Zachary Taylor (1849-1850): The 12th 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.
Zachary Taylor was one of the largest slaveholders to become president holding 145 slaves at one point. Taylor inherited slaves, he bought slaves, and he bought plantations with slaves.
During his presidential campaign, Taylor told a fellow plantation owner “that I too have been all my life industrious and frugal, and that the fruits thereof are mainly invested in slaves.” Prior to his assumption of the presidency, Taylor owned slaves with a market value of $50,000, and by the time he died, Taylor’s worth, in current dollars, made him a multimillionaire (General Winfield Scott referred to Taylor as “a dear lover of money”).
Taylor’s position on slavery is best summed up in the following statement made in 1847 to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy during the American Civil War:
So far as slavery is concerned, we of the south must throw ourselves on the constitution & defend our rights under it to the last, & when arguments will no longer suffice, we will appeal to the sword, if necessary.
Taylor: 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.
California Gold Rush
The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) was a gold rush that began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. The news of gold brought approximately 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad. The sudden influx of gold into the money supply reinvigorated the American economy, and the sudden population increase allowed California to go rapidly to statehood, in the Compromise of 1850.
The Gold Rush had severe effects on Native Californians and accelerated the Native American population’s decline from disease, starvation and the California Genocide. By the time it ended, California had gone from a thinly populated ex-Mexican territory, to having one of its first two U.S. Senators, John C. Frémont, selected to be the first presidential nominee for the new Republican Party, in 1856.
The effects of the Gold Rush were substantial. Whole indigenous societies were attacked and pushed off their lands by the gold-seekers, called “forty-niners” (referring to 1849, the peak year for Gold Rush immigration). Outside of California, the first to arrive were from Oregon, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and Latin America in late 1848. Of the approximately 300,000 people who came to California during the Gold Rush, about half arrived by sea and half came overland on the California Trail and the Gila River trail; forty-niners often faced substantial hardships on the trip. While most of the newly arrived were Americans, the gold rush attracted thousands from Latin America, Europe, Australia, and China. Agriculture and ranching expanded throughout the state to meet the needs of the settlers. San Francisco grew from a small settlement of about 200 residents in 1846 to a boomtown of about 36,000 by 1852. Roads, churches, schools and other towns were built throughout California. In 1849 a state constitution was written. The new constitution was adopted by referendum vote, and the future state’s interim first governor and legislature were chosen. In September 1850, California became a state.
At the beginning of the Gold Rush, there was no law regarding property rights in the goldfields and a system of “staking claims” was developed. Prospectors retrieved the gold from streams and riverbeds using simple techniques, such as panning. Although the mining caused environmental harm, more sophisticated methods of gold recovery were developed and later adopted around the world. New methods of transportation developed as steamships came into regular service. By 1869, railroads were built from California to the eastern United States. At its peak, technological advances reached a point where significant financing was required, increasing the proportion of gold companies to individual miners. Gold worth tens of billions of today’s US dollars was recovered, which led to great wealth for a few, though many who participated in the California Gold Rush earned little more than they had started with.
California and the 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.
Mysterious Death of Taylor
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 on July 9, 1850 . 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.
- California, a “Free State” Sanctioned slavery. (2020, April 3). California Historical Society. https://californiahistoricalsociety.org/blog/california-a-free-state-sanctioned-slavery/
- The California Gold Rush of 1849. (n.d.). Coloma, California. https://www.coloma.com/california-gold-discovery/history/california-gold-rush/
- (n.d.). Compromise of 1850 | Heritage Society. https://www.compromise-of-1850.org
- Fremont, John C. (n.d.). Welcome to Civil War on the Western Border | Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. https://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/fr%C3%A9mont-john-c
- Gold discovery history. (n.d.). Coloma, California. https://www.coloma.com/california-gold-discovery/history/
- Mexican cession facts, worksheets & Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. (2021, February 5). KidsKonnect. https://kidskonnect.com/history/mexican-cession/
- Zachary Taylor. (n.d.). UnderstandingPrejudice.org. https://secure.understandingprejudice.org/draft/slavery/presinfo.php?president=12
- Zachary Taylor’s remains are removed for tests. (1991, June 18). The New York Times – Breaking News, US News, World News and Videos. https://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CEFDD1F38F93BA25755C0A967958260
Millard Fillmore (1850 – 1853) would follow Zachary Taylor
James Polk (1845 – 1849) preceded Zachary Taylor
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.