There are many ways to reach Jamaica, Queens, via public transit. From Brooklyn or Manhattan one could catch a Queens-bound F Train and remain aboard until getting off at Parsons Boulevard near the end of the line. Hundreds of thousands of commuters pass through Jamaica every day, either on the F Train, via the many other subway or bus lines serving this busy, diverse community, or aboard the nearby Long Island Railroad. The vast majority of these hurrying New Yorkers have likely never visited—and are perhaps not even aware—that in their midst stands one of the oldest structures in all the five boroughs. A purposeful traveler, however, could exit that subway station onto Parsons Boulevard and walk south two blocks along 153rd Street to a quaint, leafy park. In that public green’s southernmost portion, the exact address is 150-03 Jamaica Avenue, stands a historic house. Extensively remodeled over the centuries, what is today called King Manor was built in the 1750s when Jamaica itself was not yet part of New York City, but a rural village, one of the many growing European settlements on Long Island. There, for almost the entire nineteenth century, lived one of America’s most important but now-forgotten families.
The house was purchased in 1805 by Rufus King, who turned fifty that year but had already lived a full, accomplished life. By this time he had among other things graduated first in the Harvard class of 1777, fought briefly in the Revolutionary War, studied and practiced law in the picturesque Massachusetts coastal town of Newburyport, served in local and state politics, represented Massachusetts in the Confederation Congress, helped draft and ratify the United States Constitution as a Massachusetts delegate, been a U.S. senator in the First Congress after moving to New York, served as Minister Plenipotentiary and Ambassador of the United States to the Court of St James’s, and run unsuccessfully in 1804 on the national Federalist ticket as vice-presidential candidate alongside South Carolinian Charles Cotesworth Pinckney against incumbent Thomas Jefferson.
Upon that 1804 defeat King purchased his Jamaica property, where, still relatively young, he could slow down, read in his extensive library, toil as a gentleman farmer, and otherwise contemplate his future options. Despite his already-long career Rufus King would serve in American affairs for another two decades, among other things running on the under-ticket with Pinckney again in 1808, for the American presidency itself in 1816, legislating in the United States Senate for a dozen years, and going abroad once more to London as U.S. ambassador in the John Quincy Adams Administration in the late winter of his life. Rufus King was one of the longest surviving of America’s Founding Fathers. King died in 1827, the year after Jefferson and John Adams passed away.
The King family in British America
The King family’s decades in eighteenth century British North America read like a case study of European settlement in the New World. The history of Rufus King’s grandfather, John King, is contradictory, in part because much of the family’s documentation was destroyed by drunken Patriot mobs that ransacked John’s son Richard King’s home and business prior to the Revolution. In some tellings John was born in Kent, England and emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1700s; by other accounts King was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts sometime in the 1680s or 1690s. Others dispute even these meager details. Whatever the case, King made a success of himself under British rule in North America. Son Richard, born in Boston in 1718, furthered that success. Young Richard received a classical education and by his mid-twenties was doing increasingly well as a member of the merchant class in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Timber proved especially lucrative. He also worked as a housewright, rented his increasing landholdings to tenant farmers, retailed in dry goods, branched into shipping and exporting, and kept irons in other fires as opportunity arose. Proud of his rights as an Englishman, Capt. Richard King served as a commissary officer in Gov. William Shirley’s militia during King George’s War against the French and in June 1745 participated in the successful taking of the fortress at Louisbourgon Cape Breton Island. Soon thereafter he settled in Scarborough, Massachusetts, all the better to supervise his timber concern and acquire land on the frontier. One of the most eligible bachelors in that coastal enclave, Richard married Isabelle Bragdon in November 1753. Their first child, Rufus, was born on March 24, 1755. Other children followed before Isabelle Bragdon King passed away in 1759. Richard remarried in January 1762 and reared several more children with second spouse Mary Black King.
Richard King provided well for his wife and growing brood. Financially King was doing well enough to have at least half a dozen slaves to care for his family and now considerable estate. Young Rufus received a sterling education, even amidst the French and Indian War. The eventual British victory must have pleased the Kings, but the 1763 peace agreement brought unintended consequences and led to tension between crown and colony. In 1765, the year Rufus turned ten, British authorities passed the Stamp Act to reduce debts incurred during the war and provide for the defense of British subjects in North America. Taxes are never popular and many colonists were outraged over these new duties on newspapers, almanacs, playing cards, legal documents, calendars, and other accoutrements of daily life. DeemingRichard King a Stamp Act supporter, a mob of locals thinly masquerading as Native Americans ransacked and vandalized his home and place of business in March 1766. The sordid episode demonstrates how the personal and political often intertwine. Many of these vigilantes sincerely opposed the Stamp Act and—just like mobs committing similar outrages throughout the colonies—were not afraid to demonstrate their opposition through intimidation and violence against anyone whom they regarded as the status quo. Such mobs were hardly new or unique in Massachusetts, the other colonies, or anywhere in the Anglophone world in this period. One historian explains that “this was preeminently an era of mob activity. Unemployment, following a series of wars, had filled many of the towns and cities with poor, idle, and often reckless men. They had little happiness, less humanity, and a great hatred of the classes above them.”
The Scarborough looters and pillagers were inspired not just by politics and anger at King George III, but their indebtedness to Richard King himself. This is why the looter burned and destroyed the paperwork evidence of the monies they owed to Mr. King. Richard King’s lawyer in the aftermath of this episode was John Adams. Despite years of effort and legal claims most of the vandals—the King family’s neighbors—were never brought to justice. If anything the threats and sabotage to King family property—arson, vandalism, crop destruction, and other crimes—only escalated in succeeding years. These events were personally and financially devastating for King. Adams wrote of his client’s experience that “The terror and distress, the distraction and horror of his family cannot be described by words or painted on canvas. It is enough to move a statue, to melt a heart of stone to read the story.”
Amidst these events twelve-year-old Rufus King left Scarborough and went off to a new preparatory school in Byfield, five miles south of Newburyport and thirty-three miles north of Boston, the Dummer Charity School, which had opened in February 1763 after a generous bequest from the late Massachusetts lieutenant governor, William Dummer. (After a few name changes over the centuries it is today The Governor’s Academy, by its own account the oldest boarding school in New England.) Headmaster Samuel Moody believed in the Socratic Method and encouraged group participation and open discussion. Moody’s approach was ideal for a rising pupil like Rufus King, who evolved into an excellent orator and debater. The education was excellent and the scenery bucolic but wider events intruded nonetheless. The British eventually repealed the Stamp Act but synchronous with Rufus’s matriculation at Dummer the British parliament in far-off London enacted the Townshend Acts and sent troops to the colonies to ensure order. Tension in the Massachusetts colony rose incrementally as British soldiers were quartered in increasing number. It culminated on March 5, 1770 when soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot fired into a crowd in front of Boston’s Old State House, killing five. Meanwhile the now teenaged Rufus King continued his studies. A well-prepared King matriculated at Harvard College in August 1773. Four months later colonists threw tons of the British East India Company’s finest tea into Boston Harbor.
Richard King opposed the punitive Intolerable Acts of 1774 but in keeping with the conservative nature of many British subjects in North America his response to the rising tensions was restrained and muted. Mr. King, like many colonists, yearned less for full-on revolution than his full-blown rights as an Englishman. The more earnest Sons of Liberty in Scarborough saw things differently. What is more, they harbored increased suspicions about Mr. King and his loyalties. The tension boiled over in June 1774 when one of Richard King’s ships sailed for Salem loaded with processed wood. The circumstances remain unclear but, by whatever means, Mr. King’s lumber made its way past the British blockade and in to Boston. Many Sons of Liberty were outraged and their anger only increased when it became known that Richard King’s lumber was used to build barracks for British regiments. An angry mob of some three dozen confronted King at his home and forced him to recant his alleged Loyalist sympathies. Physically King got off easily; he was not tarred-and-feathered, let alone killed. Psychologically it was another issue. King was forced at one point to his knees and, afterward, to recant and read aloud what amounted to a pro-Whig loyalty oath. This and the events of the past decade took a toll from which King never recovered. Dispirited and broken, Richard King died less than a year later. One historical account describes that in that time: “Day and night his mind brooded over that scene of humiliation, until he became little else than an unhappy hypochondriac. His constitution, already enfeebled, could not bear up under a crushed spirit; he died on the [27th] of the following March . He was just fifty-six.
Richard King’s death came three days after son Rufus turned twenty. Now, with his personal life so disrupted, the world itself changed three weeks later with gunfire in nearby Lexington and Concord. Life was increasingly tenuous for the college student whose two biological parents were now deceased and whose country was on the cusp of civil war and revolution. While Rufus King was not destitute by any means, the social unrest, not to mention destruction of family documents at the hands of his father’s debtors, had strained the young man’s fortunes. Still, Rufus King had the support structure of a caring step-mother, siblings, half-siblings, and in-laws and these loved ones stepped in to fill the breach. With fits and starts Harvard College remained open but held classes in changing locales as the war’s tides turned and Cambridge’s fate hung in the balance. Not wanting to interrupt his studies, King remained in school and finished first in the class of 1777, that July receiving his degree in a small ceremony closed to the public due to wartime constrictions. Now of full legal age and a college graduate, he put Scarborough behind him. King studied law and pursued an independent classical education in Newburyport. With increasing Patriot sympathies he followed the war closely and finally joined the war effort when in summer 1778 the opportunity arose to expel the British from Newport, Rhode Island.
Maj. Rufus King’s military experience was brief and largely uneventful. He served on the staff of Brig. Gen. John Glover and participated in what proved to be a futile effort to push the British out of Newport in late August 1778. King’s military experience is a case study in the notion that a soldier spends ninety-nine percent of his time hoping for something to happen and the remaining one percent wishing it were not; the attempt to retake Newport proved a fiasco and the only highlight was General Glover’s brilliant tactical withdrawal in which Major King nearly lost his life. On September 5, 1778, one week after the Newport experience, King was discharged. His time in uniform was short but influential, and remained with him until his death nearly half a century later. Among other things military service brought King into contact with men from across New England and beyond, from ordinary tradesmen and mechanics all the way up to the likes of John Hancock.
King hastened back to Newburyport and the study of law. He received an excellent education under the tutelage of Theophilus Parsons. King was fortunate to have Parsons’ guidance and counsel. A demanding taskmaster only five years older than King and admitted to the bar only in 1774, Theophilus Parsons was already a well-respected jurist. In 1778 Parsons became a member of the “Essex Junto,” a group of men from the county of that name who gathered in Ipswichand laid the foundation for the Massachusetts state constitution. Parsons would have a long legal and legislative career culminating in his ascension to chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1806, in which capacity he served until his death in 1813. Later Parson mentees included the young John Quincy Adams. King himself passed the bar in 1780 and quickly became the successful lawyer he had worked so hard to become. He entered politics as well; in July 1783 Rufus King’s Newburyport neighbors elected him to the Massachusetts General Court, the state legislature. He took his seat in early October, six weeks before British Evacuation Day. Not even thirty, Rufus King was a rising presence.
Forging a Nation
By year’s end the war was over, but the peace was tenuous and the new nation challenged and threatened on numerous fronts. The nation was encumbered with significant debts to France and other European nations. Inflation was rampant, as the paper money printed by the Continental Congress—not to mention the paper currency issued by the states themselves—was rendered essentially worthless. Coinage was confusing and not uniform; early Americans used coins minted not just by different states but by private concerns, which in turn circulated with the Spanish reales, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and other foreign mintages still in distribution after decades of trade with the Old World and West Indies. Militarily, the embittered British still maintained a significant North American presence and were capable all kinds of mischief. Native Americans also threatened white Americans, both in European-Americans’ current settlements and in the untamed western lands so coveted by white settlers. The thirteen individual states were mutually suspicious of one another, often in commercial conflict, in argument over jurisdiction of waterways and western lands, and even in disagreement on the very boundaries of their own borders. Slavery was already proving ominously divisive.
The apparatus meant to handle these issues, the Articles of Confederation, was woefully inadequate to solve these or the many other challenges. Congress had no powers to tax under the Articles of Confederation. Furthermore, there was no encompassing federal judiciary or even chief executive to oversee affairs and make decisions. These and other issues were problems Rufus King came to know intimately. On November 3, 1784 he left state politics and stepped onto the national stage when elected to the Congress of the Confederation. Always eager and prompt, Rufus King arrived at the nation’s capital within the French Arms Tavern in Trenton, New Jersey, on December 4, 1784 just in time for the imminent holiday recess and upcoming Confederation Congress move to New York City.
On January 11, 1785 the Congress of the Confederation convened in its new location in New York City Hall on Wall Street. It was a time of excitement, anxiety, and opportunity. Historians justifiably malign the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation but the men of the Confederation Congress enacted meaningful legislation whose influence remains today. This is especially true regarding the means of converting western territories into functioning states and incorporating them into the union. The Confederation Congress had dealt with the land issue even before moving to New York. In March 1784 Virginia legislator Thomas Jefferson and a committee issued their report of a Plan of Government for the Western Territory attempting to create a framework for creating ten trans-Appalachian states on lands north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi Rivers. Based on this plan the Confederation Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1784 on April 23, but not before rejecting Jefferson’s provision to abolish slavery in the new territories by 1800.
Once settled in New York City the Congress of the Confederation picked up the territorial issue once again. King was not a member of the Confederation Congress in 1784 but was instrumental in the debates and passage of two subsequent measures that provided for smoother transition ofwestern settlements into statehood. These land ordinances provided not just guidelines for statehood but gave the Congress of the Confederation—which had no legal authority to raise funds via taxation—an apparatus to generate revenue through land sales. The Land Ordinance of 1785, adopted on May 20, provided for the purchase and subsequent surveying of Indian lands into neat parcels strongly resembling the New England townships with which Rufus King was so familiar. Two years later King and fellow Massachusetts delegate Nathan Dane authored “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North West of the River Ohio,” known more widely as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Confederation Congressmen were afraid of lawlessness on the western frontier and in the Northwest Ordinance outlined stages by which western territories could apply for statehood, including the federal appointment of a strong governor, secretary, and three-man judiciary to serve as an initial territorial government while also granting settlers personal protections through the guarantee of legal, civic, and religious rights. The 1787 ordinance also outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory. Rufus King was gone by summer 1787 but he was no doubt pleased when Congress passed the measure that July 13.
There were changes in Rufus King’s personal life as well. Now in his thirties and a successful legislator living in New York City, King made the rounds of high society within the small community clustered on the southern tip of Manhattan island. He soon met, courted, and won the heart of Mary Alsop, the daughter of wealthy merchant and onetime member of the New York Provincial Congress John Alsop. Mary reputedly brought a dowry of £50,000 to the union. Rufus and Mary married in New York City on March 30, 1786. James Monroe, with whom King would spar for decades on such issues as federalism, slavery, and even the presidency itself, was among the wedding guests.
King’s life was filled with personal and professional triumphs but the nation itself was fragile and faced serious challenges and obstacles. His friend Benjamin Lincoln, a general in the Revolutionary War, had written to him on February 11, 1786 that “The United States, as they are called, seem to be little more than a name.” These threats boiled over in Rufus King’s own home state the summer just after King’s wedding when Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays led a ragtag militia against the powers of the government in the western portion of Massachusetts. Some blamed Shays’ Rebellion on the evils of drink and compared the incident to the mobs that had terrorized colonial communities for decades. Printer Elisha Babcock averred in the September 5, 1786 American Mercury of Hartford, Connecticut that: “The virtuous and renowned sons of Liberty, in several counties of Massachusetts, have again set us a most laudable example of a liberal use of liquor, called ‘public spirit’, as appears by the effects of the annoying quantities they have drank in their various mobs and meetings held the summer past.” In the moment it may have been easy to dismiss the actions of Shays and his followers but their grievances were real. Overburdening debts. aggressive creditors, crippling inflation, wild currency fluctuations, unfair tax and tariff policies, and an economy depressed by disruptions in trade with Europe and the West Indies during the war were all real problems that needed addressing.
Some despaired and even spoke of forgoing the entire republican experiment. Noah Webster wrote in the midst of the crisis in the November 20, 1786 Connecticut Courantthat Shays’ Rebellion was indicative of “the misfortune of republican governments. For my own part, I confess, I was once as strong a republican as any man in America. Now, a republican is among the last kinds of government I should choose.” Shays’ Rebellion dragged into the following year and climaxed in late January and early February when the former army captain and his 1,200 men tried to seize the Springfield arsenal. Troops under the command of Benjamin Lincoln put down the rebellion. A relieved Rufus King wrote from New York City to John Adams on February 10, 1787 that “Letters are this moment received from Genl. Lincoln giving the pleasing intelligence that he dispersed the party under Shays on the morning of the 5th Instant.”
In contrast to Noah Webster others were not so quick to give up on republicanism. Some were already trying to remedy the country’s many problems. In March 1785 George Washington hosted a gathering of delegates from Maryland and Virginia at his Alexandria home intended to foster economic cooperation between the two states, especially regarding the navigation of shared rivers and waterways. That Mount Vernon Conference inspired James Madison and others to call for a gathering of representatives from additional states to meet in Annapolis, Maryland from September 11 to 14, 1786. By chance the Annapolis Convention fell in the midst of Daniel Shays’ uprising. Attendees, including Madison and Alexander Hamilton, were naturally concerned about events in far off Massachusetts. Not much business was accomplished in Annapolis; for one thing only five states sent representatives. Many called for yet another convention, to be held in Philadelphia late the following May.
Rufus King was at neither the Mount Vernon nor Annapolis gatherings—among other things he was too busy in New York City pushing the land ordinances through the Confederation Congress. He had been skeptical of the Annapolis meeting and as late as early April 1787 felt the same about the upcoming convention slated for Pennsylvania. King wrote to his old friend and mentor Theophilus Parsons on April 8 that “I wish it was in my power to say that the affairs of the Union bore a more favorable appearance than when I saw you last; but the contrary is the fact. What the Convention may do at Philadelphia is very doubtful.” King elaborated to Parsons that he regarded many representatives from the Southern states suspiciously, presumably in reference to slavery, the expansion of which King was vehemently against. Ultimately however he came to appreciate the need for the upcoming convention. The timing could not have been better for King personally. He had served in the Congress of the Confederation from December 1784 until May 1787, at which time he was required to leave office due to provisions within the Articles of Confederation limiting legislators to just three terms of office in any six-year period. He was off for Philadelphia no later than May 20. When the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787 Rufus King of Massachusetts was the only man from New England present.
Just thirty-two and one of the ten youngest men present, King proved an active and engaged member of the Constitutional Convention. His background, education, and life experience had prepared him well for the historical moment. He was present for the entire gathering expect for a four-day visit to New York in mid-August. He also cut a striking figure. Maj. William Pierce, a Convention delegate from Georgia who penned brief character sketchesof a number of his colleagues, observed that:
Mr. King is a Man much distinguished for his eloquence and great parliamentary talents . . . and is at this time high in the confidence and approbation of his Country-men. This Gentleman is about thirty three years of age, about five feet ten Inches high, well formed, an handsome face, with a strong expressive Eye, and a sweet high toned voice. In his public speaking there is something peculiarly strong and rich in his expression, clear, and convincing in his arguments, rapid and irresistible at times in his eloquence but he is not always equal. His action is natural, swimming, and graceful, but there is a rudeness of manner sometimes accompanying it. But take him tout en semble, he may with propriety be ranked among the Luminaries of the present Age.
A staunch Federalist and thus ally of Madison, Hamilton and men of like mind, King served on a total of six committees, more than any other delegate in Philadelphia. His membership included seats of the Committee of Slave Trade, whose August 24 report would have outlawed the Atlantic Slave Trade by 1800 had that provision come to pass the full vote; and the Committee of Style, created in the final days of the Convention and whose task was to arrange, edit, and revise the Constitution before the final vote and approval on Saturday September 15. Convention President George Washington described the scene that took place two days afterward after the signing of the document on Monday September 17: “The business being thus closed, the members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together, and took a cordial leave of each other.”
From Confederation to Republic
Rufus King took his leave for Massachusetts, where in early 1788 he joined John Hancock, Theophilus Parsons, Benjamin Lincoln, Samuel Adams, and scores of others at the state ratifying convention. Delegates voted in favor of ratifying the United States Constitution on February 6, 1788 by a vote of 187 to 168, with King of course voting with the majority. It was a transition year for King, his family, and the nation. He and Mary’s first child, John Alsop King, was born that year. Massachusetts was the sixth state to ratify. Nine states were required to vote in the affirmative to make the Constitution binding. In this period King and his family relocated to New York. The United States had gone from a confederation to a republic. Pierre Charles L’Enfant was soon hired to convert New York’s City Hall into Federal Hall. There the First Congress would convene for its first two sessions in 1789 and 1790 and President George Washington would be sworn in as the first president. Rufus King was elected to the First U.S. Congress as a senator from New York State. When he was sworn in, so began yet another chapter in his life.
Rufus King, The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, Comprising His Letters, Private and Official, His Public Documents and His Speeches, Vol I., Charles R. King, M.D., ed. (New York: G.P. Putnams Sons, 1894), 157.
Theophilus Parsons the Younger, Memoir of Theophilus Parsons, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts; with Notices of Some of His Contemporaries, (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1859), 461.