Zachary Taylor: A Twelfth Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Zachary Taylor was a celebrity after a stint as a hero of the Mexican War. He was also a political unknown who in fact was not seeking the presidency, but was approached by both parties to be their candidate. As a war hero, he appealed to the north, and as a Louisiana landowner and slaveholder, he appealed to the south.
Politician In Name Only
“Old Rough and Ready” lacked the polish of a professional politician, was not a great communicator, and never registered to vote not even for his own election; however, he was the consummate Washington insider as the second cousin of James Madison, 4th cousin once removed of Robert E. Lee and father-in-law of Jefferson Davis.
Taylor deferred to others and promised not to exercise his veto power as he viewed the presidency as a position without much power. He was largely influenced by his cabinet and Congress.
Taylor thought slavery should be decided by Congress as the ruling body and as president he would go along with whatever they decided. The slavery debate had begun to get ugly. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was crumbling, and the expansion of slavery into the newly acquired western territories had to be addressed. Southern extremists threatened secession while northern abolitionists demanded to be heard.
Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850 was a bundle of bills designed to link the admission of California as a free state while giving some concessions on slavery to the south. This did not satisfy Taylor who thought states should decide the slavery issue themselves when applying for statehood.
Drafting a constitution that prohibited slavery, California applied for admission as a free state in 1850. At that time, there were thirty states in the Union, equally split between slave and free states. Taylor’s proposed solution of allowing the residents in the Mexican Cession to decide the issue of slavery in new state constitutions would have added two or three free states to the Union, upsetting the delicate North-South balance in the Senate. Taylor insisted on opposing in spite of dissent and stated that he would hang secessionists starting with his son-in-law Jefferson Davis.
Presiding over a groundbreaking ceremomy for the Washington Monument, he drank a pitcher of milk and ate a bowl of cherries. He became ill and died five days later. Some thought he was poisoned by arsenic in a conspiracy. Others thought he suffered from gastroenteritis. Taylor was exhumed in 1991 and it was determined there were no signs of foul play.
We are now 75 years into the life of the country. Where Taylor would have taken the country is a mystery as he died after only serving a year in office, but it’s clear that, by the middle of the 19th century, the founding fathers had left a legacy with two loopholes. The United States of America was a loose republic of states, perhaps divisible, with liberty and justice for some.
The territory gains after the Mexican War stretched us from sea to shining sea, and the new land acquired threatened to divide the nation. Tensions flared between the north and the south as each wanted to settle the west in its own image. The north is far more populated and far more economically developed than the south, but the south has a stranglehold on the Democratic Party, the Presidency and the Supreme Court. We were a young Republic, and most republics throughout history had not survived. Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century were not sure if we would survive.
Millard Fillmore would follow Zachary Taylor
James Polk preceded Zachary Taylor
It all started with George Washington.