Utah Maverick: Senator William H. King

By Ray Hill

Anyone who reads history is thoroughly acquainted with one indisputable fact: things change.  Today the State of Utah is ruby red in its voting habits.  That was not always the case.  William Henry King served as both a congressman and a United States senator from the Beehive State.  King was a Democrat who earned a well-deserved reputation for political independence.  That was especially true when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected and started his “New Deal” program.  It is likely difficult for modern readers to grasp just how FDR dominated the Democratic Party.  Carter Glass, the peppery little U.S. senator from Virginia, once said, “If the President asked Congress to commit suicide tomorrow, they’d do it.”  Defying President Roosevelt oftentimes meant political extinction for those Democrats judged to be apostates. William H. King became one of those who dared to defy the will of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Ironically, Senator King had been reelected in 1934 on a platform calling for support for FDR and the New Deal.  King then broke with Roosevelt over the president’s plan to pack the Supreme Court of the United States.  So, too, did Senator King oppose the National Recovery Act, the wage-hour bill, and generally followed a line of opposition to American involvement in foreign affairs.  Senator King also generally fought reciprocal trade agreements, the holiest of holies for Secretary of State Cordell Hull of Tennessee.  Some believed Roosevelt opposed the election of Mississippi’s Pat Harrison as the Senate’s majority leader, not only because the Mississippian was believed to be less faithful to the New Deal than Alben Barkley, but also because King would chair the powerful Finance Committee if Harrison moved up to the leadership.  FDR thought it would be a calamity to the New Deal should William H. King become chairman of the Senate’s Finance Committee.

King was a living, breathing link to Utah’s past, a fact acknowledged by the Deseret News when the former senator died.  William H. King was part of Utah’s pioneer past, its days as a territory of the United States, through the modern age.  King was the first man ever to be elected to Congress by the Beehive State after Utah won statehood.

King looked like a senator and had the voice to go with it.  Tall with a thatch of white hair, his face dominated by a hawkish nose, William Henry King could have managed not to look out of place wearing the proverbial toga of a Roman senator.  The senator was always in great demand as a speaker and possessed “a resonant voice with which, without shouting, he could make himself heard and understood throughout the great Tabernacle long before the days of amplifiers.”  Preferring to avoid the “affectation and bombast” so popular with many orators of his time, William H. King was reckoned to be “one of the best public speakers” of his day “in the state or in the Church.”  King’s ability allowed him to enjoy a public career that spanned half a century.  Added to that, William H. King had “an extraordinary ability to remember names, faces and family connections.”

King was married twice; he and Annie Lyman had four children together.  After Annie’s premature death, King married Vera Sjodahl and they were parents to three children of their own.  Later Senator King would tell reporters he had more great-grandchildren “than I can count.”  At 24, King had been one of those who had founded the Democratic Party in Utah.  King was successful in the practice of law and was partners with George Sutherland, a former member of the U.S. Senate and a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

William Henry King first went to Washington, D.C., as a 33-year-old attorney in 1897.  Congressman King did not get renominated by Utah Democrats, but he returned to the House of Representatives after his successor, Brigham H. Roberts, was refused a seat by the House.  Roberts was denied a seat in the House of Representatives due to the fact he practiced, like some Mormons of the time, polygamy.  King returned to the House in a 1900 special election to complete the remainder of Roberts’ term.  Congressman King ran in the 1900 general election and lost.  An effort to regain his seat in the House two years later was also unsuccessful.  King was a candidate for the U.S. Senate twice when state legislatures still elected the members of that body.  King was defeated both times and it took popular elections before he could attain his goal, finally winning election to the United States Senate in 1916.

When William H. King first went to the U.S. Senate, he was considered a liberal.  By the time his career ended, due to his fierce opposition to many of the New Deal programs, critics described him as a conservative, although in truth his attitude about policies had changed little over time.  King could be a formidable opponent.  Once the Utah senator spoke for three days on the floor of the Senate and his speech took up 30 pages in the Congressional Record.  His speech, “Conditions in the Orient,” received a great deal of attention from the national news media.

In 1927, Senator King left Washington after Congress had adjourned and headed for an inspection trip to Puerto Rico and Haiti.  While in Puerto Rico, the senator was notified he was not welcome in Haiti.  The Haitian minister in Washington, D.C., on instructions from his government, released a statement that King had been advised he was considered an “undesirable” by the government of Haiti.  Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, a former GOP senator, sent a telegram to the president of Haiti saying the refusal of the Haitian government to receive King was an “affront” to the Senate and did Haiti no credit.  The president of Haiti replied by cable, “Mr. King’s utterances are a personal insult to me and to my people.”

William H. King was one of the first members of the U.S. Senate to insist America break off relations with Adolf Hitler’s Germany in 1938.  Senator King had been reelected in 1922 and 1928.  When the Republicans made a determined effort to dislodge King from his Senate seat in 1934, the senator ran his campaign as a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and his administration.  Two years earlier, Utah had defeated Reed Smoot, a Republican and veteran of 30 years in the United States Senate.  The Beehive State was represented by two Democrats as Elbert Thomas, a professor, had beaten Senator Smoot.  With the departure of Reed Smoot from the Senate, William H. King became the senior senator from Utah.

During the six years from 1934 until 1940, Senator King became a more frequent critic of the New Deal, which enraged many Democrats in Utah.  King and the president did agree on the necessity for passage of the Lend-Lease Bill.  “The president is right and we’ve got to support him,” King said.

Prior to 1940, Utah Democrats had nominated their candidates for the U.S. Senate by party convention; that year Democrats would go to the polls and vote for their preferred candidate in a primary election.  At the beginning of the campaign, William H. King appeared to be a formidable candidate; one of the most senior members of the Senate, the Utahn was chair of the Finance Committee and the President Tempore of that body.  Yet King’s opposition to much of the New Deal made the senator unpopular with many inside his own party.  King faced serious opposition inside the Democratic primary from Congressman Abe Murdock.  Murdock ran as a “100%” supporter of FDR and the New Deal.  Apparently, Senator King had money enough to run a reelection campaign, but Election Day brought an end to his political career.  The magnitude of Senator King’s defeat was astonishing.  The senator managed to win just over 21% of the ballots cast inside the Democratic primary; a third candidate polled roughly 13% while Congressman Murdock won more than 65%.  It was a repudiation of Senator King in no uncertain terms.  The number of Democrats voting in the primary outnumbered the Republicans by more than 2-1.  As noted by the Utah Valley News & Journal, “. . .the entire state is still with Roosevelt and the New Deal.”  Another, albeit lesser, factor in King’s defeat was his age; the senator was 77 years old.  One Republican asserted in an address that Roosevelt’s “dictatorship” was responsible for “the purge” of Senator William H. King in the Democratic primary.  The defeat of King was not unexpected by most seasoned observers of politics in the Beehive State, but the breadth and scope of the senator’s defeat surprised many.

The veteran senator’s defeat was autopsied by several political prognosticators, most of whom concluded King’s loss to Abe Murdock was due to a combination of factors.  Farmers and miners, two important constituencies, had voted overwhelmingly for Congressman Murdock, who had supported legislation favoring local interests, like the sugar beet industry.  So, too, did thousands of Utah Democrats choose Murdock over Senator King because the congressman had gone down the line with President Roosevelt.  The Salt Lake Telegram published a laudatory editorial praising the service of William H. King and said the fact he had been defeated was “less a reflection on him than a tribute to his successor and an evidence of the change in political philosophies of the people.”

Before leaving office, Senator William H. King went down to the White House for a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The contents of their conversation were not recorded for posterity, but it was described by national columnist Drew Pearson as the senator making peace with FDR.  The following year, the former senator and his wife celebrated the birth of their first great-grandchild, Brian Dexter Milner.

One of several senators defeated for reelection, William H. King did not expect a federal appointment but rather started over once again.  King hung up his shingle as a practicing attorney in Washington, D.C.  King and his wife, Vera, continued to live in Washington, but both returned to Utah periodically for visits to their home state.  King came home in 1943 to attend the funeral of his brother Samuel.  The former senator spent a few days visiting old friends and family members.  King spoke to reporters and said he was pleased with the progress of American troops during the Second World War.  Samuel King had been a highly successful criminal lawyer recognized throughout the western United States for his ability.  The former senator’s younger brother, Sam King, died from complications caused by a ruptured appendix.

Old habits die hard, and King was back in Utah in 1946 to speak at the reunion of the Emeritus Club of Brigham Young University in June.  The occasion allowed the former senator and his wife to celebrate a family reunion with their son David as well.  Greeted by reporters upon his return to Salt Lake City, King said “things in general are good” throughout the country, but readily acknowledged “some sore spots” within the country’s economic structure.  King also spoke to the Sons of Utah Pioneers Club, where his topic was “Loyalty to the Constitution.”  By 1947, the former senator had closed his law practice and the couple made plans to return to Salt Lake City where they planned to live in retirement.  Before leaving Washington, D.C., the Kings were feted by friends, a party that drew 150 guests which included both of Utah’s incumbent U.S. senators.

Life slowed and William H. King suffered a major heart attack in 1948 and was in ill health for the remaining year of his life.  King became weaker as time passed and faded away on November 27, 1949.

Aside from his independent legislative legacy, William Henry King left behind a large family and many friends.  King’s son David served several terms in the House of Representatives before losing his seat.

© 2024 Ray Hill