WHEN ANNE ROYALL, the Washington gossip, made her usual survey of the new congressmen in 1839, she picked Thomas Butler King as “the flower of the Georgia delegation.”1 He was at this time thirty-nine years old, unremarkable in size, but finely made and arresting in looks. His deep-set, piercing gray eyes dominated a pale, cleanly modeled face. He wore his dark hair short in the fashion of the day, except for a fringe of beard along the line of the jaw. He had a firm chin and sternly-set lips. A certain gravity of countenance did not prevent him from creating a favorable first impression, for he was a ready conversationalist, affable in manner.2 He had a persuasive tongue which he could employ to advantage in responding gracefully to a toast or in pronouncing a eulogy on the death of a friend, but he gained no great fame as an orator or debater. His formal speeches were notable for their marshalling of statistics and their enthusiastic optimism rather than for oratorical display. Through experience he gained a command of anecdote and invective that made him a formidable opponent in the give and take of a political campaign.3
It was a matter of great concern to King that his political activities so frequently kept him away from his wife and children. Anna Page King, slightly her husband’s senior, devoted herself to the care of their eight children, the eldest of whom was just entering adolescence. Mrs. King never accompanied him on his political travels, and she opposed his activities in politics to some extent. At one time she reproached him for breaking his promise to her not to stand again for nomination.4 She devoted herself to domestic affairs, which included not only the upbringing of her own children but also the supervision of more than three hundred laborers on the plantation.
Outside the immediate family circle King had many dependents. To his slaves he is reputed to have been a kind master, and the well-built hospital that he maintained for them only a stone’s throw from his home evidences his concern for their health. Years later his son Floyd compared the different attitude that he encountered on a Louisiana plantation: “Here negros were a speculation, with us on the coast of Georgia they were an estate; we neither bought nor sold, that is [,] nothing of the kind was done on our plantations during my life.”5 In his early and most successful planting operations King managed his own slaves. He relied especially on the driver, Tony, who in the later years when an overseer was employed made separate oral reports on production figures.6
During the years when politics occupied so much of his time, King employed at least two overseers. The intermediary position of this employee made his relationship a difficult one; master and overseer usually parted company after a year or two. Yet one of King’s overseers stayed at his post for more than eight years, and there are few indications of any friction between the two men. The fact that two tutors left King’s roof with regret and expressions of high regard confirms the record of good relations between employer and subordinate.7
King’s interests outside his business affairs were diverse, ranging from church activities to racing for high stakes. He was appointed to collect money for the enlargement of a Protestant Episcopal church and served as a trustee of the meeting ground of the Waynesville summer colony, a joint project of Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Episcopalians. He was an early subscriber to Audubon’s Birds of America and promised to assist the naturalist with sales among his friends. He served as president of the Aquatic Club of Georgia, which issued a challenge to all comers to race their boat, the stakes on one race to be $10,000. Among other diversions, he enjoyed surf-bathing, poker games, and good liquors.8
When the Twenty-sixth Congress met in Washington in December 1839, King took his seat among the Whig opponents of President Martin Van Buren and quickly identified himself with them by opposing the Independent Treasury Bill. On a closely related bill giving the Secretary of the Treasury the power to re-issue treasury notes, King delivered his first speech in Congress.
He asserted that the proposed authority was unconstitutional, since treasury notes were bills of credit. His argument merely served as a prologue for a denunciation of Democratic policies. This legislation was clear evidence of a plot by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren to monopolize for the government the banking of the country. Jackson’s “hard money” had been merely a ruse in the general war on credit, preparing the way for Van Buren’s paper money, which was practically authorized by the present measure. Lest he be thought a proponent of the Bank of the United States, King hastened to state his view that both Banks had been unconstitutional. Furthermore, they had operated against the interests of the South. He favored a separation of government and banks, and he advocated a system in which northern banks could no longer profit from southern industry or control southern commerce. The administration measure he considered a thousand times more objectionable than the Bank of the United States. It would concentrate all the banking of the country in New York, drain the country of specie, and attract gold into the coffers of the government. Southern cotton growers and cotton exports would be expected to supply the enormous amounts of specie that would be needed to sustain the system. He compared the Independent Treasury with the fiscal measures of Alexander I of Russia, and concluded: “This, sir, is the relief and reform which may always be expected from the iron hand of despotism, when it is necessary to sacrifice the interests of the people to acquire power.”9
For anyone who knew his previous career, King’s maiden speech had a familiar ring. As a member of the State Rights party he had looked to a strict construction of the Constitution to protect the people from executive domination and a nationalized financial institution; he had attacked Jackson and Van Buren for using despotic methods and plotting against the public welfare; he had condemned the Independent Treasury as an attempt to consolidate power and debase the currency. As a spokesman for planters he had assailed the domination of northern banks and had advocated direct trade and a new system of cotton marketing. As a promoter he had profited from the loose system of credit that depended on state chartered banks. Yet never before had he combined so many elements in so virulent an attack.
King soon felt himself at home in his new duties. As his first term in Congress drew to a close, he wrote his wife: “We have nothing new here. The dull business of this President making Congress goes on in the usual routine.”10 He, too, contributed to the President-making, by serving as chairman of the Georgia delegation to the Young Men’s Convention in Baltimore in early May 1840. There he joined in the acclamation for William Henry Harrison as the Whig candidate for President.11 When he returned to Washington he used his energies, and the franking privilege, to bring the State Rights party in Georgia into the General’s camp.12 His own campaign for renomination he left in the hands of his brother, Andrew L. King.
For the State Rights party in Georgia the election of 1840 became a turning point. Some leaders considered an open alliance with the tariff-minded Whigs a betrayal of party principles. Three of the State Rights delegation in Congress bolted to the Union party, but the “faithful six” rallied the organization under the banner of Harrison.13 From the state convention at Milledgeville, Andrew L. King reported triumphantly that Thomas Butler King had been renominated and that the chances of both the state and national tickets in Georgia looked good. However, other political supporters found a widespread distrust of Harrison’s views on the Bank of the United States and some dissatisfaction with the new alignment even in King’s home county.14 Walter T. Colquitt, the former State Rights Congressman who was now running on the Union ticket, published a pamphlet to justify his about-face, and King wrote an answer which appeared under the pseudonym, “A State Rights Man of 1825.”15 After the adjournment of Congress in July, King returned to Georgia to take part in the lively canvass, but a fever forced him to break off his speaking tour.16
The fever which sent King to Retreat to recuperate also struck Anna King and the children. On top of illness came new financial liabilities, for he had been a co-signer on a promissory note of William S. Rockwell. When the note was not paid an indebtedness for $12,200 suddenly threatened King, whose fellow endorser already had $25,000 in judgments against him.17 This was almost the last straw on King’s financial burden. Since spring he had been counting on strict economy and a good crop to help him meet the demands of his own creditors. A friend who was advising him on his tangled affairs had warned him then: “You must rely on providence for another crop which will come in before you are pressed and then if the worst must come—with this crop and the sale of 100 Negroes you will be above all apprehension of distress.”18 Fortunately, the crops at both Retreat and Waverley turned out to be good; if prices held up, another year’s crop would rescue his over-extended credit.19 King was not alone, of course, in his financial straits. The Brunswick development had failed openly after the canal company stopped digging at the end of 1839, and his fellow planters and the merchants of his area were in despair.20
These personal misfortunes were partially offset by good news from the political front. The “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign had produced a resounding victory for the national Whig ticket, and in Georgia all but one of the State Rights-Whig candidates for Congress were elected. In the final tally King stood seventh among the nine party candidates, surpassing the average of his opponents by about 4,000 votes.21 He was assured of two more years of service, this time as a member of the majority party in Congress.
Delayed by his illness and his troubled business affairs, King did not return to the lame-duck session of the outgoing Congress until January 1841, and even then his attendance was irregular. He remained in Washington to attend the inauguration of President William Henry Harrison, the funeral of the President which followed soon after, and the special session of Congress that began May 31, 1841. For the first time he belonged to a party which controlled both the executive and legislative branches of the government. He had learned his political lessons as a member of the opposition; with his party in power he now had an opportunity to play a different role.
Although the death of President Harrison deprived the Whigs of their nominal leader, they could still enact the program of legislation which Henry Clay had drawn up for the old hero’s approval. On one point nearly all Whigs agreed: the repeal of Van Buren’s Independent Treasury Act. Thomas Butler King took the lead in the House of Representatives to bring the repeal bill to the floor. Several attempts at delay were fought off, and King voted with the majority, 103 to 102, to bring the measure up for decision. Two days later he joined the safer majority of 134 to 87 which voted to end the Independent Treasury.22
On the question of substituting a national bank for the Independent Treasury, the Whigs began to display their factional differences. In the struggle for leadership of the party between Henry Clay and the former Vice-President, John Tyler, King enrolled in the ranks of the Senator. On the last day of debate over the bill to establish a national bank, he spoke for three quarters of an hour, arguing for the constitutionality and expediency of a bank.23 In his diary John Quincy Adams noted King’s “ingenuous account of the change of his opinion from an undoubting conviction that a bank was not essential to the regulation of the currency, to a decision still more clear that it was.”24 Shortly thereafter the House proceeded to vote on the bill, and King was among the 128 to 98 majority that voted for its passage.25
Party differences began to develop more clearly when President Tyler vetoed the bill. A second bank measure, tailored to meet some of the President’s objections, was also vetoed. The intraparty fight was now in the open, the break between Clay and Tyler complete. King, who had helped push the second bank bill through the House, now joined in an unsuccessful attempt to override Tyler’s veto.26
Despite the President’s opposition to the bank, the Whig leaders in Congress moved forward in the enactment of their program. One of the major acts of the special session was introduced by King. On July 7, 1841, he presented a bill calling for the establishment of a Home Squadron by the Navy. The accompanying report presented arguments for the adoption of new naval policies by the Congress. Americans were said to think of naval warfare in terms of the privateersmen and individual battles of the War of 1812, but steam vessels made such terms obsolete. Already, British steamers, auxiliaries of the Royal Navy, had the power to blockade a large portion of the American coast, and the use of steamers as war vessels was only in its infancy. The committee not only approved the request for increased naval appropriations to provide for a Home Squadron, but also added a resolution that the Secretary of the Navy report to the next session of Congress on the possibilities of establishing a subsidized line of American merchant steamers, convertible to war uses.27
King guarded his legislative proposal carefully. He managed to postpone debate until the committee report was printed, and when the merits of the bill were argued he answered critics vigorously. On the final vote the bill met little opposition. As George H. Proffitt, an Indiana Whig, commented, “Those who brought it in had the power to pass it, and meant to pass it, whether or no.”28 He went on to say that King’s report would convince any doubter of the necessity for a home squadron, and that even though his state would not benefit from the expenditures he favored the bill. Only eight votes, and those Democratic, were recorded against the measure on final passage, and it was speedily approved by the Senate and the President.29
The Home Squadron Act, the first piece of major legislation with which Thomas Butler King’s name was connected, reflects some of his views and methods. Several complementary lines of thought can be distinguished in the report that accompanied the bill. It presented arguments in support of the measure that were primarily nationalistic in their appeal. It pointed out the weakness of the country’s defenses and held up the advances of rival nations for emulation. The current bad relations with Great Britain, arising out of the excitement over the trial of Alexander McLeod, were exploited by the emphasis on British offensive capabilities. At the same time, the report appealed to sectional interests. Residents of the eastern seaboard could easily see the benefits to be derived from a mobile squadron of ships based in American waters. Manufacturers could envisage the profits to be garnered through contracts for government steamers. The commercial leaders of the country were encouraged to hope for the creation of a lucrative subsidy system based on French and British models. The black menace of West Indian troops played upon the fears of the inhabitants of the defenseless South. Here was a basically nationalistic bill which would rally sectional support and varied economic interests.
Naval authorities of the day were sharply divided over the relative merits of sail and steam as methods of propulsion. In debate Henry A. Wise, the chairman of the committee, spoke for the advocates of sailing ships, while King emphasized the revolutionary changes that steam was bringing about. The final bill represented a compromise, for the Home Squadron was to be made up of a majority of sailing vessels, but the advocates of steam power received an opportunity to demonstrate their theories.30 Almost as revolutionary was the resolution that the Secretary of the Navy inquire into the expediency of using armed steamers to carry the mail. This proposal, combined with the emphasis on the French and British subsidy systems, clearly pointed the way to a new departure in governmental policy. A comparison of the committee report with that of the Secretary of the Navy shows that the major differences between the two lay in the emphasis on steam power and the efficacy of subsidies. The committee report closely paralleled the suggestions of Matthew Fontaine Maury, a naval officer who for three years had been campaigning for reforms in the navy. In addition to recommending the expansion of the navy, the operation of steam war vessels, and the subsidizing of mail steamers, Maury favored the reorganization of the Navy Department and the whole system of naval education.31 Similar views were to be reflected in later legislation sponsored by King.
In addition to combining nationalistic and sectional appeal and uniting the interests of the advocates of sail and steam, the Home Squadron Act shows a clear awareness of partisan realities and a knowledge of legislative preparation. The act bore the endorsement of the administration and emerged from the committee with the backing of the whole group, not as the handiwork of a single dominant member. It was supported by a written report, replete with statistics, that was circulated by the party newspaper. The debate on the measure was postponed until the report should have time to create a favorable atmosphere, and when the time for argument came the facts of the report were not questioned.
The enactment of the Home Squadron Act and the publication of the accompanying report were feathers in King’s cap. From the iron manufacturing state of Pennsylvania his brother Henry King reported general approval, and correspondents from other states joined in the commendation.32 The National Intelligencer led the party press in endorsing a measure so “obviously expedient and universally approved.”33 Besides gaining applause for its sponsor at the time of passage, the act has since then been recognized as one of great significance in the rise of American naval power.
… it resulted in the establishment of an organization which was to evolve through successive stages into the North Atlantic Squadron of the 1890’s, the Atlantic Fleet of the 1900’s, and finally the United States Fleet of today—the supreme embodiment of the now universally recognized strategic principle of the concentration of power.34
It is doubtful, however, that King was looking so far into the future.
In another matter connected with national defense, King showed a frankly sectional attitude. When the fortifications bill came up for discussion, he protested against the allocation of $75,000 for deciding upon the site of a new armory. He thought $5,000 a more appropriate sum for the task and ventured to suggest a simpler solution. After pointing out that the South had only one armory, Harper’s Ferry, and the West had none, he proposed that legislators from the two sections should join forces to promote armories in each area. As for the locations, he felt the representatives of the South would have no difficulty on agreeing. He himself favored the selection of the falls of the Chattahoochee River as the site and gave a number of reasons. Departing from this blatant logrolling, he insisted that the public interest demanded that one new armory be connected by water with the Gulf of Mexico, which he predicted would be the theater of the next war.35 King’s proposal was defeated.
Although King was usually to be found among the Whig majority, he faltered in his allegiance to Henry Clay on general revenue measures. He went along with the administration proposal of a loan as a temporary solution to some of the government’s financial difficulties,36 but not on the tariff. For a permanent solution of the problem of revenue, many Whigs looked to a general revision of the tariff upward. As a stopgap, they introduced a temporary tariff measure, and the debate ranged through the usual arguments. King expressed his decided opposition to the principle of protection. In answer to a protectionist speech by John Quincy Adams, he argued that Adams falsely represented the workings of the British Corn Laws. Should the corn laws be repealed, he maintained, the price of American grain would be lowered. Whatever the merits of this argument, King put his finger on the political meaning of Adams’s appeal to the West to support a protective tariff. In a passage typical of his style of debate, he protested:
Now, sir, one word in regard to this unnatural alliance of the West with the East. Where do the people of the Western States find the best and most extensive market for their productions? In the South—in the cotton-growing States! not in the East, or manufacturing districts of the Union. Where do the farmers of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and all the great West and Northwest send their corn, bacon, horses, hogs, and mules? Do they send them to the Eastern manufacturers? No, sir; they send them to the South. Whose interests ought they, therefore, to consult—the manufacturers of the East, or the planters of the South, [sic] Let them decide when the question of a tariff for protection comes up. The honorable gentleman from Massachusetts has said that the question of a protective tariff is a question between free labor and slave labor—this being, when interpreted, a question of taxation on the South for the benefit of the North! How, [Now,?] sir, when this question shall be presented, I shall join the honorable gentleman from South Carolina [Francis W. Pickens], and demand to know where the great State of Kentucky stands in regard to the compromise act? Is it possible that the South, which affords a market for the products of the West, and manufactures of the East, is to be deserted by the former and plundered by the latter? We shall see, sir.37
King evidently did not consider the temporary measure protective. He even spoke in its favor, but Adams damned his erstwhile opponent’s effort with faint praise.38 After speaking, King moved to bring the bill to a vote, and his name is listed among the majority who voted for the temporary tariff.39
King also wavered in his support of Clay’s program for distributing the proceeds from the sale of public lands. President Tyler had pronounced a qualified approval of distribution, and the existence of a Whig majority seemed to indicate an early passage of the measure, but sectional interests complicated the situation. By parliamentary maneuvers in the Senate, Thomas Hart Benton forced Clay to unite with his distribution scheme a pre-emption law which had strong Western support. At the same time, Thurlow Weed, the New York Whig leader, was lobbying actively for a bankruptcy bill that enjoyed Eastern favor. In the complex vote trading that attended these measures, King’s position is not entirely clear. He joined the Whig majority in a move to cut off debate and in other attempts to bring the distribution bill to a decision, then reversed himself on a move to lay the bill on the table. On the final vote he was bracketed with the Democrats and a few dissident Whigs who were recorded against the measure.40
When the lawmakers ended their labors in September, King journeyed briefly to Philadelphia, where he underwent a surgical operation of an undisclosed nature.41 Then he returned to Georgia to face the dismal financial prospects that awaited him there. As the year had passed reports from his home area had become more and more discouraging, and many of his friends were in despair.42 His overseers wrote letters telling how the cotton was delayed by the rains, showed promise briefly, and then fell prey to the cotton lice and the late rains.43 Some of the crop must have been salvaged, for toward the end of the year King informed his brother Henry in Pennsylvania that he would manage to “slide along for another year.”44
King’s optimism had led him astray. His financial affairs, precariously balanced for so long, came tumbling about his ears in January 1842. On the 17th of the month he drafted a letter to his creditors confessing his inability to pay his debts, even with a forced sale of his property. He had received no adequate offers for the one hundred slaves that he had put on the market. So gloomy was the prospect that he left Washington, where he had returned for the regular session of Congress, with the intention of resigning his seat and settling his affairs. From February until May he remained at home arranging for the disposal of all his property—Waverley Plantation, the summer cottage at Waynesville, and the slaves.45 Fortunately, Retreat, which had been settled on his wife at the time of their marriage, remained untouched. He had the dreary consolation, too, of knowing that he was not alone in his misfortunes. His friend S. T. Chapman wrote from Columbus, Georgia, asking for the text of the new bankruptcy law, and added: “All is dark and gloomy here. Hundreds are sinking in the general wreck.…”46 Mrs. King wrote her husband of the extraordinary course of two young gentlemen of the community; one enlisted as a sailor, and the other insisted on becoming a carpenter.47
As a result of their financial losses, the Kings’ home life underwent some changes. Mrs. King began to carry the keys to her pantry and to indulge in petty economies. Even in what they referred to as straitened circumstances, however, the Kings lived in sumptuous fashion. At Retreat, Mrs. King was hostess to a household of twenty, including guests who had been detained by adverse winds. The family circle still numbered among its members a tutor for the boys and a governess for the girls. Young Butler began to help about the plantation, but this could hardly have resulted in many savings, for his Negro man, Sam, attended him every evening when he brought in the cows. Although he may have felt the pinch of poverty, King still played in card games where the debts averaged $200 for the losers.48
There was enough money and labor available to carry out improvements on the home plantation. The boys’ tutor, Henry S. McKean, used his engineering training in the design for a new road. A new cotton warehouse was built, and new equipment was bought for the gins. From the plantation at Waverley, which was lost in the financial debacle, more gins were brought to Retreat. Several gins of a new type were erected. King also arranged to send cotton to New England manufacturers to provide supplies of lint for experimental purposes.49
After four months of preoccupation with private affairs, King returned to Washington to take an active part in the Twenty-seventh Congress. A long and involved battle over the tariff occupied much of the time of his colleagues, but he left the arguments to others, taking good care, however, to record his opposition to any of the tariffs currently being considered. His own energies were devoted to naval matters, in which he was beginning to be recognized as an expert. Young naval officers, impatient with conservative seniors “who have not seen the Color of ocean water for these twenty years,”50 looked to him as their special advocate on the Committee on Naval Affairs. Some of their ideas were embodied in the Naval Reorganization Bill which drew from King his only long speech of the session. In the interests of efficiency and economy, he called for an end to the old board of navy commissioners and its replacement by seven bureaus with assigned functions and responsibilities, uniform accounting practices, and increased clerical forces.
With remarkably little opposition, and with only minor alterations, the Naval Reorganization Act of 1842 became law. The bureau system which it inaugurated was to remain for a century the basic administrative plan of the naval service.51 Many naval officers welcomed the changes. Their gratitude to King for his activities in their behalf can be measured in part by the tribute they now accorded to him. Two warships of the home squadron which he had sponsored were ordered south on a cruise, and King was invited to be a guest on the steamer Missouri during her voyage to Savannah.52
The arrival of King and the warships touched off a round of festivities and public demonstrations. The officers of the Missouri entertained four hundred ladies and gentlemen on board the ship anchored in Cockspur Roads, and the citizens of Savannah reciprocated with a public dinner. King came in for a large share of the compliments that were exchanged. Even the Democratic Savannah Georgian, a newspaper usually critical of his actions, congratulated him on earning the esteem of the naval men and spoke in approving terms of his answer to a toast.53 King apologized to his wife for the delay in his homecoming:
You cannot be more surprised or annoyed at my prolonged stay here than I am. But such has been the disposition of all parties here to toast and feast the officers of the Missouri and my humble self. The truth is it has been impossible for me to get away.54
Perhaps the enthusiasm of the reception helped to sweeten the taste of political defeat. King had just been one of the victims of the general Whig losses of the off-year elections.
The congressional elections of 1842 showed even more clearly than the previous ones that the old State Rights Party of Georgia had cast its fortunes with the national Whig party. The nominating convention proposed the names of King and two other incumbents, Richard W. Habersham and Roger L. Gamble, as candidates for re-election. The congressional campaign was waged on national issues rather than local ones. A national bank, a tariff with incidental protection, and the distribution to the states of the proceeds from the sale of the public lands were offered to the voters as the principles of the party. The nominating convention also endorsed at this early date the candidacy of Henry Clay for the presidency in 1844.55
Because of the prolonged session of Congress, King had remained in Washington until too late to make an active canvass in his home state. He delivered his only campaign speech in Savannah, shortly after the Missouri anchored. This last-minute effort, which was part of a drive by the Whigs to capture the vote of Savannah’s laborers and foreign population, proved unavailing. The counting of the ballots showed that even while King and the officers of the Missouri were being feted, the Whig ticket had suffered a thorough defeat. King received only 32,823 votes, standing fifteenth in a field of sixteen candidates. The average number for the Democratic candidates was over 35,000.56
After a brief stay at Saint Simons Island, King returned to Washington for the final session of his term of office. He took little part in these last deliberations of the Twenty-seventh Congress, but he regarded his retirement from politics as merely temporary. Clay’s prospects for occupying the presidential office seemed good, and King expected to profit from a Whig victory in 1844. “All now say,” he wrote his wife, “that if Mr. Clay is elected in 1844 I must be placed in the cabinet.”57 Buoyed up by a general improvement in his health, he refused to be discouraged by recent reverses, whether financial or political. The future offered many possibilities.58
King could look with some satisfaction upon the record of the last four years. Elected as an anti-Jacksonian, he had fought the last financial measures of Martin Van Buren. With the triumph of the national Whig party he had participated in the repeal of the Independent Treasury and the enactment of laws more in keeping with his own economic ideas. In his speeches he had upheld the rights and interests of the cotton planters of the seaboard South. On the national bank issue he reversed his former stand and accepted the Whig program for a national institution. While he had worked harmoniously with his party majority in Congress, he had maintained an independent position on the tariff, willing to accept the principle of incidental protection, but refusing to vote for Clay’s permanent tariff. In the realm of personal advancement he had risen from a subordinate position to recognized leadership of the Committee on Naval Affairs. Two major measures with which his name was identified had been introduced from that committee and enacted into law. He had already shown his ability to work capably and harmoniously with his party. A political victory at the next election held out hopes of greater prominence and recognition.