Creating Order: Rufus King and the Nascent American Republic

Postwar Politics (>1783)

July 16, 2020
by Keith Muchowski Also by this Author


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On the afternoon of April 30, 1789, George Washington stepped onto the balcony of the freshly-renovated and renamed Federal Hall on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan and took the presidential oath of office. Then, stepping into the Senate chamber, now-President Washington gave his inaugural address. He began plaintively, admitting in his opening line that Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the fourteenth day of the present month [when notified of his election].”[1] Washington had reason to be anxious. It had been slightly more than a year and a half since he and other representatives at the Philadelphia Convention had approved the Constitution, sent it on to the Confederation Congress, and celebrated with food and drink at City Tavern before disbanding and going their separate ways. In the contentious year and a half that followed, the states incrementally ratified the Constitution, reaching the required number of nine in June 1788 that established the republic. Now George Washington was president and here on the southern tip of Manhattan he and other dignitaries gathered at Federal Hall, home of the United States Senate and House of Representatives.

In many ways the drafting and ratification of the Constitution were the easy parts. As the framers well-knew, societies, ancient and modern, had written constitutions and founded republics. They also were aware that most if not all of them had eventually failed to sustain that form of government. Washington and the others gathered that spring day were conscious of the enormous challenges, foreign and domestic, they faced. There were state, national, and international debts to be paid and debilitating inflation that hindered economic growth. Politicians disagreed furiously about whether there should be a national bank to handle these and other matters. Before the war British forces had been in place to protect colonists from Native American threats. Now those Redcoats were no longer in place to protect Americans as they moved ever-westward in their insatiable land hunger. It was apparent that state and national militias,such as they were, could hardly protect these settlers.

There were other questions to resolve. What would a federal court system look like, and what would be the Supreme Court’s role in relation to the executive and legislative branches? Who would advise the president and how? What would people even call the chief executive? Your Highness, Your Excellency, or some other honorific emanating a whiff of royal entitlement? Would the slave trade, and maybe even slavery itself, go the way toward ultimate extinction? Even where to permanently locate the federal capital was a matter of bitter contention.

These and other issues facing the not-so-unified-states would play out amidst international turmoil as European powers continued the global wars they had been fighting for decades. The international order was delicate and from the American perspective not that far removed; Great Britain, France, and Spain all had significant New World presences and the fledgling United States would have to deal with each in a continually evolving, ever more complicated global order. In addition to world wars there was internal European strife; less than three months after Washingtons inaugural revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in Paris, setting off an insurrection that ultimately consumed France and drew in other European monarchies. Men who had been some of the United Statess staunchest allies during the War of Independence inevitably becomes embroiled in the ensuing events.

Revolution even came to the New World when the enslaved population of Saint-Domingue overthrew their French oppressors in what is now Haiti, embroiling that island nation in strife for much of the 1790s and early 1800s. Toussaint Louverture and the Afro-Caribbean soldiers under his command fought the French and instilled fear in American slave holders, who worried about what their own enslaved populations might now be inspired to do. Then there was Frances longtime enemy across the English Channel. How, if at all, might the young republic of the United States restore relations with Great Britain, who after all would make a natural trading partner given the historical, cultural, and linguistic ties between the two? One thing was clear: whatever the United States was to do, it would do with little to no hard or soft power, weak as it was for all the reasons mentioned above and many more.

One figure who would be central in these debates would be Rufus King. All of thirty-four in the spring of 1789, King was a Federalist in the Age of Federalism and was destined to play a significant role in foreign and domestic events in the nascent republic. His influence was such that it stretched into the Jeffersonian period and beyond into the Era of Good Feelings until his death in 1827. King would spend the next decade and a half working on some of the most intractable problems that have ever faced the nation, first focusing primarily on domestic issues as a U.S. senator and next on foreign ones as United States ambassador to The Court of St. Jamess. One historian writing in 1960 averred that it was less a desire for fortune than “a fear of anarchy and disorder” that had converted King into a devoted Federalist at the Constitutional Convention.[2] A previous Journal of the American Revolutionarticle,Fending Chaos,” discussed the first third of Rufus Kings life, the period from his 1755 birth, the violence and turmoil of the Revolution, through his helping Massachusetts ratify the Constitution in early 1788. This second and concluding article covers the next phase, the search for order in the fifteen years from King’s taking his seat in the First U.S. Congress in 1789 through his 1804 loss as vice-presidential candidate on the Federalist ticket.


The successful conclusion of the Massachusetts ratification convention on February 6, 1788 marked an inflection point in Rufus Kings life. The legislator had spent the last three years in New York City, representing Massachusetts at the Confederation Congress, participating in national affairs, enjoying himself in the Manhattan social whirlwind, and even marrying the engaging, beautiful daughter of one of the city’s wealthiest citizens. In comparison Newburyport seemed increasingly small and remote. Revolutions by definition are transformative events and the city and state, like King himself, had changed a great deal. Locals back home were speaking more openly that—for all King had done for the community, state, and nation—they rarely saw him anymore. King wrote excitedly to George Washington on February 6 just after ratification had passed and declared “that the majority having decided in favor of the constitution, they will devote their Lives & Fortunes to support the Government.”[3] Things however were not so simple. Nine states were required to ratify the Constitution to make it legally binding and Massachusetts had been number six. On February 29 George Washington wrote a letter to King from Mount Vernon congratulating him on Massachusetts’s ratification and wondering wryly when his home state of Virginia might do the same.[4]

What Rufus King would now do and where he would do it was a matter of great speculation. King’s friend Christopher Gore urged him to become active in Massachusetts affairs, something King could certainly do now that his service in the Confederation Congress was behind him. He was warm enough to the idea of getting involved in Massachusetts politics to look into the purchase of a home in Cambridge where he could be closer to the Boston hub.[5] The sale fell through, which could only have pleased Rufuss wife Mary, who was eager to be in New York closer to her beloved and aging father John Alsop. King had also become a first-time father. John Alsop King had been born—not in Massachusetts but New York—just over a month before on January 3.

A permanent move to New York could also improve King’s political prospects. After all it was still, at least for now, the nations capital. A concern however was that New York had not yet ratified the Constitution—and in the winter and spring of 1788 its doing so was not necessarily a given. Biding his time and watching events, King continued commuting between Massachusetts and New York and watching the ratification debates. By mid-June eight states had ratified the Constitution, one less than the required nine. On June 12 King in Boston wrote to Alexander Hamilton, then on his way to Poughkeepsie for the New York ratification convention, that he was following the ongoing New Hampshire convention anxiously, adding that he had created means to disseminate the Granite State’s decision once the votes were cast. King added a postscript asking Hamilton to apologize to Gen. Henry Knox for not writing and to explain that he had expected to see his fellow Massachusetts native back in Boston.[6] New Hampshire ratified the Constitution on June 21, thus reaching the magic number nine. After several fraught weeks Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Isaac Roosevelt, and other New York Federalists steered passage of the U.S. Constitution through the convention on July 26, 1788. New York was part of the republic.

King still vacillated on any potential move. Leaving Newburyport for good was a difficult decision; Rufus King had been a citizen of Massachusetts his entire life and he had a great deal of family, friends, and powerful connections there. Knox wrote to him on August 17, 1788, chastising that “I was mortified on my arrival here [in Boston] to find that you and Mrs. King had returned to New York. The deep impressions you have made here on the minds of men are favorable to any political employment within the power of this state.”[7] King however decided upon a permanent move to New York and made the news public in letters to friends in April 1789, just as the federal government was beginning in Lower Manhattan. Rufus King was now a New Yorker. In an unusual move New York’s Supreme Court broke precedent and admitted Rufus King to the State Bar immediately.[8] He was also made a member of the New York State Assembly. Topping it off, he and Mary became new parents as well when they welcomed a second son, Charles, on March 16.

A Government Rises

The first session of the First Federal Congress was supposed to have begun March 4 but the nation got off to a tardy start. Congressmen who had arrived by that time cooled their heels and waited a month until enough of their counterparts dribbled into New York to reach a quorum in early April. With the electoral votes counted and some procedural protocols in place, Washington was sworn in on the last day of the month. All this happened before New York was even represented in the Senate. The state’s politics were so contentious that the New York legislature could not reach consensus upon two suitable choices. The impasse stretched into summer. From Albany Alexander Hamilton wrote to King of the stalemate on July 15, concluding in the final paragraph that “Certain matters here, about which we have so often talked, remain in status quo.”[9] That status quo changed the very next day when legislators elected Rufus King and Revolutionary War general Philip J. Schuyler—Hamilton’s father-in-law—to the U.S. Senate. King took his seat in Federal Hall on Saturday July 25, 1789 and Schuyler joined him two days later. Senators in the First Federal Congress drew lots to stagger their term lengths and when King and Schuyler did so the latter received the short end of the stick; Schuyler’s tenure would end in March 1791 and King received the full six-year term to conclude in March 1795.

King and Schuyler arrived amidst debates on creating agencies dealing with diplomacy, the military, and finance. Departments of Foreign Affairs (July 27), War (August 7), and Treasury (September 2) were all established in quick order. Next came the Senate’s powers of advice and consent over President Washington’s recommendations. On September 11 the Senate confirmed Alexander Hamilton to run the Treasury Department. The following day the Senate approved Henry Knox for the Department of War. President Washington wanted Thomas Jefferson to run the Department of Foreign Affairs (renamed the State Department on September 15) but the Virginian was still in Paris serving his duties as minister to France. Because Jefferson would not return for several months John Jay would serve as Secretary of State in the interim. For the duration of the federal government’s stay in New York City these and other cabinet secretaries would run their affairs and small staffs from various locales.

In late summer the first session was winding down. On September 21, ten days after Hamilton’s appointment, he received a request from the House of Representatives to write a report on the nation’s credit. Three days later President Washington signed the Judiciary Act, officially An Act to Establish the Judicial Courts of the United States. Among other measures this legislation created a federal system of district and circuit courts; stipulated a six-member Supreme Court with one Chief and five Associate Justices; and created the office of Attorney General. Edmund Randolph would become the first Attorney General of the United States in early 1790 at the outset of the second session. In the meantime Washington nominated John Jay to become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The U.S. Senate approved Jay’s nomination on September 26. John Jay and the other justices would convene the following February at the Royal Exchange Building for the Supreme Court’s first assembly. On September 29, 1789 the first session of the First Federal Congress concluded.

Seventeen ninety was the first full calendar year of the republic, and when the second session of Congress began on January 4 it was Senator Rufus King’s first full session in the Senate. Many of the legislative acts passed in 1789 had been debated and essentially finalized before his arrival in late July. Now he would have the opportunity to make a greater contribution. His committee assignments dealt with trade, naturalization, and terms of office. He was also placed in charge of the Senate’s response to George Washington’s first annual message to Congress, which the president delivered on January 8. Commerce, citizenship, and the codification of bureaucratic procedures—important as these were—paled in comparison to two subjects that would consume Congress for the remainder of the session: settling the national and state Revolutionary War debts and establishing a permanent residence for the nation’s capital.

On January 14, 1790, Hamilton submitted to the House of Representatives his 40,000 word Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit. Hamilton’s ideas boiled down to a few key proposals: the payment and retirement of all foreign debtsand interest; the maintenance of domestic debts; and the federal assumption of state obligations. Hamilton’s report called also for the creation of a national bank that might expedite these measures.[10] Responses broke down largely along sectional lines. Southern leaders, many of whose states had already paid off their Revolutionary War responsibilities, were against federal assumption of state debts; northern figures, including King, supported the assumption of debts as a means to unify and bind the states together into a tighter whole. There was an equally contentious issue also in play, and one too that divided legislators on regional lines: the selection of a permanent location for the federal capital.

The two topics were debated furiously over the winter and spring of 1790. Prospective sites for a permanent capital included locales in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and elsewhere. Representatives from Virginia hoped it would be somewhere along the Potomac River. The assumption debate, as the controversy over potential federal responsibility for state debts was called, continued on a parallel track. The standard creation myth of the Compromise of 1790 is that on or about June 20 Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson hosted a dinner at his rented Maiden Lane home for Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and other dignitaries at which those gathered negotiated a settlement. The dinner indeed took place; Jefferson for one mentioned it in Anas, his posthumously published collection of ephemera.[11] The conversation may have moved the needle to some modest degree, but the politics of residence and assumption were too complicated for such a simple resolution over food and drinks. The sausage making and logrolling continued for weeks until there was finally a breakthrough on July 16 with passage of the Residence Bill, officially titled An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States. On August 4 Congress passed An Act Making Provision for the Payment of the Debt of the United States. What the bills together meant was that the federal government would assume the remaining state Revolutionary War debts and in return the capital would temporarily relocate to Pennsylvania for a decade while a permanent capital was built on the marshy shores of the Potomac.

For King the political victory came at a steep price. He, Mary, and their growing family after all had just made New York their home. Rufus King was the only U.S. senator who could walk to work from his permanent residence. Hamilton had been one of the most cynical players in the assumption and residence settlement but he understood New Yorkers’ feelings. After all, he too was a New York transplant. Some time before it all went into effect Hamilton consoled King and explained to his friend why it was all necessary, expounding that “the project of Philadelphia & Potomac is bad, but it will insure the funding system and the assumption: agreeing to remain in New Yk will defeat it.”[12] When the deal was consummated and the reality of it all became apparent, the senator from New York broke into tears.[13]

The move, painful though it was for some, was hardly unprecedented; the federal government’s move to Philadelphia was just the latest in a number of relocations over the past decade and a half since the Continental Congress. The government was up and running in Philadelphia in time for the third and final Congressional session of the First Congress on December 6, 1790. The country was already growing. Rhode Island had belatedly ratified the Constitution in 1790 and Vermont and Kentucky were set to join the union in 1791 and 1792 respectively. Once these three fully joined the union they would bring the number of states to fifteen. Senator Rufus King thoroughly expected this American expansion. He was after all among the primary authors of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. King recognized too that it would take financial infrastructure to make expansion and other things happen.

Hamilton and others long understood the utility of banks and had founded a Bank of New York in 1784. That state lending institution quickly became a growing concern. Now Federalists pushed for a national repository and enjoyed a major victory when on February 25, 1791 President Washington signed the bill creating the Bank of the United States. Banks were having something of a moment and that March the Bank of New York reached another milestone when it became incorporated by the state. King excitedly wrote to Hamilton on March 24, 1791 with the news and continued on about how it might spur development: “You are sensible that almost every person here is interested in our Western Lands; their value depends upon the settlement of the frontiers, these settlements depend on Peace with the Indians, and indeed the bare possibility of a war with the six Nations, would break up our whole frontier.”[14] Rufus King joined the Bank of New York’s board of directors in May and joined the board of the national institution that October. The Bank of the United States received a twenty-year charter and opened its doors in Philadelphia on December 12, 1791.

Untangling Alliances

Foreign affairs came to the fore in a dramatic way when on April 8, 1793 a ship arrived in Charleston harbor carrying French minister Edmond Charles Genêt. On January 21, just ten weeks previously, King Louis XVI—who had so crucially come to the Patriots’ aid in their War of Independence after the Battle of Saratoga—was executed on the guillotine at the Place de la Concorde. France was now fully embroiled in revolution and at the same time facing external challenges from Great Britain and Spain. These were the very reasons why Genêt was in the United States. His mission was to press the Washington Administration for payment of debts dating to the Revolutionary War; secure the French use of American harbors for captured British war prizes; recruit and accoutremen and matériel; and ensure enforcement of the February 1778 Franco-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which the leadership of the newly-founded French Republic interpreted as still binding. Because the United States was trying to remain neutral and so thread the needle of European affairs, Genêts activities put American leaders in a difficult position.

Among other things the Genêt Affair exposed the fault lines between the Federalists and emerging Democratic-Republicans. Francophiles such as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson were sympathetic to the French minister, while men like Jay, King, and Hamilton were more openly critical. On August 12, 1793 subscribers of The Diary, a periodical of the day, opened their newspapers to find a brief letter written by Chief Justice John Jay and Senator Rufus King calling the French diplomat out for his attempted end-around the Washington Administration. New Yorkers, they exclaimed, were stopping them on the streets and asking the two men if it were true that “Mr. Genêt, the French Minister, had said he would Appeal to the People from certain decisions of the President” and that in response “we answered that he had.”[15] Eventually even Jefferson was forced to relent. When it came to the Secretary of State’s attention that another French official was behaving the same as Genêt, Jefferson wrote to the French Minister in early October 1793 demanding the figure’s recall, admonishing that “it is my duty to remark to you that by our constitution all foreign agents are to be addressed to the President of the US. no other branch of the government being charged with the foreign communications.”[16] Genêt himself was recalled in January 1794. In an odd turn of events the French diplomat married the daughter of New York Gov. George Clinton the following November and settled in the Hudson Valley.

While all this was taking place President Washington sent Chief Justice Jay and other envoys abroad to settle issues left unresolved with Great Britain from the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which Jay had helped negotiate. Tariffs and trade, British belligerence via frontier outposts they were supposed to have abandoned at the war’s end, the impressment of American sailors, and the continued seizure of American ships on the high seas were just a few of the contentious issues to be resolved. Jay was playing a weak hand and signed the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation on November 19, 1794. He wrote to Hamilton from London that very day that: “My Task is done—whether Finis coronat opus, the President Senate and Public will decide.”[17] Jay returned to the United States, resigned as Chief Justice in June, and on July 1, 1795 was sworn in as governor of New York. In a strange set of circumstances his treaty with Great Britain became public that very day.[18] Angry mobs across the country hanged and burned John Jay in effigy. In New York City fliers called for an anti-treaty demonstration at City Hall (so-called again after the federal government left in 1790) at noon on Saturday July 18, 1795. That Friday evening King and Hamilton convened a meeting at the Tontine Coffee House adjacent to City Hall to organize a response to the impending demonstration.

The next day’s outcome was predictable. When Hamilton, with King at his side, took to the steps of a nearby home to support Jay’s treaty an angry mob threw stones and physically assaulted the now-former Treasury Secretary. (In a curious piece of early twentieth century popular culture, organizers of the 1909 Hudson–Fulton Celebration commemorated the riot with a parade float and accompanying postcard entitled Hamilton’s Harangue.”) The rioting was reminiscent of mob tactics dating back at least to the Stamp Act and, given his father’s experiences with mob disorder in the decade prior to the Revolution, profoundly disturbed Rufus King. That this current unrest took place directly in front of where King had served in the Confederation and Federal Congresses made it that much more unsettling. Four days later an article appeared in the July 22, 1795 edition of The Argus, or Greenleafs New Daily Advertiser describing what had happened at City Hall and expressing detailed support for the treaty.[19] The author called himself Camillus and if the sentiments he expressed strongly resembled Hamilton’s it was not coincidental, for he was the author. Hamilton and King eventually wrote over three dozen articles under the Camillus pseudonym, known collectively as The Defence,” to articulate and support Jay’s treaty.

Senator Rufus King had won re-election in January 1795 but stepped down in 1796 when President Washington appointed him Minister Plenipotentiary to The Court of St James’s. King would serve in London as the American ambassador to Great Britain for seven years, through the short remainder of Washington’s second administration, John Adams’s full presidency, and more than two years of Jefferson’s first term. The irony of diplomacy is that when done well the seamlessness makes it difficult to appreciate. For these seven years Ambassador King’s efforts helped keep the United States out of war with Europe’s great powers, which was no small task. For one thing, the French were incensed over the Jay Treaty and expressed their displeasure with the seizure of American ships on the high seas. This led President Adams to send envoys Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Elbridge Gerry, and John Marshall to Paris to mediate. The three often worked in concert with Ambassador King in London to coordinate the American response during this Quasi-War.

Like many Federalists, King had a natural affinity for the British. His ancestors after all had come from England, as did those of his wife Mary. The Kings settled into English life easily and sent their expanding number of children to British schools. Oldest son John attended Harrow and was a classmate of future prime minister Robert Peeland budding poet Lord Byron.[20] The Kings returned home in 1803. Rufus King made a vice-presidential run with fellow Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney at the top of the ticket in 1804 but lost handily to Jefferson. New York’s George Clinton, varying ally and adversary of Rufus King, assumed the vice-presidency. In 1805 Rufus and Mary King purchased a manor of their own in Jamaica, Long Island where they would raise their five sons. The King mansion was reminiscent of the Scarborough, Massachusetts home once owned by Richard King as well as the large country estates that Rufus and Mary would have seen in the English countryside during their years there. In the much longer term Rufus would adopt the King family crest which he had seen in England, accurately or not believing it part of his provenance.[21]

Only fifty when he purchased his manor, King would have an entire third phase of his life until his death in 1827. For the moment, that was still before him. In the thirty years since the American Revolution had begun in 1775, through the war, his time in the Confederation Congress, at the Philadelphia Convention, in the halls of the U.S. Senate, and diplomatic corridors of Europe, Rufus King had participated in some of the most consequential issues of his time. He often succeeded, sometimes failed, compromised when necessary, helped bring the republic into being, and protected it as he thought best from internal and external threat. Most of his sons too eventually entered public service, dealing with issues left only partially resolved by the generation that had come before them.


[1]George Washington, Washingtons Inaugural Address of 1789: A Transcription,” American Originals: National Archives and Records Administration,

[2]Richard E. Welch, Jr., Rufus King of Newburyport: The Formative Years (1767-1788),” Essex Institute Historical Collections 96 XCVI, no. 4 (October 1960): 263.

[3]Rufus King to George Washington, February 6, 1788, Founders Online,

[4]Rufus King, The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, Comprising His Letters, Private and Official, His Public Documents and His Speeches, Charles R. King, ed (New York: G.P. Putnams Sons, 1894), 1: 322.

[5]Ibid., 1: 340.

[6]Ibid., 1: 332-333.

[7]Ibid., 1: 342.

[8]Robert Ernst, Rufus King: American Federalist (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1968), 141.

[9]King, The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, 1: 363.

[10]Alexander Hamilton, Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit,” Founders Online,

[11]Thomas Jefferson, The Complete Anas of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin B. Sawvel, ed. (New York: Round Table Press, 1903), 33.

[12]Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism—The Early American Republic, 1788–1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 159-160.

[13]Richard Brookhiser, Alexander Hamilton, American (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1999), 89.

[14]King to Alexander Hamilton, March 24, 1791, Founders Online,

[15]John Jay and Rufus King, For the Diary,” Historical Magazine, November 1866, 329.

[16]Thomas Jefferson to Edmond Charles Genet, October 2, 1793, Founders Online,

[17]Jay to Hamilton, November 19, 1794, Founders Online,

[18]Todd Estes, John Jay, the Concept of Deference, and the Transformation of Early American Political Culture,” The Historian 65, no. 2 (Winter 2002): 293.

[19]Camillus, The Defence No. I,” July 22, 1795, Founders Online,

[20]Union League Club of New York, Proceedings in Reference to the Death of Hon. John A. King, July 11th, 1867 (New York: Union League Club House, 1867), 4.

[21]W. W. Spooner, The King Family,” American Historical Magazine 2, no. 4 (July 1907): 274.


  • Looking forward to the third article, for I think the last third of Rufus King’s life were by far the most fascinating.

    1. Geoff, you are indeed correct that the final third of Rufus King’s life includes some of the most important and dramatic episodes. The scope of the JAR ends in 1805, and so for now alas the story ends here. For the rest one will have to wait a few years for my book to be published, if it even is.

      Keith Muchowski

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