William Rufus Devane King was born in Sampson County, North Carolina, on April 7, 1786, the second son of William King and Margaret Devane. His father, a wealthy planter and justice of the peace, had fought in the Revolutionary War, served as a delegate in the state convention called to ratify the U.S. Constitution, and was an occasional member of the North Carolina state assembly. At the time of his son's birth, he owned more than two dozen slaves.
Young William studied at local academies and at the University of North Carolina Preparatory School, a facility established in 1795 to cater to the educational needs of "raw, mostly untaught youths of diverse ages and acquirements." He entered the University of North Carolina in the summer of 1801 and proved to be a capable student, but he left that institution at the end of his junior year. Following a period of legal training with Fayetteville's William Duffy—one of the state's leading lawyers—he gained admission to the North Carolina bar in 1805.
A Jeffersonian Republican, King served in the North Carolina legislature's house of commons from 1808 to 1809, and then as solicitor of the fifth circuit of the state superior court at Wilmington. In 1810, several months short of the constitutionally prescribed age of twenty-five, he won the Wilmington district's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. There William King joined with House Speaker Henry Clay, also a freshman member, John C. Calhoun, and other young, expansionist "warhawks" of the Twelfth Congress in a determined and successful campaign to initiate hostilities with Great Britain.
In November 1816, King traded lawmaking for diplomacy by resigning from the House to serve as legation secretary under William Pinkney, recently appointed U.S. minister to Russia. Pinkney and King traveled first to the Kingdom of Naples in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain compensation for seized American ships. In January 1817, they reached St. Petersburg, where they served for a year. In February 1818, without waiting to be formally recalled, Pinkney and King returned to the United States.
William King moved from North Carolina to the rich economic and political opportunities of the newly organized Alabama Territory. In October 1818, he purchased 750 acres of land and created an Alabama River estate, "King's Bend," six miles from the town of Cahaba, the new state capital. In March 1819, King and several others organized a land company and founded the nearby town of Selma, which he named for a site in classical legend that occupied high bluffs above a river. The town prospered because of its proximity to Cahaba, which remained the state's capital until 1826. The former congressman and diplomat rose quickly to local prominence and was selected as a delegate to the territory's July 1819 constitutional convention and then, in December 1819, as one of Alabama's first United States senators.
A moderate Democrat, King became an active supporter of Andrew Jackson soon after the 1825 decision of the House of Representatives to select John Quincy Adams over Jackson for president. In the 1828 presidential election, Alabama cast its electoral votes for Jackson, due in large measure to King's efforts. King generally supported the Jackson administration during its stormy eight-year life, although as a southerner he was also associated with the "little Senate" group considered loyal to Jackson's nemesis, South Carolina's John C. Calhoun. The Alabama senator shared Jackson's hostility to Kentuckian Henry Clay's "accursed American System" of centralized governmental action against foreign competition through protective tariffs, a central banking system, and a public works program of canal and road-building.A foppish dresser who wore powdered wigs long after they were fashionable, William King carved out a distinguished career in the Senate, where he represented Alabama following its admission to the Union in 1819. The nation's only bachelor vice president, King lived with James Buchanan, the nation's only bachelor president, for more than a decade (they were nicknamed the "Siamese Twins.") Elected vice president in 1852, King departed for Cuba the following year in the hopes that the climate might ease his rapidly deteriorating health. Sworn into office on March 24, 1853 near Havana — he remains the only vice president to assume office outside the United States — King returned to his Alabama plantation on April 17 and died the next day. The office remained vacant until 1857.