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How William King Overcame Challenges To Become Maine's First Governor

via Wikimedia Commons

If there is one figure who stands out in Maine's striving for statehood, it might be William King.  As we continue our bicentennial look back, the focus today is on the life of King, who would become Maine's first governor.

Credit via Wikimedia Commons
An image of a portrait of Rufus King, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1820, located in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

This month marks the anniversary of William King’s birth 252 years ago, on Feb. 9, 1768. King was the younger half-brother of Rufus King, who would grow up to become a United States senator from New York. Both men would eventually work toward the achievement of Maine statehood.

But historian Herb Adams says William King had far fewer advantages than Rufus, "who got a good education at Harvard, went off and fought as an officer in the revolution, went on very quickly up the ladder of success."

The boys’ father, Richard, was a wealthy landowner in Scarborough. Richard King was wealthy enough to loan other people money. But Adams says he loaned too much money to people who had trouble paying it back.

ADAMS: "Farmers were burdened with debt - small businessmen who couldn't pay back the loans. There were several occasions where they would attack his house at night and do things like throw dead animals into his well or threaten to burn his barns when he was away.

"At one point they break into the King house, throw the furniture and such out the windows, force Richard King to get up on a table - perhaps dance, you know. But they humiliate him in many ways. Little William may have witnessed this. And Richard King died shortly thereafter.

"One of the other things that the mob do is burn his desk. So there are no more papers, hence no more debt, so they say. The family is left without Richard's fortune. And William can't get the education at Harvard that Rufus did, so William is given his only patrimony, which is a set of matched black oxen. Now that's nothing small - you know, maybe like being given a Cadillac today. They represent a good amount of money, but they're in the form of oxen. And he has to march away from home - it was a heartbreak for his mother, who he dearly loved all his life - out into the world to make his way.

"William King, as an older man, liked to tell the story that when he got out to the road in Scarborough with his oxen that he's driving before him, and he has to decide where he's going to go to make his fortune, that crows came out of the air and circled above him and sped off in a certain direction. And he said, 'Well, that's as good enough a sign for me, isn’t it?' And he followed that direction, driving his steers before him, which he would sell and start his work.

"I don't know what to say about that story - a lot of self-made great men would say a story like that. They said it of Alexander the Great, except they were eagles instead of crows. We make the Maine version crows.

"So William works in a sawmill, learning figures the hard way, and heavy labor the hard way, and invests that money. He eventually moves to Bath, and he invests in banks - in those days you could set up your own bank, you know, with enough capital.

"He certainly sees the future in ships. And from a small star, he becomes one of the big wooden ship sailing builders, and a very far-sighted, and yet kind of crude man. At one point, he understands that there's a lot of cotton to be had down in New Orleans and he calls his captains in and shows them a map and says, "New Orleans, it's down there somewhere. Go." And they do. William King's ships are the first that set up a Maine-to-Louisiana cotton trade. So he does make money and he does well.

Gratz: "William King also has an intangible quality that many leaders share - today, we would call it 'charisma.' "

ADAMS: "In person, we know that William King was a little bit above their average height. I don't think in height he'd stand out on the street today. He has very dark eyes, and they're deeply set beneath heavy black eyebrows. And he has a deep commanding voice, such that it was said of him that you could not look in those eyes and defy him. He has a very commanding way about him - and you've met people like that in life. And it is they, themselves, not the money they have, that command the room. That was William King.

"He was sensitive about his lack of a formal education. He - once when he was governor and such, one of his enemies put out in a broadside that no man should be allowed to be governor who could not speak the English as Sancho Panza spoke the Spanish. And it is said that William King said, 'Who the hell is Sancho Panza?' Because he'd never read Don Quixote.

"He was not inarticulate. He clearly could write well - we have many of his letters. But they're written laboriously. And he always wanted to see things in black and white - facts, figures, on the paper in front of him, probably a memory of what happened to his father. He bought a lot of land up in what is Kingfield, Maine. And the only home that he owned and lived in still stands there in Kingfield, Maine. It's a private home now and has been for over 100 years. His own home in Bath and such is sadly gone now. But he was a big proprietor in that sense, and he loved going there and rusticating, as it were.

"He was generous with money and loans, and he was very firm about getting his money back, unlike what happened to his father. He loaned money to Gilbert Stuart, the great portrait artist, at one time - Gilbert Stuart, whose portrait of George Washington is the one that's on the dollar bill. And about 1805 or so - because Gilbert Stuart couldn't pay the money back - he painted a portrait of William King that captures him as a young man, dark-eyed and very stern. And that portrait hangs in the office of the governor of Maine to this day."

William King began his political career in 1795, when he was elected to represent Topsham in the Massachusetts Legislature. After moving to Bath, he served multiple terms in the Massachusetts House, and then its state Senate. 

A champion of statehood, William King was chosen to lead the convention that drew up Maine's Constitution.  The convention, as one of its last acts, elected King acting governor should statehood come. The vote, Adams says, was 153-to-1. “Probably that one was his own, very modestly.”

After statehood, William King served barely a year as Maine’s governor. He resigned May 28, 1821 to accept President James Monroe's appointment to negotiate a treaty with Spain.  He would run for his old job as governor in 1834 but lose. 

William King died at home in Bath, June 17, 1852.  He was 84 years old.

Learn more about the people and the events that led to Maine statehood here. 

Herb Adams is a historian and teaches at Southern Maine Community College.