Rufus King  by Charles King, L.L.D.

When in the year 1803, after having served his native country with distinguished ability for more than seven years as Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States at the Court of St. James, Rufus King returned to New-York, the city of his adoption, he found his political friends in a hopeless minority, and the rule of party absolute, exclusive, and even vindictive. Mr. King had trained himself from early life to the duties of a Statesman, and to that end neglected no study, and above all, no self-discipline that might qualify him for the career he desired to pursue. After serving several years as a Delegate  from Massachusetts in the Continental Congress (from 1785 to 1789), and having, as a member of the Convention called for the purpose, been actively instrumental in forming the Constitution of the United States, Mr. King became in 1788 a resident of the city of New-York, where he had married two years before, Mary, the only child of John Alsop, a retired merchant of that city. Mr. King was much known in New-York, for the Continental Congress during his term of service held its sessions there; and the character he had established for himself on the score of talent and capacity, may be estimated by the fact, that he, with General Schuyler for a colleague, was selected as one of the first Senators of the United States from the State of New-York, under the new constitution.

His services proved so acceptable, that on the expiration of his first term, in 1795, he was re-elected, and it was in the second year of his second term—in 1796, that he was appointed by Washington Minister to England.

In that post Mr. King continued throughout the residue of General Washington's administration, through the whole of that of John Adams, and, at the request of President Jefferson, through two years of his administration, when, having accomplished the negotiations he had in hand, Mr. King asked to be, and was, recalled.

During this long residence abroad, remote from the scene of the angry partisan politics which disturbed the close of Washington's term, and the whole of that of Mr. Adams, and which resulted, in 1800, in the entire overthrow of the old Federal party, and the success of Mr. Jefferson and the Republican party—Mr. King had devoted his labors, his time and his talents, to the service of his whole country, and was little prepared, therefore, either by taste or temper, for participation in the angry broils which, on his return home, he found prevailing throughout the Union. Adhering, as he did to the end, to the political principles of his early life, he never doubted, nor saw occasion to change the faith which had made him a Federalist, when the name included the Telfairs and Habershams of Georgia, the Pinkneys and Rutledges of South Carolina, the Davieses and the Sitgreaves of North Carolina, the Washingtons and the Marshalls of Virginia, the Carrolls and the Hindmans of Maryland, the Bayards and the Kearnys of Delaware, the Tilghmans and the Binghams of Pennsylvania, the Patersons and the Stocktons of New Jersey, the Jays and Hamiltons of New-York, the Woolcots and the Johnsons of Connecticut, the Ellerys and Howells of Rhode Island, the Adamses and Otises of Massachusetts, the Smiths and Gilmans of New Hampshire, the Tichenors and Chittendens of Vermont. But that faith was now in "dim eclipse." The popular air was in another direction, and Mr. King was of too lofty a character to trim his bark to the veering breeze. Having acquired, or rather confirmed by his residence in England (where country life is better understood and more thoroughly enjoyed, probably, than any where else) a decided taste for the country Mr. King soon determined to abandon the city, where—having no professional pursuits nor stated occupation—he found few attractions, and make his permanent abode in the country. After looking at many points on the Hudson River and on the Sound, he finally established himself at the village of Jamaica, in Queens county, Long Island, distant about twelve miles from the city of New-York. In comparison with some of the places which he had examined on the waters of the Sound and  the North River, Jamaica offered few inducements of scenery or landscape. But it did offer what to him, and especially to his wife, were all-important considerations—proverbial healthiness, and ready access to church, schools and physicians. Mrs. King's health was already drooping, and from the quiet, regular life of the country, its pure air, and the outdoor exercise to which it leads, and of which she was so fond, the hope was indulged that she might be completely restored. The property purchased by Mr. King, consisting of a well-built, comfortable and roomy house, with about ninety acres of land, is situated a little to the west of the village, on the great high road of the Island from west to east. It is a dead level, of a warm and quick soil, readily fertilized, the ridge or back-bone of Long Island bounding it on the north. He removed his family thither in the spring of 1806, and at once commenced those alterations and improvements which have made it what it now is—a very pretty and attractive residence for any one who finds delight in fine trees, varied shrubbery, a well cultivated soil, and the comforts of a large house, every part of which is meant for use, and none of it for show.

When Mr. King took possession of his purchase, the house, grounds and fences were after the uniform pattern, then almost universal in the region. He soon changed and greatly improved all. The house, fronting south, was in a bare field, about one hundred yards back from the road, and separated from it by a white picket fence. A narrow gravel path led in a straight line from a little gate, down to the door of the house, while further to the east was the gate, through which, on another straight line, running down by the side of the house, was the entrance for carriages and horses. Two horse-chestnut trees, one east and the other west of the house, and about thirty feet from it, were, with the exception of some old apple trees, the only trees on the place; and the blazing sun of summer, and the abundant dust of the high road at all seasons, had unobstructed sweep over the house and lawn, or what was to become a lawn. Not a shrub or bush was interposed between the house and the fence, to secure any thing like privacy to the abode. On the contrary, it seemed to be the taste of the day to leave every thing open to the gaze of the wayfarers, and in turn to expose those wayfarers, their equipages, and their doings, to the inspection of the inmates of all roadside houses. Mr. King, who had cultivated the study of Botany, and was a genuine admirer of trees, soon went to work in embellishing the place which was to be his future home, and in this he was warmly seconded by the taste of Mrs. King. The first step was, to change the approach to the house, from a straight to a circular walk, broad and well rolled; then to plant out the high road. Accordingly, a belt of from twenty to thirty feet in width along the whole front of the ground, was prepared by proper digging and manuring, for the reception of shrubs and trees; and time and money were liberally applied, but with wise discrimination as to the adaptedness to the soil and climate, of the plants to be introduced. From the State of New Hampshire, through the careful agency of his friend, Mr. Sheaffe of Portsmouth, who was vigilant to have them properly procured, packed, and expedited to Jamaica, Mr. King received the pines and firs which, now very large trees, adorn the grounds. They were, it is believed, among the first, if not the first trees of this kind introduced into this part of Long Island, and none of the sort were then to be found in the  nurseries at Flushing. Some acorns planted near the house in 1810, are now large trees. Mr. King indeed planted, as the Romans builded—"for posterity and the immortal gods," for to his eldest son, now occupying the residence of his father, he said, in putting into the ground an acorn of the red oak—"If you live to be as old as I am, you will see here a large tree;" and, in fact, a noble, lofty, well-proportioned red oak now flourishes there, to delight with its wide-branching beauty, its grateful shade, and more grateful associations, not the children only, but the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of him who planted the acorn. Mr. King possessed, in a remarkable degree, all the tastes that fit one for the enjoyment of country life. He had a large and well selected library, particularly rich in its books relating to the Americas, and this library remains unbroken. With these true, tried, unwavering and unwearying friends—and such good books are—Mr. King spent much time; varying, however, his studious labors with outdoor exercise on horseback, to which he was much addicted; and in judgment of the qualities, as well as in the graceful management of a horse, he was rarely excelled. He loved, too, his gun and dog; was rather a keen sportsman, and good shot; though often, when the pointer was hot upon the game, his master's attention would be diverted by some rare or beautiful shrub or flower upon which his eye happened to light, and of which—if not the proper season for transplanting it into his border—he would carefully mark the place and make a memorandum thereof, so as to be enabled to return at the fitting time, and secure his prize. In this way he had collected in his shrubberies all the pretty flowering shrubs and plants indigenous to the neighborhood, adding thereto such strangers as he could naturalize; so that during a visit made to him many years after he began his plantation, by the Abbé Corréa, then Minister from Portugal to this Government, but even more distinguished as a man of letters, and particularly as a botanist—the learned Abbé said he could almost study the Flowers and the Trees of the central and eastern portion of the United States in these grounds. Mr. King loved, too, the song of birds—and his taste was rewarded by the number of them which took shelter in this secure and shady plantation, where no guns were ever allowed to be fired, nor trap nor snare to be set. The garden and the farm also came in for their share of interest and attention; and nowhere did care judiciously bestowed, and expenditure wisely ordered, produce more sure or gratifying results.

About the year 1817 Mr. King turned his attention to the importation of some cattle of the North Devon breed. In the preceding year he received as a token of a friendship contracted during his residence in England, from Mr. Coke of Holkham (the great English Commoner, and warm friend of America in the revolutionary contest, and always interested in whatever might promote the welfare of the people in whose early struggle for their rights he had sympathized), two beautiful cows of the North Devon breed, as being particularly adapted, as Mr. Coke supposed, to the light, level soil of the southern slope of Long Island,—similar in these qualities to that of his own magnificent domain at Holkham, in Norfolk. Mr. King was so much pleased with these animals, so beautiful in themselves, of a uniform mahogany color, with no white marks, finely limbed almost as deer, with regularly curved and tapering horns, of extreme docility, and easily kept, that in 1817 he imported several more, and was thus enabled to preserve the race in purity, and measurably to supply the demand for the pure stock, which is now widely scattered throughout the country.

While thus enjoying with the real zest of a cultivated mind, and of a disposition keenly alive to the aspect, the voices and the beauties of nature, the pleasures of a country life; Mr. King was not unmindful of, nor indifferent to the great and interesting contemporaneous drama of politics, which, although mainly played out in Europe, swept our republic too at last into its vortex. His early training, early instruction, and early and eminent successes in public life, made it alike unsuitable and impossible for him to withdraw himself wholly from the scene. And accordingly, although never in the whole course of his life seeking office, or putting himself forward, Mr. King was frequently appealed to, in his retirement, by political friends, sometimes consulted by political opponents,—while he was in the habit of receiving with elegant and cordial hospitality at Jamaica, distinguished visitors, both of his own country, and from abroad. Among such visitors was the Abbé Corréa, as already stated, about the period when, as Secretary of State to President Monroe, John Quincy Adams was asserting in his correspondence with the English Minister the right of the United States to the free navigation of the St. Lawrence. After discussing with Mr King in the library, the points of international law brought up by this claim,—in the course of which, somewhat to the surprise of the Abbé, Mr. King evinced entire familiarity with the analogous points brought up and settled, as regards European rivers, in the then recently held Congress of Vienna; and maintained the position, that  what was law between states in Europe conterminous to great navigable streams, must be law here; and that what Great Britain had assented to, and had joined in requiring others to assent to, in respect to the Rhine, she must assent to in respect to the St. Lawrence,—the Abbé proposed a walk in the grounds, and once there, laying aside politics, diplomacy, and international law, the two statesmen were soon very deep in botany and the system of Linnæus, and agriculture, and in all the cognate questions of climate, soils, manures, &c., and seemed quite as eager in these pursuits, as in those grave and more solemn questions of state policy, which occupy, but do not, in the same degree, innocently and surely reward the attention and interest of public men. It was on occasion of this visit, that the Abbé Corréa expressed his gratification at finding in the plantation of Mr. King so large a collection of the plants and shrubs indigenous to that part of our country,—a gratification enhanced, as he added, by the previous discussions in the library, in the course of which he had such demonstration of Mr. King's varied and comprehensive, yet minute knowledge of the great public questions which had agitated Europe, and of the more recent, as well as more ancient expositions of international law applicable thereto.

Previously to this period, however, Mr. King had been recalled to public life. At the commencement of the war of 1812 with Great Britain, Mr. King, though disapproving both of the time of declaring, and of the inefficiency in conducting, the war, and reposing little confidence either in the motives or the abilities of the administration, did nevertheless feel it his duty, the sword being drawn, to sustain, as best he might, the cause of his country. Among the first, and for a  time most discouraging results of the war, was the stoppage of specie payments by all the banks south of New England. The panic in New-York unavoidably was very great; and very much depended upon the course to be taken by its banks and its citizens, as to the effect to be produced upon the national cause and the national arm, by the suspension of payments. In this emergency, appealed to by his former fellow-citizens, Mr. King went to the city, and at the Tontine Coffee House, at a general meeting called to deliberate on the course to be taken by the community in regard to the banks, and in general in regard to the rights and duties alike, of creditors and debtors under the circumstances, he made a speech to the assembled multitude, in which, after deploring the circumstances which had forced upon the banks the necessity of suspension, he went on to show that it was a common cause, in which all had a part, and where all had duties. That the extreme right of the bill-holder, if enforced to the uttermost against the banks, would aggravate the evil to the public, although possibly it might benefit a few individuals; while, on the other hand, good to all, and strength and confidence to the general cause, would result from a generous forbearance, and mutual understanding that, if the banks on their part would restrict themselves within the limits as to issues and credits recognized as safe previous to the suspension, the community at large on their part, might, and possibly would continue to receive and pass the bills of the banks as before, and as though redeemable in coin. He urged with great power and earnestness the duty of fellow-citizens to stand shoulder to shoulder in such an emergency,—when a foreign enemy was pressing upon them, and when, without entering into the motives or causes which led to the war, about which men differ,—all Americans should feel it as their first and foremost obligation to stand by their country. The particular province of those he addressed was not so much to enlist in the armed service of the country, as to uphold its credit, and thus cherish the resources which would raise and reward armies; and if New-York should on this occasion be true to her duty—which also he plainly showed to be her highest interest—the clouds of the present would pass away, and her honor and her prosperity, with those of the nation of which she formed part and parcel, would be maintained and advanced. The effect of this address was decisive, and to an extent quite unprecedented in any commercial community under such circumstances; confidence was restored, and the course of business went on almost unruffled and undisturbed.

In 1813, Mr. King, after a lapse of seventeen years from his former service as a Senator of the United States, was again chosen by the Legislature of the State of New-York, as one of its Senators in Congress; and from the moment he resumed his seat in the Senate, he took leave, for the remainder of his life, of the undisturbed enjoyments of his rural abode; for a large portion of his time was necessarily spent at Washington, it being part of his notion of duty, never to be remiss in attendance upon, or in the discharge of, any trust committed to him. Still, his heart was among his plantations and his gardens, and even when absent, he kept up a constant correspondence with his son and his gardener, and always returned with fond zest to this quiet home.

In 1819, Mrs. King, whose health had been long declining, died, and was buried with all simplicity in the yard of the village  church; where together they long had worshipped, and which stood on ground originally forming part of Mr. King's property. At the time of her death, all the children had left the paternal roof, and settled in life with their own families around them; and solitude, therefore, embittered the loss to Mr. King of such a companion. And she was eminently fitted by similarity of tastes and acquirements, to share with her husband the cares and the pleasures of life, as well as its weightier duties. She was in an especial manner a lover of the country, and had cultivated the knowledge which lends additional charms to the beauties and the wonders of the vegetable creation. Over all these beauties, her death cast a pall; and although he repined not, it was easy to see how deep a sorrow overshadowed his remaining years. Yet he nerved himself to the discharge of his public duties with unabated zeal and fidelity; and when re-elected in 1820 to the Senate, was punctual as always at his post, and earnest as ever in fulfilling all its requirements. His own health, however, before so unshaken, began to fail; and at the closing session of 1825, Mr. King, in taking leave of the Senate, announced his purpose of retiring from public life; having then reached the age of seventy years, of which more than one half had been spent in the service of his country, from the period when he entered the Continental Congress in 1784, to that in which he left the Senate of the United States in 1825. But John Q. Adams, who had become President, pressed upon Mr. King the embassy to England. His enfeebled health and advanced age induced him at once to decline, but Mr. Adams urged him to refrain from any immediate decision, and to take the subject into consideration after he should return home, and then determine. Recalling with  lively and pleasant recollection the years of his former embassy to England, and hoping assuredly to be able—if finding there the same fair and friendly reception before extended to him—to benefit his country by the adjustment of some outstanding and long-standing points of controversy between the two nations; influenced too, in a great degree, by the opinion, of eminent physicians, that for maladies partaking of weakness, such as he was laboring under, a sea-voyage could hardly fail to be beneficial, Mr. King, rather in opposition to the wishes of his family, determined to accept the mission,—first stipulating, however, that his eldest son, John A. King, should accompany him as Secretary of Legation. It is proof of the strong desire of the then administration to avail of Mr. King's talents and character, and of the hope of good from his employment in this mission, that an immediate compliance with this request was made; and the gentleman who had been previously nominated to, and confirmed by, the Senate, as Secretary of Legation, having been commissioned elsewhere, Mr. John A. King was appointed Secretary of Legation to his father.

The voyage, unhappily, aggravated rather than relieved the malady of Mr. King; his health, after he reached England, continued to decline, and he therefore, after a few months' residence in London, asked leave to resign his post and come home. He returned accordingly, but only to die. He languished for some weeks, and finally, having been removed from Jamaica to the city for greater convenience of attendance and care, he died in New-York, on the 29th of April, 1827.

As with Mrs. King, so with him—in conformity with the unaffected simplicity of their whole lives—were the funeral rites at his death. Borne to Jamaica, which for more than twenty years had been his home, the body was carried to the grave by the neighbors among whom he had so long lived,—laid in the earth by the side of her who had gone before him, to be no more separated for ever; and a simple stone at the head of his grave, records—and the loftiest monument of art could do no more—that a great and a good man, having finished his course in faith, there awaits the great Judgment. Children, and grandchildren, have since been gathered in death around these graves, which lie almost beneath the shadow of trees planted by Mr. King, and within sight of the house in which he lived.

It was desired, if possible, to introduce a glimpse of the pretty village church into the engraving, but the space was wanting.

Mr. John A. King, the eldest son of Rufus King, now occupies the residence of his father, and keeps up, with filial reverence and inherited taste, its fine library, and its fine plantations. The engraving presents very accurately the appearance of the house; the closely shaven lawn in its front, and the noble trees which surround it, could find no adequate representation in any picture.