William Rufus King may have risen to the highest political office of any person from Alabama, but history has all but overlooked the man who had the singular distinction of twice being one heartbeat away from the presidency.
Born ten years into the independence of the United States, King was a bright young star in the Democratic Party. He was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons at the age of 21, where he served for two years. He was elected as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for North Carolina in 1811.
After a brief stint overseas as secretary to the US minister to Russia, King returned to the United States in 1818 and settled in the newly-organized Alabama territory. The next year Alabama became a state, and it sent King to Washington, DC as one of its first two senators.
Although a junior senator from a brand new state, King quickly rose through the ranks. He left the Senate in 1844 to become US minister to France. Upon his return to the US, he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Senate and returned as a senator in 1848.
President Zachary Taylor died on July 9, 1850. Two days later, King was elected as president pro tempore of the Senate. Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, since the vice presidency was vacant, King was next in line to the presidency — one heartbeat away. King left the Senate at the end of 1852 and traveled to Cuba in hopes of recovering from tuberculosis. While there, he was nominated to be the Democratic vice presidential running mate for Franklin Pierce.
Following a successful election, King was too ill to travel to Washington to be sworn in. By a special act of Congress, he was permitted to take the oath of office on March 24, 1853, near Matanzas, Cuba, once again putting him one heartbeat away from becoming President of the United States.
He ultimately was able to return to the United States, but his health could not hold out. Two days after returning home, William Rufus King died, having served as vice president for 26 days.