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June 5, 1852
William R. King First Senator to Gain Vice-Presidential Offer

William R. King

What an imposing name: Senator King. Throughout the history of the Senate, four Kings have been senators. In June 1852, one of them—William Rufus Devane King of Alabama—became the first senator to gain a major party's nomination for the vice presidency. Several months later, he won that office, but then gained the dark distinction of becoming the only vice president to die before getting to exercise that position's responsibilities.

When William King received his party's vice-presidential nomination on June 5, 1852, he had served in the Senate for more than 28 years, making him at that time the second longest-serving senator in history. In those days, the Senate elected a president pro tempore to serve only during the absence of the vice president. King had been a frequent choice as president pro tempore. His Senate colleagues considered the warm-hearted and even-tempered King to be an excellent presiding officer. They saw him as a man of sound judgment and rich experience who could be stern "when public interests or his personal honor required it." At a time when the vice president's only significant duty was to preside over the Senate, King seemed to be the ideal man for the job.

Although King and his presidential running mate Franklin Pierce won the 1852 election, deteriorating health kept him from returning to the Senate chamber in his new role. Describing himself as looking like a skeleton, the vice president-elect traveled to Cuba to seek a cure for his tuberculosis. There, by special act of Congress, he took his oath as the nation's unlucky 13th vice president. After several weeks, King returned to his home in Alabama, where he died just five weeks into his term and without ever reaching the nation's capital.

From William King to Joseph Biden in 2008, 26 incumbent Democratic and Republican senators have received their party's vice-presidential nomination. On four occasions, the candidates on both sides of the ticket were senators, such as the 1928 race that pitted Majority Leader Charles Curtis against Minority Leader Joseph Robinson. In the years since World War II, as the vice presidency has taken on wider responsibilities, senators have been increasingly willing to accept their party's nomination. Of the 26 senatorial candidates for vice president since 1852, 14 won the office. But only two—Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson—continued directly to the White House, in each case because of the death of the incumbent president.

Reference Items:

U.S. Congress. Senate. Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993, by Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office. 104th Congress, 2d sess., 1997. S. Doc. 104-6.


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