In the several decades that followed the Civil War, the Democratic Party—long associated with the states of the former Confederacy—struggled to restore its standing as a national political organization. After the 1892 elections, many Democrats believed they had finally succeeded. In those contests, for the first time since the war, they captured the presidency and gained control of both houses of Congress. Symbolizing their return to national power, Senate Democrats replaced the incumbent secretary of the Senate—a former Union army general—with a former Confederate general.
In the late 1850s, North Carolina native William Ruffin Cox actively encouraged the states of the Old South to secede from the Union. A prosperous lawyer, he studied military tactics and, at his own expense, equipped a light artillery battery. When war came, he organized and led a Confederate infantry company. During the May 1863 Chancellorsville Campaign, Cox lost three-quarters of his regiment in just 15 minutes of fighting. In June 1864, he accompanied General Jubal Early on a raid designed to capture Washington. They reached Silver Spring, Maryland—the closest threat to the capital of any rebel unit—before withdrawing in the face of superior forces.
After the war, William Cox returned home to Raleigh, resumed his law practice, and joined former secessionists in organizing a political faction that eventually restored Democratic rule to North Carolina. He represented a North Carolina district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1881 to 1887.
On April 6, 1893, during a brief Senate special session called to confirm cabinet nominees in Cleveland's second administration, the new Democratic majority selected Cox as secretary. Republican senators, not yet reconciled to their new minority status, immediately objected to a plan that would allow Cox, along with the Democratic candidates for sergeant at arms and chaplain, to take office at once. The Republicans contended that it was not the practice of the Senate to change its officers during these short special sessions. While noting that only four individuals had served as secretary during the Senate's first 72 years, a Republican leader acknowledged that "a new order of things has come and we on this side of the chamber recognize it fully and bow to the inevitable." The Senate then agreed that the new officers would not begin their terms until the start of the upcoming regular session.
When the Senate convened for that session on August 7, 1893, Cox took his oath of office. A man of "striking physical appearance, cultured and courtly," Cox carried out his Senate responsibilities "with acceptance and distinction." When the Republicans regained the Senate majority two years later, party leaders agreed to keep him in office. This decision owed much to his genial nature, but even more to the political realities of a Republican caucus sharply divided on larger policy issues. Finally, in 1900, a strengthened Republican caucus decided to make a change and the 69-year-old Cox retired.