Today, the Large Cent Coin remembers the special administration of the Vice Presidential oath to William R. King on March 24, 1853 in Cuba.
From The Nation, a weekly journal devoted to Politics, Literature, Science, Drama, Music, Art, and Finance, for March 1, 1917, an excerpt of Henry Barrett Learned’s article titled, the Vice President’s Oath of Office:
The last instance of a Vice-President sworn into office outside Washington was that of William R. King, of Alabama, running mate in 1852-1853 of Franklin Pierce.
King’s is the single example of a Vice-President sworn into office on foreign soil.
The ceremony required for its authorization a special statute.
The circumstances of the incident have never been carefully set forth.
Owing to the feeble state of his health in the latter part of December, 1852, Senator King, then retiring as President pro tem., resigned that position for the sake of rest sufficient to assure him ability to assume the duties of the Vice-Presidency in the following March.
In January he sailed from Norfolk, Va., on the Government steamer Fulton, placed at his service by order of the Secretary of the Navy, John P. Kennedy, and went via Key West to Havana, Cuba.
From Havana, after a week’s rest, King sailed to the port of Matanzas, sixty miles eastward; thence he went up into the hills a few miles inland for the sake of drier air and greater warmth.
He was, he knew, in the last stages of consumption.
Throughout the winter—ever since his resignation of the Chairmanship of the Senate—the newspapers watched closely the movements of the sick man and the changing conditions of his illness.
On February 23, with the inauguration of Franklin Pierce rather more than a week off, a bill (S. 639) was introduced specially providing for the administration of the oath of office to William R. King, Vice-President-elect, on Cuban soil.
It went the next day to the House of Representatives, where it was slightly amplified.
On March 2, 1853, it became law with President Fillmore’s approval.
It provided for a special case thus far unique in our annals.
The law of March 2 authorized William L. Sharkey, of Tennessee, then Consul at Havana, “to administer at Havana, or any other place in the island [Cuba], the oath of office prescribed by the sixth article of the Constitution on the fourth day of March next, or some subsequent day.”
As an alternative and afterthought, provision was made (section 2) that any judge or magistrate in the United States might administer the oath.
Whoever did so was required by the law to certify it under his hand to the Congress of the United States.
On Saturday, March 5, the new Secretary of State, William L. Marcy, dispatched a copy of the law to Consul Sharkey at Havana.
The incident was among the first duties to which Marcy was bound to attend.
On Sunday, March 13—just over a week later—there appeared in the New Orleans Picayune a circumstantial story of the administration of the oath of office to William R. King by Vice-Consul Thomas M. Rodney, our representative at Matanzas, on March 4, inauguration day.
Although a clever fabrication, the story attracted attention, and was copied widely.
On the very same day the New York Herald reported from Charleston, S. C., that Vice-President King had declined to take the official oath, fearing lest he should never reach Washington.
This rumor also went the rounds of the press.
Early in April the real truth began to appear.
Consul Sharkey, in accordance with the act of Congress, administered the oath to Vice-President King on Thursday, March 24, about noon.
It appears that Judge Sharkey, soon after the receipt of Marcy’s dispatch, had made the journey eastward to Matanzas, and thence had travelled an additional dozen or fifteen miles inland to the private estate known as “Ariadne,” of Col. John Chartrand, a planter.
On this estate, a large sugar plantation, King was sojourning in order to avail himself of what was termed the “sugar-cure,” that is to say, the breathing daily of hot vapors from the sugar vats.
The simple ceremony was carried out in the presence of some thirteen Americans, all of whom signed the official certificate, which was addressed to the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States.
This certificate is on file and under control of the Chief of the Bureau of Indexes and Archives in the Department of State. I have never discovered a statement to indicate that it was brought formally to the attention of either house of Congress.
“The Vice-President,” said a contemporary letter from a Havana correspondent, dated March 26, “being too feeble to stand without assistance, was supported on the right by G. W. Jones, M. C., and on the left by T. M. Rodney, Esq., Consul.”
That King never reached Washington is well enough known.
He left Matanzas aboard the Fulton on April 7, following. Six days later he reached Mobile.
Thence he was carried to his plantation at Selma, Alabama, where he died on Monday evening, April 18, 1853.
The Large Cent Coin shows beside a portrait of William R. King, circa 1852.