WHEN THOMAS BUTLER KING returned to Washington in December 1848, it was no secret that he hoped to receive from President-elect Zachary Taylor the appointment as Secretary of the Navy. For several years King had made a specialty of naval legislation and had been the acknowledged spokesman of the Navy in Congress. In addition, he had served the “Commerce Whigs” of the eastern seaboard by sponsoring the two-ocean network of mail steamers which brought profits to the ship-builders and subsidies to the steamship companies. However much the knowledge gained from these activities might qualify him for the position that he sought, the route to a cabinet post led through the maze of partisan politics. The Whigs had won the presidency, but had King rendered such notable service to the party, and to the winning candidate, that his claims for preferment would be considered? He could point confidently to his record over the past few years.
After the defeat of Clay in the election of 1844, the Whig leaders in Congress began their search for a candidate who could win in 1848. For a brief while in 1846 some of them seized the idea of creating a boom for General Winfield Scott, and King’s acquiescence, at least, is implied in a note from a Scott supporter who was leaving for the West “to put in motion the Scott ball—to keep it rolling until the Hero of Chippewa is elevated to the Chair of State.”1 Along with Truman Smith of Connecticut, too, King sounded out the far western areas of Iowa and Wisconsin on the names of Scott, John McLean of Ohio, and Thomas Corwin of Ohio. However, the McLean and Corwin balloons never got off the ground, and Scott’s was punctured by the publication of some of his letters, unfortunately phrased. Henry King informed his brother Thomas that Scott was no longer acceptable in Pennsylvania, but in the same letter he inquired about the possibility of running General Zachary Taylor.2
As the news of Taylor’s victories arrived from Mexico, the General’s name became familiar throughout the country. Even after his theater of operations became quiet the continued popularity of the Hero of Buena Vista convinced Whigs that here was a potential winner. For enthusiasm to be converted into voting power, however, required skilled direction of the political machinery. Favorable delegations had to be named to nominating conventions, and close coordination had to be maintained among different factions. Assuming that Taylor would be the principal nominee, the prize of the Vice-Presidency still remained open, and various interests had to be consulted, various possibilities assayed. It was in the role of behind-the-scenes management and liaison that King played a part in the pre-convention maneuvers of 1848. John O. Sargent, the Whig journalist who had been so influential in the election of William Henry Harrison, reported to King the situation in New England. Sargent was convinced that only Taylor could lead the Whigs to victory in the northeastern and central states. As for the Vice-Presidency, Abbott Lawrence, merchant, manufacturer, and railroad builder of Boston, was willing to be put forward but was not running hard; he would let his friends know his decision by May 1, 1848.3 In New York, the Taylor supporters kept in touch with King and were particularly concerned with the problem of a minority who still clung to the idea of nominating Henry Clay. One Taylor man reported a letter from a “wise man” in Albany: “Our people mean to have success, and they do not think success can be had with Mr. Clay for a candidate.”4 Sargent tended to discount the strength of Clay’s following in New York. “The Weed & Seward cliques have been going for Clay to accumulate a little capital to trade upon. They are now about ready to sell out.”5 Their aim was to secure the Vice-Presidential nomination for Millard Fillmore, thought Sargent, but Governor John Young of New York might have himself in mind for the post. From New Orleans, another survey of Whig chances informed King that Taylor was a winner, Clay a sure loser.6
In Georgia, too, the Taylor fever had caught hold. The Republican, the Whig organ in Savannah, had put Taylor’s name up on the masthead for the presidency as early as July 1847, but the nominating conventions, county and state, were not scheduled until nearly a year later. In March 1848 the consensus was well expressed by R. R. Cuyler, one of King’s particular friends in Savannah: “I remain of opinion that Mr. Clay—as much & justly as he is admired, cannot carry Georgia. General Taylor can carry the State.”7 County and district Whig conventions confirmed the Taylor trend by either endorsing Taylor or instructing their representatives to vote for a Taylor delegation at Philadelphia. At Whig meetings in May, King was renominated for Congress and also chosen as a delegate to the Whig National Convention. Publicly, the Georgia delegation was committed only to the choice of the national convention; but privately, W. B. Hodgson, a prominent Savannahian, confided to King: “In the Philadelphia convention you will be placed between two fires, and endanger your place as Secretary of the Navy. But it is neck or nothing, with ‘Old Whitey.’”8 In fact, he added, if the national Whigs did not choose Taylor, he favored an independent Taylor ticket that would at least keep the Whigs of Georgia in power.
At the Philadelphia convention King was conspicuous in promoting the Taylor cause. He acted as the floor leader of the gathering, making the initial organizing motions. In turn, he was named one of the vice-presidents of the convention and was appointed chairman of the credentials committee. Although the Taylor forces had the same number on the committee as their opponents, the resolutions they brought in favored Taylor. Specifically, the pro-Taylor delegate from Texas was recommended for a permanent convention committee. On the fourth convention ballot Zachary Taylor was chosen as the standard bearer of the party in the forthcoming election. The vice-presidential nomination, however, did not go as King had hoped. He himself received a complimentary vote on the first ballot, but the second place on the ticket went to Millard Fillmore, rather than Abbott Lawrence.9
During the summer King kept up his activities in behalf of Taylor. He maintained close touch with Whig leaders in the North and helped to spread campaign documents to all sections. He also spoke in New York and New Jersey for the Whig ticket. His most important service in the cause was performed at Albany, New York. A group of Albany Whigs were threatening to bolt the regular ticket because of Taylor’s non-partisan attitude, and Thurlow Weed wrote to King that if General Taylor did not write a letter emphasizing his party affiliation, “God only knows what is to happen.”10 Furthermore, his candidate Fillmore was being attacked in the South as an abolitionist, and it was feared that the southern Whigs were less than enthusiastic about the vice-presidential candidate. A mass meeting was arranged in Albany, and King interrupted a brief vacation to address the dissidents and assure them that the southern Whigs were loyal supporters of the entire Whig ticket.11
Upon his return to Georgia, King embarked on a two-week campaign tour in his own behalf, beginning in Savannah with a speech on the activities of Congress and the progress of the Taylor campaign in the North. He had time for only a few meetings in the up-country before the October 2 election, but the results were gratifying. He even carried the home county of his opponent, Jackson. With his own election assured, he devoted the month that ensued before the presidential voting in November to a thorough canvass of the First District to insure Taylor’s victory. Taylor carried the First District by an even greater majority than King had won in the October election.12
Having served the President-elect so faithfully, King looked forward to the reward that his political activity merited. The post of Secretary of the Navy had long been the object of his ambition, and his congressional career as well as his political services recommended him for the position. His hopes for the cabinet post amounted almost to expectation, and the probability of his appointment was acknowledged both publicly and privately. Nathan K. Hall, law partner of the incoming Vice-President, alluded to the likelihood of the appointment in a speech in Congress, and it was common currency among the editors who practiced the pastime of cabinet building, in Georgia and elsewhere.13
His past activities might give him claims to preferment, and other men might think King deserved the Navy Department, but King was too knowledgeable a politician to think that the post would fall into his lap. The exact method of presenting his claims posed a problem. R. R. Cuyler, a close friend in Savannah, inquired of King shortly after the election “if pains had been taken to acquaint General Taylor with your services in his behalf … for if it has not been done, you should not be asleep.”14 Yet the only suggestion that Cuyler could offer was that King should send a letter of congratulation to the General. What King needed was a friend at court who would urge his appointment without degrading his claims to the level of the petitions that had begun to overwhelm the President-elect at his Louisiana home.15 It was through another hero of the Republic, Commander Charles Stewart, who had captained the Constitution in the War of 1812, that King hoped to influence General Taylor. What more patriotic and disinterested source could there be? Commander Stewart’s son was an intimate friend of Taylor’s and was charged by his father “to use every possible exertion in King’s behalf.”16 While he remained in Louisiana, Taylor certainly included King among those he was considering for his official family, but he decided to wait until he reached Washington to make most of the appointments.17
The real key to a place in the cabinet lay in the hands of John Jordan Crittenden, Governor of Kentucky. Taylor had already offered him the State Department, which had been refused, but he planned to visit Kentucky on his way to Washington and persuade the Governor to reconsider his decision. Although these facts and intentions remained a secret, Taylor’s confidence in Crittenden was well known, and letters began to pour in upon the Whig governor from applicants for office and their friends. Among them was a powerful plea for King’s appointment to head the Navy Department. Just ten days before Taylor was due to arrive in Frankfort, John O. Sargent, who became the editor of the administration newspaper of the new regime, wrote to Crittenden in King’s behalf. After pointing out the strong press support for his friend, the political services that he had rendered, and his “national” view, Sargent continued:
Here we have experience, ability, popularity, services and the will of the party as expressed through its journals, uniting to recommend one individual. … If he is passed by, it must be in favor of some individual of fewer qualifications, less acquaintance with the duties of the office, less popularity, no more eminent services, and one who must come into the place which the Navy, the Press, and the Party—or in other words the Country—have universally and uniformly assigned to another.18
After reviewing the sentiment of the South, Sargent stated that “it would be a subject of sore disappointment to the Whigs of New England & New York who united with Mr. King in the movement for General Taylor if he should fail to receive the appointment.”19 When Taylor visited Crittenden at Frankfort, the two men conferred on the cabinet possibilities; such a plea as Sargent’s could hardly have failed to figure in their conversations. Taylor’s Kentucky host advised him to consult Stephens and Toombs, two Georgia Whig Congressmen, on political matters in Washington.20
Without knowing precisely what passed between Taylor and Crittenden, it is clear from this last advice that King had been discarded as a cabinet choice, for Toombs and Stephens had no intention of promoting the ambitions of Thomas Butler King. The Savannah Whig editor, J. L. Locke, had warned King soon after the election against their “malign influence,” advising him to rely on his Whig friends in the North rather than “on our particular friends in the up country.”21 Both Toombs and Stephens had expressed themselves as opposed to King in letters to Crittenden before he saw Taylor; instead of King, they wished to see George W. Crawford of Georgia named as one of the President’s principal advisers. Stephens, in particular, urged the appointment of Crawford rather than King, and expressed alarm at the thought of placing King in the cabinet.
I did not at first have any serious thought about Mr. King of our State being put at the head of the Navy. But recent rumours awaken my apprehension. Now my dear Sir this will not do. You know Mr. King, but I know the people of Georgia. And if you will allow me I will suggest to you that Mr. Crawford at the head of the War Department or Mr. Toombs Atty General will suit us much better.22
When Crittenden advised the President-elect to consult Toombs and Stephens in Washington, the decision against King’s appointment had most probably already been taken. Publicly, however, his name continued to be mentioned by newspapers as a likely head for the Navy Department throughout the month of February. Only on March 5 did the news become official: George W. Crawford was to be Secretary of War and William Ballard Preston of Virginia, Secretary of the Navy. Georgia had her cabinet appointment, but it was Crawford, not King.23
The choice of Crawford must have been made largely on the recommendations of the Whig leaders of the state, particularly Toombs and Stephens. It would be easy to explain Stephens’ preference merely on personal grounds, for he and Crawford had been intimately associated for years, yet Stephens specifically disclaimed any personal reasons for his advice to Crittenden, alluding instead to the needs of the party in Georgia.24 Some secret may lie hidden in the labyrinth of state politics, perhaps in the 1843 election for Governor when King was the party chairman and Crawford the candidate, or in the episode of 1846 when Senator Berrien resigned his seat and was overwhelmingly reelected.25 To Anna Page King the answer was simple enough to encompass in a few words: that her husband had “ever been & ever will be an object of jealousy—to Judge Berrien & the up country members.”26 Certainly the fear of promoting the influence of a rival in state politics would work equally on both the Representatives and the Senator. There was also an underlying economic factor, best summed up in an article in the Savannah Republican. The editor expressed disappointment that King had not received the Navy appointment, but rejoiced that he remained the representative of Savannah, “whose commercial importance is already advancing a little too fast to suit the notions of a certain clique in Georgia, who arrogate to themselves the management of every thing great—both political and commercial. This is the reason Mr. King did not receive the appointment of Secretary of the Navy.”27
Although King failed to receive from Taylor the appointment which he coveted, the President called on him to help solve the most important and delicate problem which faced the new administration, the political future of California. Even before the election of 1848, the question of California had engaged the attention of the Whigs in Congress. John Middleton Clayton, who later became Taylor’s Secretary of State, took the lead in the Senate to unite the Whigs and the moderate Democrats of Congress behind a measure that would erect territorial governments in areas that had just been acquired from Mexico, leaving the question of slavery to future decision by the Supreme Court. This “Clayton Compromise” seemed to offer great hope as a means of avoiding the antagonisms that were developing between strong anti-slavery partisans and the more extreme slavery advocates. To Clayton’s measure King gave his support in the House of Representatives, but the Whig leaders in Congress were unable to hold their own party united behind the measure and failed to attract the Democratic votes needed to pass Clayton’s bill.28
In the interval between the election and the inauguration of the new administration, the Whig leaders redoubled their efforts to devise a solution to the problem of slavery in the territories. If they could surmount this difficulty before Taylor assumed power, the greatest threat to their party unity would be removed.29 When Congress convened again in December, Clayton once more proposed a method: admit California and New Mexico as states, thereby removing the controversy from the halls of Congress. Robert Toombs of Georgia held high hopes for the plan:
We have been in a good deal of trouble here for the last month about this slavery question, but I now believe we begin to see the light. I came here very anxious to settle the slavery question before the 4th. of March. The longer it remains on hand the worse it gets; and I am confident it will be harder to settle after than before the 4th. of March. We have therefore concluded to make a decided effort at it now. [William Ballard] Preston will this morning move to make the territorial bills the special order for an early day, which will bring the subject before us. We shall then attempt to erect all of California and that portion of New Mexico lying west of the Sierra Membres into a state as soon as she forms a constitution and asks it, which we think the present state of anarchy there will soon drive her to do.… I think we can carry this or something very like it. The principle I act upon is this: It cannot be a slave country; we have only the point of honor to save; this will save it and rescue the country from all danger of agitation. The Southern Whigs are now nearly unanimous in favor of it.…30
But Toombs proved to be a poor prophet. Preston’s bill embodying the statehood plan was defeated just before the sands of the Thirtieth Congress ran out. King, with other Southerners, voted against the bill after anti-slavery provisions were attached to it.31
The Whig leaders having failed to remove the question from the floor of Congress, it remained to be seen whether their soldier in the White House could find a solution. No one knew his ideas on the subject, and he gave evidence that on inauguration day he remained undecided.32 Once in office, however, he adopted wholeheartedly the plan that Clayton had advanced the previous December. Officially the government refrained from action, but a course had been charted. Clayton, now Secretary of State, wrote hopefully of the prospect to Governor Crittenden in Kentucky:
As to California and New Mexico, I have been wide awake. Everything is done as you wanted with it. The plan I proposed to you last winter will be carried out fully. The states will be admitted free and Whig.33
Anarchic conditions might drive the Californians to form a constitution and ask for admittance as a state, but they would be more likely to act if they knew that the Taylor administration was sympathetic to such moves. Taylor and Clayton needed a sound Whig to carry the news to California, and their choice to serve as messenger to the new American territory fell on Thomas Butler King.
No fanfare attended King’s mission to California. The newspapers reported only that he was occupying the time before the reconvening of Congress by a trip to California. Ostensibly, he undertook the journey to inspect the mail steamship lines and to examine the route for the trans-Isthmian railroad that he had recommended in his latest committee report. Privately, King carried the commission of the President as a special agent.34
King’s letter of instructions from Secretary of State John M. Clayton enjoined him to carry out several duties. In addition to carrying dispatches to the naval and military commanders in California, he was to assure the people of California of the President’s concern for their welfare and his efforts in their behalf. King was also to advise the people of California on the adoption of measures best calculated to promote the President’s wishes. Another duty was to acquire information about the country. Finally, King was to report immediately any attempt to establish an independent government or to alienate any territory gained by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Most of the authority of the executive branch of the government was enlisted to aid King in his mission. A blanket authorization was sent by the Secretaries of State, Treasury, War, Navy, and Interior to their employees and subordinates in California to assist him in carrying out the objects of his mission. So important was speed considered that Secretary of the Navy Preston wrote personally to W. H. Aspinwall in New York to hurry the passage of King’s party to Panama and thence to San Francisco.35
Two other agents accompanied King to California. One of his companions was Lieutenant Cadwalader Ringgold of the United States Navy, who had gained distinction as commander of a ship of the Wilkes Antarctic Expedition. It is probable that Lieutenant Ringgold was known to General Taylor, since he belonged to a service family. His two brothers served as regular army officers, and one commanded a battery at the battle of Palo Alto. Ringgold acted as an assistant to King and submitted confidential political reports to the Secretary of the Navy. King’s other companion of the journey was Colonel Robert S. Garnett, a former aide to Taylor. From Havana, where Garnett joined King and Ringgold, the civilian of the trio wrote of the political temper of his fellow Fortyniners.
There are a number of democrats aboard—more than one half, Hunkers, who declare they will act with the Whigs. There is but one opinion among all on board respecting the formation of a State Govt., and that is favourable.36
The omens for his mission seemed good.
On June 4, 1849, King and his party arrived at San Francisco to find that the people of California had anticipated the desires of President Taylor. General Bennet Riley, the military Governor of California, had on the previous day issued a proclamation calling for a constitutional convention to organize a state government. Taking advantage of the movement already under way, King addressed a mass meeting in Portsmouth Square, San Francisco, June 12, 1849. He informed the people of the failure of Congress to provide a government for California and urged his hearers to organize a state government and apply for admission to the Union. He was pleased at the enthusiasm with which he was received; at a dinner in his honor two days later, he found the response equally gratifying. Also he was careful to spread the administration views by word of mouth among influential Californians.37
By June 20 King had arranged with General Persifor F. Smith, the commander of the Pacific Division, to make a tour through the mining districts to survey the resources, products, and possibilities of the country, as his instructions directed. The tour took place as scheduled, beginning July 5, and occupied approximately forty days. The route followed roughly the line of foothills east of San Francisco from the Tuolumne to the American rivers. In his official report to the Secretary of State, King passed lightly over this part of his travels, implying that he concerned himself primarily with exploration.38 Privately, he reported his activities in detail. Both he and the two generals, Riley and Smith, made frequent speeches at points along their route, urging the people to take immediate steps to form a state government. In this manner, most of the concentrated population of the northern part of California learned of the desires of the administration.
Proper explanations -[King wrote to Secretary of State Clayton] have produced the same result at all the places we have visited. No doubt is now entertained by any one that the convention will be well attended, a constitution speedily framed and adopted. The demagouges [sic] who opposed us at first in the hope of profiting by delay and confusion now find the current of public opinion so strong in favour of the immediate formation of a State government that they have turned suddenly round to swim with the tide…,39
He had few doubts about the success of the administration plan in California.
Just after his return from the mines in the back country, King made use of the generous authority granted to him by the administration. To advance the statehood movement, he called upon Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones to send the steamship Edith to the ports of southern California to pick up the delegates from that section and bring them to the constitutional convention in Monterey. Although the vessel was wrecked en route, all the delegates save one arrived in time for the working sessions, which began September 3, 1849.
On August 20, 1849, King fell sick with dysentery, an almost universal experience for California immigrants. In Kings case, the illness became extremely serious. The newspapers reported that his recovery was doubtful and his friends and attendants feared for his life. Fortunately, a navy surgeon was at hand to render competent medical care. When the worst of his illness was over, the patient was moved to the naval station at Sonoma to recuperate. He recovered slowly, and it was some time in November before he was able to take an active part in public affairs.40
Because of his illness King missed the meeting of the state constitutional convention in Monterey. Even in his enforced retirement, however, he was not idle. He had come to a decision to throw his lot in with the new state that was taking form. Accordingly, he wrote a letter to the Governor of Georgia resigning his seat in Congress.41 As he recuperated from his illness he made plans to seize the opportunities offered by California to an aspiring politician.
The political situation in the embryonic state was confused. The immigrant population had brought with them the habits and forms of previous political affiliation, but no party organizations existed. As a result, the first elections in California lacked the partisanship of elections in the old states. Because of his tour King was well known in the mining areas, and he had received frequent notices in the San Francisco newspapers during his sojourn among the Californians. As a public figure he enjoyed an advantage in his quest for office, and he aimed high. A whirlwind election campaign took place between October 13, when the convention ended, and the election day one month later. During this time the newly-resigned ex-Representative from Georgia appeared in the lists as a candidate for a senatorship from California in the United States Congress. According to Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman, King “was generally regarded as the Government candidate for United States Senator.”42
In his bid for the senatorship King had the endorsement of a leading San Francisco newspaper, the Pacific News. Even before his resignation the Pacific News had given him publicity by printing his report from the Committee on Naval Affairs on the advisability of building a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. It praised King’s foresight in establishing the Pacific mail steamer service before the discovery of gold. When King announced his resignation from Congress and placed his name before the people as a candidate for the Senate, the Pacific News redoubled its efforts. King’s name went up at the masthead as the first of a list of nonpartisan candidates. His running mates were John Augustus Sutter for governor, John B. Frisbie for lieutenant governor, and P. A. Morse for representative in Congress.43
At the election of senators by the newly-organized legislature, a warm fight developed. John Charles Fremont was selected on the first ballot, but a runoff was necessary to choose the occupant of the second Senate seat. The principal contenders were William McKendree Gwin, Henry Wager Halleck, and King. The Georgian’s supporters broke ranks after the first vote, and Gwin picked up the two votes necessary to elect him on the third ballot. King’s gamble for a Senate seat from California failed, but he did not abandon his earlier announced decision to throw in his lot with the new state. After his defeat he joined with three other men to open a law office in San Francisco. He also took a prominent part in the ceremonies honoring the retiring military governor, General Bennet Riley.44
The steamer Oregon, which left San Francisco on January 1, 1850, carried a number of distinguished passengers, including Thomas Butler King and the prospective members of Congress. King and the two representatives-elect, George W. Wright and Edward Gilbert, hastened on to New York via the mail steamer, the Empire City. When they arrived at New York on February 7, the politicians faced an uncertain welcome. The issue which had sent King westward the previous spring was still the center of discussion in Congress. King had encouraged the Californians in their moves toward state government in unmistakable terms:
You will have no difficulty in being admitted as a State. I pledge myself to it, and I PLEDGE THE ADMINISTRATION, and I think I may speak equally confidently for the next Congress. Form a State government, send your senators and representatives, and then admission is certain.45
Now would come the proof for his assertions.
King had left Washington to carry out the agreed policy of the President and the Whig high command, and party members from both North and South were united in favor of the admission of California as a state. In the ten months since his departure, the harmony had disappeared. The Southern Whigs, following the leadership of Robert Toombs and Alexander H. Stephens, refused to join the Northern wing of the party in organizing the House. King’s role as the administration spokesman in California was reported to be the cause of the Whig dissension, “… a break between the Ewing-Clayton Cabinet and the Southern Whigs, which will not be healed in the course of this session.”46 The Senate also resisted administration directions, Henry Clay had returned to the upper house and set himself up in opposition to President Taylor. The President and a majority of the Whigs continued to support the admission of California as a state, but the Democrats lost no time in turning the Whig division to good account.47
In his first annual message to Congress President Taylor stated his position on the question of slavery in the recently acquired territories. He urged Congress to accept the decision of the people of California as embodied in the constitution that they would soon present to Congress. But Democrats and dissident Whigs questioned the propriety of the President’s actions in helping to form the “decision of the people.” On the last day of 1849 the House of Representatives called on Taylor to send them all the information in his hands concerning the actions of the executive branch of the government in California. He complied by sending them the reports of his cabinet officers.
President Taylor’s views on California are set forth in two official statements, his annual message of 1849 and the special message that accompanied the departmental reports. In the first, Taylor dismissed with one paragraph the explosive question of statehood:
No civil government having been provided by Congress for California, the people of that Territory, impelled by the necessities of their political condition, recently met in convention for the purpose of forming a constitution and State government, which the latest advices give me reason to suppose has been accomplished; and it is believed they will shortly apply for the admission of California into the Union as a sovereign State. Should such be the case, and should their constitution be conformable to the requisitions of the Constitution of the United States, I recommend their application to the favorable consideration of Congress.48
The second message answered his congressional critics. Taylor pointed out that he had made no changes in the administration of California, even leaving Polk’s appointee, General Riley, as commander and governor of the territory. King, he insisted, was essentially an observer. True, he had through King expressed his desire that the people of the territory should form a state government and apply for admission. However, the instructions given to executive officers in the area by his order emphasized that all measures of domestic policy adopted by the people of California must originate solely with themselves. He neither sought certain ends nor desired to dictate the course of events; rather, he hoped to avoid “occasions of bitter and angry dissensions among the people of the United States,” and had “put it in the power of Congress, by the admission of California and New Mexico as States, to remove all occasion for the unnecessary agitation of the public mind” which prevailed during the territorial stage of government. He concluded his defense with an appeal to the patriotism of Congress:
Seeing, then, that the question which now excites such painful sensations in the country will in the end certainly be settled by the silent effect of causes independent of the action of Congress, I again submit to your wisdom the policy recommended in my annual message of awaiting the salutary operation of those causes, believing that we shall thus avoid the creation of geographical parties and secure the harmony of feeling so necessary to the beneficial action of our political system.49
His plea fell on deaf ears.
The opposition took advantage of the split within Whig ranks. The Democratic Daily Union led a chorus of criticism of President Taylor’s “usurpation” of the powers of Congress. King came in for his share of the blame.
We remember that, while the Mexican war was pending, the Whig party wrongfully charged Mr. Polk with having done, in time of war, through the agency of General Kearny, what General Taylor has done in time of peace, through the agency of General Riley and T. Butler King.50
Four days later the same organ devoted its lead editorial to an attack on King’s interference with the domestic affairs of California, contrary to his instructions. The Union called Riley’s actions as civil governor the reestablishment of the Mexican government, and in the same vein King became Taylor’s ambassador to the Californians. By implication the editor saddled King with responsibility for the holding of the constitutional convention and for the provisions of the constitution. King and Riley appeared in the columns of the Democratic newspaper as villains misleading a docile and obedient populace.
In the House, King was denounced by Samuel W. Inge, a Democrat from Alabama, who assailed him as the emissary of the administration to overthrow the government of California, and as a political schemer, responsible for the anti-slavery clause in the California constitution. Inge also charged King with being the agent by whom President Taylor instructed Governor Riley to issue his proclamation of June 3, 1849. Finally, Inge argued that the whole government of California was a creation of the cabinet, illegal and fabricated.51
The attack on the floor of the House came only four days after King’s ship docked in New York. King replied by inserting in the administration newspaper in Washington a refutation of the charges that had been made. He denied categorically that he had received any instructions, either from the President or from members of the cabinet, regarding the subject of slavery. He insisted that he did not attempt to influence the people of California to decide the question of slavery one way or the other. He pointed out that he did not arrive at San Francisco until after General Riley had issued his proclamation calling for a constitutional convention, and that it was impossible for him to have given instructions to the governor.52
King defended both his own actions and the President’s plan of immediate statehood in his formal report to the Secretary of State. He opened with a graphic description of the chaotic governmental situation of California when he arrived there. He outlined the efforts of the people to set up their own territorial government, and the conflict they had with Governor Riley. He presented the urgent need for full statehood for the gold country. He affirmed the right of the people of a state to decide for themselves the question of slavery or no slavery and quoted the words of John C. Calhoun in support of this contention. King’s defense of his own actions was brief but convincing. When he reached California, the call for a constitutional convention had already been issued; therefore he could not have given orders to General Riley to issue it. When the elections were being held for the convention, he was exploring the back country and had at his command none of the machinery by which he might have affected the choice of delegates in so huge an area; therefore, he could not have packed the convention with delegates to whom he could dictate. While the convention was in session, he was ill or convalescing at a point 130 miles distant from the gathering; therefore, he could not have dictated the provisions of the constitution. He pointed out the fact that, though many of the convention delegates were from the South, the vote on the anti-slavery clause of the constitution was unanimous. He reiterated in categorical terms that he had received from the President and the cabinet no secret instructions, oral or written, regarding the question of slavery.
… nor was it ever hinted or intimated to me that I was expected to attempt to influence their action in the slightest degree on that subject. That I never did, the people of California will bear me witness.53
Residents of the state substantiated the truth of his statement. His sturdiest defender in Congress was a Democrat, Delegate Samuel Royal Thurston of Oregon. On March 25, 1850, Thurston delivered a speech calling for the admission of California as a state, in which he effectively answered all the accusations against King. He was the only man then in Congress who had been present when the constitutional convention of California was in session, and could speak authoritatively.
Whatever General Taylor or his Cabinet may have intended I cannot say, but what some of the facts are, I do know, and dare say them. And I do say—first, that if General Taylor and his cabinet had tried to dictate terms to the people there, they could not have succeeded; secondly, that they did not try; and thirdly, that the project of forming a State government was the project of the people; and it would have been done had General Riley never issued a proclamation for the purpose.54
In later years other actors on the California scene confirmed Kings assertions. As a national issue the admission of California had been settled, but in Georgia King later found it expedient to publish in pamphlet form a vindication of his conduct in 1849. The pamphlet contained letters that King had gathered from men who were prominent in California at the time of his mission.55 Brigadier General Bennet Riley, governor of California when King arrived, asserted that he acted on his own authority in calling the constitutional convention; he had received no instructions, orders, or intimations to issue his proclamation. He added, further, that he knew of no attempt by the administration in any way to control the people in the formation of their government. Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones confirmed the prior action of both the people and General Riley and claimed for himself the credit for beginning the statehood movement. Judge Kimball H. Dimmick of California added his denial of King’s influence; he had discussed the issuance of General Riley’s proclamation with the Governor a month before King arrived, and was assured at the time that the proclamation would be issued. William McKendree Gwin, the Democrat who had beaten King in the contest for the senatorship from California in 1849, confirmed King’s statements in every regard. He touched particularly on the adoption of the anti-slavery clause in the California constitution, adding:
That you had any agency in its adoption is utterly impossible, and I do not think you could have influenced the vote of a single member of the Convention on this question, if you had been there and exerted yourself.
As I have made this statement on numerous occasions, public, and private, I see no objection in thus addressing you on the subject.56
Other testimony, unsolicited by King, bears out his contentions. Thomas Jefferson Green, a member of the Senate of California, writing of King’s illness which had prevented his having any part in the constitutional convention, said: “I never met in California a more pro-slavery man than yourself.”57 Years later, William Tecumseh Sherman, who was present during King’s illness in 1849 and who attended the constitutional convention as an observer for General Smith, recalled the disinterest of two of his companions on the slavery question. “I never heard General Smith, who was a Louisianian, express any opinion about it. Nor did Butler King, of Georgia, ever manifest any particular interest in the matter.”58
The unsupported, partisan charges against King died away amid the thunder of bigger guns—Calhoun speaking on the rights of the South, Webster on the Union, Seward on the Higher Law, and Clay pleading for compromise. Although King was in Washington during the great debate, it is doubtful that he heard it, for he suffered from a recurrence of his illness. Despite sickness, by the end of March he had put the finishing touches to his report on California.
Although some of the congressmen professed to believe that King exerted undue influence on the formation of the California government, they showed their appreciation for the information he brought back by having ten thousand copies of his report printed. Like King’s other reports, it was full of information, statistics, and sanguine predictions. The author surveyed the mineral and agricultural resources of the new territory. He examined the estimates of the mineral wealth then being mined by placer methods and prophesied a continuing outflow of the golden stream. He predicted that the mining of gold-bearing quartz ore would produce still greater returns. He laid particular emphasis on the agricultural resources of the country. He had found the climate equable and temperate, except in the desert valleys. The soil produced cereals and grasses in abundance, along with grapes that were converted into delicious wines. The country, in his opinion, offered almost unlimited opportunities for development. The commercial potentialities of the new area were great. The population for a long time would afford an immense market for the products of the eastern part of the Union, and with the development of an Isthmian railway San Francisco was destined to become the great warehouse of the trade with the Orient.59
King remained in Washington while the impasse continued between President Taylor and his opponents over the California question. Taylor maintained his insistence that California should be admitted at once as a state, without reference to the other problems of the day. As a faithful soldier in the Taylor camp and one of the few Southerners who remained loyal, King might expect a reward from his chieftain. The possibility was increased by the rumors of dissension in the cabinet. George W. Crawford, the Georgian who had been preferred over King for a cabinet post, was under attack because some of his legal clients had received a large award in settlement of a long-standing claim against the government. The recalcitrant Congress lost no time in embarrassing the administration by attacking the conduct of the Secretary of War. With a cabinet overturn in the making, King might yet hope to occupy the chair of the Secretary of the Navy.60
The contest between the executive and the legislative branches of the government ended unexpectedly with the death of President Taylor, July 9, 1850. Once more King’s name figured in the speculations about the cabinet of the new President. But King wrote his son that he did not wish to be a member of President Fillmore’s cabinet and had “so informed his friends.”61 Undoubtedly, the administration owed King a debt for risking and losing his political life on the California mission, but Fillmore, the compromiser, would hardly be expected to reward the Georgian so signally for his unwavering support of Taylor.
Despite his stand on the California question, King had lost surprisingly little strength at home. While he was on the West Coast the legislature of Georgia had passed a resolution censuring him for his conduct. A further indication of lost power came when a Democrat was chosen at the special election to fill King’s seat in Congress. However, both these might be considered normal political defeats, for the Georgia legislature was Democratic, and King’s successor won his place partly because of a gerrymander by the same Democratic body.62 Peterson Thweatt, one of the most influential of the Georgia Whig editors, wrote King encouragingly:
Men in Georgia and warm personal friends of George Crawford, who could not tolerate my protest, in the appointment of Gov. C to the exclusion of yourself, now give in and admit that I was right. And even at this day though you are not now any thing like as strong in Georgia as you were then (the cause of which I presume you are aware) yet I firmly believe that if you were now made Secretary of the Navy, you would not only strengthen the administration in Georgia, and more particularly in the United States, but you would be able to regain what you have lost at home—and even without that appointment, it appears to me you might regain, if you have lost any thing in your district, by going out among the people and explaining your position.63
Encouraging as this report was, it failed to deflect King from his intention to return to California. He had investments and professional ties in the new country. Another California senatorial election would occur within a year, and a friend in the West assured him that his chances for election were good.64 Most important of all, he finally received the reward that his services to the administration had merited. In October 1850, Millard Fillmore appointed Thomas Butler King Collector of the Port of San Francisco, at a salary of $10,000 a year.