Thomas Benton King, attorney and state legislator, son of Austin Augustus King and Nancy Harris (Roberts) King, was born on April 12, 1838, in Richmond, Ray County, Missouri. His father was a governor of Missouri, and his great-grandfather, John Sevier, was the first governor of Tennessee and served in the Revolutionary War. King earned a bachelor’s degree with highest honors and master’s degree from the University of Missouri in 1858 and 1866, respectively. After his 1858 graduation he studied law, began practicing in 1860, and established a practice in Liberty, Missouri. He was chief clerk in the Missouri secretary of state’s office during the Civil War.
King was admitted on trial in March 1865 and became a Methodist minister in March 1866. He organized Smith’s Chapel in the Clarksville, Missouri, circuit in 1869, but that same year he left the church over a disagreement about his preaching and religious beliefs. King wrote that in 1870 he was “back in the old Border Ruffian county over on the Missouri River,” herded sheep, and “taught in the public schools until the summer of 1873.”
After his father-in-law gave King’s wife land in Texas, on September 10, 1873, King, his wife Clara, and four children arrived in Erath County, where he worked “herding sheep and cattle, teaching school and ranching.” During 1893 to 1894 he advertised his “Law, Land And Loan Office” in Stephenville. The November 2, 1894, issue of the Stephenville Empire announced King’s candidacy for Erath County judge, and on November 16 he received 418 votes to defeat opponent J. H. McMillan, who received 389 votes. During 1895 to 1897 King expanded his legal and real estate business, ultimately to an office in the Erath County courthouse. He served as county judge until 1898.
Businessman John Tarleton died on September 11, 1895; left part of his estate to be sold to “erect, endow and maintain” The John Tarleton College; and named the Texas governor, state superintendent of public instruction, and Erath County judge as trustees. On March 12, 1896, the board of trustees—Governor Charles Allen Culberson, Superintendent James McCoy Carlisle, and Erath County Judge Thomas B. King—founded The John Tarleton College. King was a trustee until his term of office expired in 1898 and was succeeded by L. N. Frank.
King’s interest in politics and local control—particularly of The John Tarleton College—is evidenced by a lawsuit he filed on April 7, 1898, to dissolve the board of trustees and turn over college management to local officials, which was settled out of court on October 18, 1898; articles he wrote in the Stephenville Empire published that year extolling that position; and his involvement in a 1913 lawsuit involving local control of the college. Classes were temporarily suspended during the 1898–99 academic year and resumed in the fall of 1899.
On December 1, 1897, King founded Direct Legislation, a “nonpartisan” paper and regional publication based on the National Direct Legislation League’s official publication, Direct Legislation Record. The Direct Legislation Record, published out of Newark, New Jersey, reported King would “work for a restoration of all political power to the people by the Initiative, Referendum and Recall.” In March 1898 King stated the objective of Direct Legislation was to restore “all political power to the people.” In September 1898 he suspended publication after nine issues “largely due to the recent death of his son, Austin A. King.” King was described as “important in Texas initiative and referendum leadership before 1900.” During 1908 he was identified as a member of the advisory committee for the United Christian party, headquartered in Davenport, Iowa, but activities he may have undertaken were not reported.
King was elected as a Democrat representing District 97 (Erath, Hood, and Somervell counties) to the House of the Thirty-sixth Texas Legislature and served from 1919 to 1921. During his term he served on the Agriculture, Liquor Traffic, Public Health, and State Affairs committees. While a member, King sent samples of “a few about-to-sprout pecan nuts to members of said Legislature here and there all over Texas.” The planting of pecan trees was a hobby for King.
King’s interest in local control of The John Tarleton College persisted fifteen years after the events of 1898. The Texas legislature enacted a law that created a local board of regents in Stephenville on March 17, 1913. Some Stephenville residents “headed by the omnipresent Thomas King” filed a lawsuit in June 1913 to challenge “the right of the county judge to appoint [Board of Regents] members.” The lawsuit was settled in August 1913 by a compromise which “removed the power to appoint new members by the county judge,” and “upheld the appointment of the local board of regents and reaffirmed their right to hire faculty.”
On July 26, 1860, King married Emma E. Chiles. After her death he married Clara Flournoy Bingham on June 2, 1864; they had nine children. After her death in 1901, he married Maude Merrill on July 5, 1906; she died in 1949. Thomas Benton King died in Stephenville on December 15, 1931, and was buried in West End Cemetery in Stephenville.