persuasive spokesman for the nationalistic Virginia Plan, which as it turned out, formed, with modifications, the basis of the U.S. Constitution.

King’s post-convention public career was as an influential legislator, distinguished diplomat, and unsuccessful candidate for president (1816) and for N.Y. governor (1815). His successful political/diplomatic posts, in which he invariably performed with noticeable distinction, included member N.Y. state assembly (1789-1790), New York U.S. senator (1789-1796 and 1813-1825), and U.S. minister to Great Britain (1796-1803 and 1825-1826).

In 1796, the 41-year-old King married the 16-year-old Mary Alsop, with whom he had one daughter and four sons – two of which followed their distinguished father in public service as politicians, diplomats and philanthropists.

Rufus King has been, up to now, one of the forgotten founders and framers. His historical reputation has been that of an early American patriot of no higher than second rank. However, an impartial examination and re-assessment of his long and acclaimed public career, in both politics and diplomacy, should result in his name being added to any pantheon of the top dozen or so of America’s most influential, most important, and most revered founders and framers.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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