"Ol' Rough n' Ready" hadn't even been sworn in yet when the discovery of California gold derailed whatever plans he'd held for his presidency. 100,000 Americans flooded west to California In 1849 and quickly began clamoring for statehood - statehood without slavery. The north loved the idea, the south threatened to secede over it, and Zachary Taylor had to bridge the gap or die trying.
Follow Taylor as he participates in four wars and becomes a national hero for his generalship in the Mexican-American War, gets pulled into politics by a Whig party desperate to reclaim the White House, and then shows he won't be bullied by anyone when the California Gold Rush leads to the threat of a secessionist crisis In 1850.
1. Zachary Taylor – John D. Eisenhower
2. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America – Walter R. Borneman
3. Millard Fillmore – Paul Finkelman
4. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System – Donald B. Cole
5. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands
6. Abraham Lincoln – David Herbert Donald
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)
12.) Zachary Taylor 1849-1850
Welcome to Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 12, Zachary Taylor, Ol’ Rough n’ Ready!
Zachary Taylor was elected president for basically one reason and one reason only, he was a great warrior who won great victories in the Mexican American war.
But, as Yoda once said, war does not make one great. And Taylor was not a great president.
But, well, maybe he could have been … if he’d lived.
That’s right, Zachary Taylor is going to be the second Whig president to die shortly after reaching the white house – the Whigs are going to go o-for-2 in electing presidents and keeping them alive. Which is a real shame, because Taylor might have been the last best chance to avoid the Civil War that’s rapidly coming.
In today’s episode, we’ll talk about the military career that vaulted Taylor into national prominence, the political campaign that elected him president, and why he might have saved the country from civil war – if only he’d lived to have the chance.
Zachary Taylor was born on Nov. 24, 1784, in Orange County Virginia, but his family moved to Kentucky when he was 7 months old, so he grew up living the life of a Kentucky farmer. A wealthy Kentucky farmer. Taylor’s family had already been rich in Virginia before they’d moved west and that didn’t change much after the move, but Taylor didn’t seem to take to the trappings of wealth, because in 1806, at the age of 22, he left it all behind and signed up for the life of a soldier – a calling he’d stick with pretty much the rest of his life – and then in 1810, he married the love of his live, Margaret Smith. Together, they had six children.
Taylor is going to see action in four conflicts over the next 40 years – The war of 1812, the Black Hawk war, the Seminole War, and the Mexican-American war. In the first three, he’ll be a foot note, but in the fourth, he’ll be a legend.
In 1812, Taylor as very much still a nobody, but he was about to start becoming a somebody.
After the war of 1812 began, Taylor was put in charge of about 100 soldiers and settlers and told to occupy a frontier fort in the Indiana Territory not far from the site of the recent battle of Tippecanoe – an event we covered in episode 9 on William Henry Harrison. In fact, the fort Taylor was occupying was called Fort Harrison, recently named in William Henry Harrison’s honor. This region was still very much under threat of attack from the British and their native American allies and, sure enough, shortly after Taylor arrived, he was attacked. Somewhere around 400-600 native Americans struck at night and set fire to part of the fort. If Taylor’s men had panicked and fled the flames, they very well could have been killed, but the thing about Taylor – and this is very much his defining quality – is that Taylor never panics. Despite the spreading flames and a rain of arrows, Taylor calmly and confidently organized his men to put out every fire the attackers could start, rebuild the walls the fires had burned down, and held onto the fort. By morning, the native Americans withdrew. And while this sounds like a draw to me, it was celebrated in the American press as the first victory of the war of 1812, making Taylor a minor celebrity at a time when everything was going wrong.
And that’s pretty much all Taylor did in the war of 1812. He protected his little fort, he didn’t get attacked again, and then he retired after the war, his adventuring days done.
Except, well. This is a guy who will become known as “Ol’ Rough and Ready,” so, he’s not done. Within a year, he decided civilian life was too soft and too slow for him, writing a cousin that nothing ever happened worth writing about. So in 1816, he rejoined the army. This time, he’d stick with it up until the day he became president.
Taylor’s next fight came when in 1832 when the now 48-year-old soldier played a minor role in a 3-month conflict known as the Black Hawk War – a war that never should have happened. And I mean never. Basically, 500 braves led by a warrior named BlackHawk did some looting in Illinois because white people kept violating treaties and taking their land – you know, the stuff we talk about every time we mention American-native American relations. When the militia showed up to stop Black Hawk’s raiders, the native americans tried to surrender, but when the native americans and militia met to negotiate the surrender, some idiot militia guy got antsy and shot two of Black Hawk’s emissaries. Black Hawk responded by attacking and routing the militia. Over the next three months, Zachary Taylor was in charge of the fort that American forces operated from, but he never saw action himself, which was a bit of a bummer for him. Before long, Black Hawk was defeated, captured, and briefly put in Taylor’s custody before being handed over to other authorities.
Funny story about the authority, and, I’m sorry, but I’m going to take you on a tangent – it was actually a young Jefferson Davis that Taylor turned Blackhawk over to. As in, future president of the confederacy during the Civil War, Jefferson Davis. And Davis isn’t just going to show up this one time in Taylor’s story. He crosses path with Taylor quite a bit. Shortly after this meeting, Davis will actually marry one of Taylor’s daughters against Taylor’s protests, putting the two at odds. And it’s a bit hypocritical, but Taylor didn’t want his daughter marrying a soldier like Davis, because soldiers are never home. But then Taylor’s daughter died of malaria shortly after the wedding because the 1830’s were rough, and that actually led to Taylor and Davis reconciling and bonding in their remorse over her death. They’d part ways then, but, well, they’ll see each other again.
Anyway, back to Taylor’s military career.
In 1836, Taylor was sent south to Florida to lead troops in the Seminole War. Technically, the second of three Seminole wars, but, this is basically another conflict we’ve heard about before. The first Seminole war was way back when Andrew Jackson illegally invaded and conquered Florida for James Monroe in 1818, ostensibly to stop Seminole raiders – we covered this in episodes 5, 6 and 7. But he never had stopped those raiders. Nobody had. And in 1836, they were still raiding, so Zachary Taylor had his go at it, and he learned why the Seminole were so damn difficult to defeat.
In the lone battle he fought, Taylor led an attack on a position he really shouldn’t have attacked. The Seminole had built a stockade on the edge of a swamp, so they could fire at will from behind this wall while you had to sludge through a waist-deep swamp that offered no cover or protection. So, think about how difficult it is to quickly move across a waist-deep pool. And then imagine carrying a rifle and ammo over your head, because that can’t get wet. And now imagine a stockade on the other side of the pool that people are shooting at you from and you can’t really see them.
Yeah. Not good. Taylor’s men suffered 10 times as many casualties as the Seminole but, well, Taylor doesn’t panic, remember? So he eventually did carry the day.
And then he spent the next 4 years trying to corner and defeat the Seminole without ever really getting another fight. In 1841, he was sent back west, and the Seminole became somebody else’s problem.
Which takes us to 1845. The United States has just annexed Texas, President Polk has just been elected president, and Polk really wants to go to war with Mexico to acquire all their land from Texas to California. But he has to pick a man to lead his armies. The obvious choice is General Winfield Scott- ol’ fuss n’ feathers! – the most experienced man the army has and a brilliant, if prickly, general.
But that’s not all Scott was. He was also a whig. And not a little whig. A big whig. This is a guy who had sought the whig presidential nomination in 1840 and 1844! If Polk put Scott in charge, and Scott won the war, Scott might very well win the presidency in 1848.
So Polk had to find someone else. And that’s when he set his eyes on Zachary Taylor. Taylor’s experience was a bit of a mixed bag at that point – he’d seen some action, led some troops – but nothing on his resume screamed “military genius.”
But nothing on his resume screamed “Whig,” either, so Polk gave him the job.
And then later Polk would eventually realize Taylor was actually a whig.
And, well. Oops.
In June, 1845, Taylor began gathering his “army of observation” on the Texas-Louisiana border with orders to cross that border and defend Texas if Mexico invaded, which it didn’t.
Then Taylor got orders to take his army, which was now 4,000 troops, to Corpus Christi, on the south bank of the Nueces river. And that south bank bit is important, because Mexico and the United States both claimed ownership of the south bank of the Nueces river. In fact, there was about 100 miles of land between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers that the United states and Mexico both claimed. And while Mexico was staying out of this disputed territory, Taylor was being ordered to tip-toe in.
Which might be when he started to suspect Polk wanted him to do something other than protect the peace.
Taylor spent six months receiving reinforcements and drilling his army until, in January 1946, he received the orders he might have seen coming.
President Polk wanted him to advance to the Rio Grande river – the southern edge of that disputed territory and 100-miles deep into land the Mexicans claimed was theirs.
And when Taylor got to that river, he saw a Mexican army waiting for him on the other side.
For several months, both armies dug in, fortified, and stared at each other from across the river – at one point, some Mexican senoritas – young women from town – apparently went skinny dipping in the river between the armies, and then some American soliders tried to go skinny dipping with them, but then the Mexican army fired a few shots to make it clear that, no, we we’re not going to let you skinny dip with our senioritas while we’re right here, and so that was the end of that. Eventually, on April 25, 1846, a Mexican force snuck across the river and ambushed an American cavalry patrol, killing 11 men.
The Mexican-American war had begun. And it would be up to 62-year-old Zachary Taylor to determine if the war would open with American victories or defeats.
And Taylor had problems.
His army was secure in the fort it had built on the Rio Grande, but his supplies were a two day march away at an undefended port on the Gulf of Mexico, and his scouts were telling him a large Mexican army had just crossed the Rio Grande between him and that port. If the Mexicans captured that port, he’d effectively be cut off from supplies and might have to withdraw. So Taylor left his fort with just enough men to defend it, and start marching to the coast with most of his army, knowing a big Mexican army was lurking out there, somewhere, and would love to catch him in the open and overwhelm him with its numerical advantage.
But Taylor made really great time and made it to the port ok! Which was great. But then he started hearing cannon fire back in the direction of that fort he’d left behind him. He needed to get back there. He loaded his wagons with supplies, and got on the road, and that’s when he found the Mexican army blocking his path.
The battle of Palo Alto, and the battle of Resaca de Palma the following day, were the first major battles of the Mexican-American war, and they showed all the calling cards that would lead to American victory after American victory from here to Mexico City.
For one, the Americans had far better artillery. The Mexican army had the same old fashioned cannons you think of when you think of old cannons. They fired cannon balls that travelled or bounced in a straight line. If you didn’t see the cannon ball coming, you were in trouble, but you kept your eyes up, you could potentially step out of the way.
The Americans, on the other hand, had lighter, horse-drawn cannons that used cutting edge explosive shells instead of solid cannon balls. The horses meant the cannons could quickly move around the battlefield to wherever they were needed most. This gave them a big mobility advantage over the Mexican cannons, which were stationary. The explosive shells meant that if an American artillery shell landed anywhere near you, it would explode, like a really big and nasty grenade, and anyone around it was going to get hurt. So when these battles opened with each side firing cannons at each other, the American explosive shells were causing a lot more damage than the Mexican cannon balls.
The other advantage the Americans had was fantastic battlefield leadership. More than 30 men present at just this battle alone would become union or confederate generals in the civil war 15 years later, including Ulysses S. Grant – the greatest union general, and George Meade – who will win the battle at Gettysburg.
So despite the Mexicans outnumbering the Americans roughly 3,700 to 2,300 at Palo Alto, the Americans carried the day with their strong artillery. And when a follow-up battle was fought the next day at Resaca de Palma, the Americans’ exceptional leadership launched a well-timed charge that captured the Mexican cannons and one of their generals, breaking the Mexican army and sending it fleeing across the rio grande river, almost entirely destroyed.
With that victory, Taylor had secured the Rio Grande border – the border the United States had said it wanted. But, well … the Mexicans weren’t surrendering. One battle was not going to win this war, so Taylor was ordered to “dispose the enemy to desire an end to the war,” and he prepared to invade into Mexico and capture the great northern city of Monterrey, where a new Mexican army was gathering forces to oppose him.
On September 19, 1946, Taylor’s reinforced army arrived on the outskirts of Monterrey. At first he wasn’t sure if the Mexicans would evacuate or fight, but – remember what I said about those bouncing Mexican cannon balls? The Mexicans fired one that bounced right over Taylor’s head, and that pretty much settled that.
Monterrey is the kind of city you don’t want to attack. Build high up against the mountains, most of the buildings in the city had flat roofs that defenders could occupy and shoot down on the streets from, so any attackers are going to be much more exposed than the defenders. Further, the Mexican army had converted a large incomplete cathedral that was being build from of black stone into a citadel that the Americans nicknamed “the black fort.”
Taylor attacked the city by feinting an assault from one side and then sneaking another force around the back to attack down from the mountains. The battle lasted for five days and featured some vicious street fighting before the Mexicans eventually surrendered on Sept. 24. But as part of the terms of surrender, the Mexicans asked for an 8-week truce, ostensibly to allow time for the two countries to negotiate peace. But that was just a ruse. What Taylor didn’t know is that 12-time Mexican president or dictator Santa Anna had just reclaimed power in Mexico with American help and then double-crossed the Americans and was even now gathering a massive army to kick Taylor out of the north.
And here’s where things start to get pretty dicey for Taylor for a few reasons.
First, the initial strategy of capturing Monterrey and then accepting Mexico’s surrender wasn’t working because the Mexicans weren’t surrendering, so a new plan began to take shape. The new plan called for an amphibious landing way down south on the gulf of mexico and then an overland invasion to capture the capital, Mexico City.
Which would be great fun if taylor were going to lead the attack, but this takes us to problem no. 2 for Taylor. Back in Washington D.C., the whigs were starting to talk about drafting Taylor to run for president on the whig ticket, and so Polk really didn’t want Taylor to get any more glory. General Winfield Scott, who really was the only other choice, was chosen to lead that invasion instead.
Which takes us to problem no. 3 for taylor – Taylor’s army was up to about 13,000-men now, but Scott was going to need 8,000 of those guys for his invasion, knocking Taylor down to just 5,000 men – and he was left with only volunteers. Not even professional soldiers. And some of these volunteers were of pretty dubious quality. Ulysses S. Grant, who was among the veterans Scott took with him to Mexico, commented that southern volunteers were clueless about how to chop their own wood or draw their own water because they were so used to slaves doing all that work for them.
Anyway, the departure of so many troops set up problem no. 4. And this is the big one. Santa Anna intercepted one of those letters from Scott to Taylor asking for all those men, so Santa Anna knew Taylor’s army was depleted and that this was the perfect time to strike.
This is where Santa Anna does something that, because it didn’t work, we say it was crazy. But if it had worked, we’d be calling it brilliant. Between him and Taylor was a 200-mile desert that everyone agreed was impassable. Everyone except Santa Anna. Santa Anna marched a 20,000-man army across the desert, and when he emerged on the other side, it caught the Americans completely by surprise. Taylor withdrew his much smaller army to an area full of hills and ravines that would be difficult for Santa Anna to attack and prepared for the Mexican assault.
The battle of Buena Vista, the battle that will truly make Zachary Taylor a legend and, in the eyes of many, worthy of the white house, is here.
On the eve of the battle, Santa Anna had 15,000 men to Taylor’s 5,000 – outnumbering him 3-to-1. Remember how I said Santa Anna had marched into the impassable desert with 20,000 men? Well, the reason it was considered impassable is that a quarter of his army didn't make it out, so, yeah.
And this is where Santa Anna got cocky and started making all sorts of mistakes.
For one, he didn’t give his men a chance to rest. He popped out of the desert, and immediately moved to confront the Americans. So even though he outnumbered Taylor 3-to-1, his soldiers were tired, thirsty, and hungry, and the Americans were none of those things.
And while Santa Anna was being cocky, Taylor was being smart. He arranged his army in such a way that the Mexicans would have to attack up narrow canyons or along narrow ridges, so their advantage in numbers and cavalry wouldn’t come to play.
When Santa Anna sent a messenger to Taylor demanding he surrender or be cut to pieces, Taylor replied, “Tell Santa Anna to go to hell!”
The Mexican army attacked the following day.
And Taylor was actually not at the battlefield yet when the fighting started. He’d gone back to a supply camp the night before to make sure his supplies were safe. When he got back to the battlefield and found the fight had started the next day, the Mexicans were making gains and the Americans were starting to panic. One of Taylor’s subordinates ran up to him and yelled, “General, we are whipped!” And Taylor calmly replied, “That is for me to determine.” – which is just an awesome line.
Taylor immediately went into action redeploying men, plugging gaps in his line, and launching cavalry charges wherever a the Mexicans were making progress. The battle waged back and forth all day. But slowly, gradually, the Mexican momentum was ground to a halt. Artillery was again a difference, as well as a crack regiment of rifles led by – I promised we’d see him again –Jefferson Davis, the future president of the confederacy who would launch his political career after this battle, and, eventually, the Mexican army withdrew at the end of the fight.
Despite the Americans being outnumbered 15,000 to 5,000, they only suffered 700 casualties while inflicting 3,500 on Santa Anna, who hastily retreated from Northern Mexico for good. Both sides declared a victory, and most military historians call the battle a draw, but I’m going to call this an American victory. Taylor’s goals were to survive and maintain control of northern Mexico. Santa Anna’s goals were to destroy the Americans and recapture northern Mexico. Clearly, only Taylor’s goals were achieved.
The Battle of Buena Vista, fought in February, 1847, was wildly celebrated across the United States. The Americans considered this their greatest victory since Andrew Jackson defeated the British at New Orleans. And Taylor when Taylor returned home from the war later that year, he was celebrated as a bonafied hero everywhere he went, which meant that “draft Taylor for president” movement was rapidly kicking into higher gear.
But Taylor wasn’t actually that interested in running for president. He wasn’t even ready to call himself a whig yet. At one point, when someone approached him and told him he should run, he replied, “Stop your nonsense and drink your whiskey.”
But the whigs were persistent. And in April 1848, Taylor finally declared himself a Whig and allowed his hat to be thrown in the ring.
The first challenge was the 1848 convention, where our old friend and Whig party founder Henry Clay was launching his fifth campaign for president, but by this point, man, the whigs were over it. Henry Clay was 71-years-old and a 4-time loser. So, his fifth campaign for president never really got off the ground. Taylor was so overwhelmingly popular, the only threat to his nomination was himself. Remember, he begrudgingly called himself a whig. He really wanted to run as an American – someone representing the whole country instead of any specific factions. And the whigs were very nervous about this. Remember when they nominated John Tyler for Vice President, then, when he became president, he turned out not to be a whig at all? They didn’t want that to happen.
But, well, they also really wanted to win. The whigs decided they cared way more about winning than whig orthodoxy, so even though taylor refused to go all-in on the whig party platform, he easily won the party’s nomination. Almost as an afterthought, New York whig Millard Fillmore, an life-long professional politician, was nominated vice president to balance Taylor’s southern birth and military credentials.
Which takes us to the main show – the election of 1848. The first election where the entire country voted on a single day. If you listened to episode 11 on James K Polk, you know he declined to run for reelection in 48 because he’d sworn to serve only one term, so the Democrats nominated a man named Lewis Cass to run in his place. And if you remember episode eight on Martin Van Buren, you might remember that Van Buren is running for president again in 1848 as well, this time as a third-party candidate for the blink-and-you-missed-it Free Soil party, which was a party of anti-slavery democrats and whigs who ran on the slogan, “free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men.”
And Van Buren is going to take quite a few votes in this election, but he’s not going to be a decisive factor. Despite the Free Soilers attempts to make this an election about preventing the expansion of slavery, the Whigs and Democrats fastidiously avoided the issue, and so the campaign of 1848 played out as a hodge-podge of local issues. What do northerners care about? What do southerners care about? What’s important in Michigan? Etc.
In the end, Taylor and Cass each won 15 states, but Taylor’s states were bigger, so he won 163-127 in the electoral college. Martin Van Buren didn’t win a single state, despite picking up 300,000 votes to 1.4 million for Taylor and 1.2 million for Cass. It was one of the more successful third-party runs in American history.
AND SO, on March 5, 1849, Zachary Taylor – ol rough n ready – the 64-year-old career military man who became a national hero in the Mexican-American war, was elected the 12th president of the United States of America. Let’s take a look around to see the country, and the world, he inherited when he became president.
Internationally, a series of revolutions and then counter-revolutions had rocked Europe in 1848, resulting in more liberties in some places – like the end of serfdom in Austria and Hungary – but the failure of the revolutions also resulted in more hard-core repression in other places, like the expansive use of secret police in czarist Russia.
Domestically, on January 24, 1848, a group of Mormon laborers were building a mill in a California stream when something caught their eye in the water. It was gold. The mill owner raised wages to 10X what he’d originally been paying, but nobody gave a whit about building the mill anymore, the Mormons were spending all their time panning for gold in the creek. When the Mormon laborers took the gold to the Mormon elder of California, he tested the gold and confirmed it was real. Then he used a newspaper he owned to publish that all the rumors of gold in the mountains were fake. And then he bought all the picks, shovels, and pans he could for 20 cents apiece. And then his newspaper announced, just kidding, there’s a ton of gold in the mountains! And then he started selling all those picks, shovels, and pans for $16 dollars apiece. In just a few months, he made $36,000 – roughly $1 million dollars adjusted for inflation – and then pocketed the tithes from the workers, and quickly became one of the richest men in California. Because remember, when everyone else is digging for gold, the real money is in selling shovels.
By the time Taylor and the new Congress was seated in the winter of 1849, California had swollen from 13,000 non-native residents to 100,000. And it was getting wild. The Californians needed a government, and they weren’t waiting. The Californians called a convention to formed their own government and petitioned directly for statehood, trying to skip the territory step.
And most importantly, despite the California convention being a mix of southerners and northerners, they unanimously voted for California to be admitted as a free state where slavery would be illegal, because none of those 100,000 migrants wanted to compete with slave laborers in the California goldmines.
Back in Washington D.C., this caused a crisis that would consume the Taylor presidency. The senate was then perfectly balanced between 15 free states and 15 slave states. The north was like, heck yea, let’s add California as a free state. And the south was like, over our dead bodies and, for like the umpteenth time, the southerners started threatening to secede.
And the argument quickly spilled out to be about far more than just California. The Texans, who had just earned statehood a few years earlier, they were claiming half of new Mexico belonged to them. And the New Mexicans were saying heck no we don’t. We want to become a state, too, and we don’t want slavery in our borders, either.
Back in Washington D.C., abolitionist congressmen were clamoring to ban slavery in the nation’s capital – a place where slaves pens still existed within site of the capital building. And in the south, southerners were demanding a stricter fugitive slave law – an old law from 1793 that guaranteed the right of slave owners to recover escaped slaves in other states, but which northerners had been openly defying.
So where did Zachary Taylor sit on all of this?
Basically, he took the Andrew Jackson approach. And I don’t mean the threaten to kill everyone who disagrees with you approach. I mean the threaten to kill anyone who attempts to secede approach.
When two Georgia Congressmen told Taylor he’d better veto California statehood or the south would secede, Taylor yelled them out of the room, and declared secession was treason and he’d hang any man who tried it.
To the Texans, Taylor said, no you don’t own New Mexico. And if you try to invade New Mexico – which the Texans were attempting to draft an army to do – I’m going to march down there with the U.S. army at my back and kick your amateur butt.
I mean, Taylor was taking firm, strong actions against the slaveocracy, just like Jackson had against the South Carolina nullifiers in 1832, which you can learn all about in episode 7, and I think it might have worked, but then an old friend of ours showed up and attempted to do what he does best – build a compromise.
Henry Clay, the 73-year-old “Great Compromiser,” returned to the senate and everyone looked to him to make a compromise that could end the crisis. On Jan. 29, 1850, he rose in the senate to make his final great pitch – the compromise of 1850.
There were eight points.
One.) California would be admitted as a free state – this was pitched as a point for the north.
Two.) The rest of the land taken from Mexico – including new Mexico – would be organized without restrictions on slavery – this was pitched as a point for the south.
Three.) Texas would give up its claim to half of New Mexico, which was paired with
Four.) The Federal government would pay off Texas’ entire preannexation debt of $10 million. – these were pitched as offsetting points for both Texas and New Mexico.
Five.) the slave trade would be abolished in Washington D.C. - a point for the north.
but Six.) slavery itself would be legal in D.C. into perpetuity – a point for the south
seven.) Congress would forever surrender the right to regulate or outlaw the interstate slave trade – this was a point for the south.
And eight.) Congress would pass a new a stronger fugitive slave law that would make it much easier for southerners to recover runaway slaves who had escaped to the north – a clear point for the south.
Add that all up, and you get two points for the north – California added as a free state and the slave trade banished in D.C.; and four points for the south – no restrictions on slavery in the land taken from Mexico, making slavery legal in D.C., forbidding congress to interfere with the interstate slave trade, and the stronger fugitive slave law.
This was a huge piece of legislation and everybody hated something in it. Taylor threatened to Veto it – he didn’t want the south to be rewarded for its threats.
And in the south? Well, do you remember John C. Calhoun? The man who’s hunger for the presidency led him to nearly destroy the country in the nullification crisis? The man who tried to split the whig and democratic parties along sectional lines by making Texas annexation an issue in the 1844 election? In one of his final acts, Calhoun wrote that Clay’s deal was bs and said every single issue should swing the south’s way, plus he called for an amendment to be passed guaranteeing southern control of the federal government into perpetuity, and if any of this was denied, he said the south should secede and the north would be to blame. Calhoun had always wanted to be president and never quite come close. Now, dying of tuberculosis, he seemed to want the country to die too.
And rhetoric like this was turning the senate into a dangerous place. One senator got punched in the face. Another drew a revolver on the senate floor and had to be disarmed by his peers. At Calhoun’s recommendation, a convention was called in Nashville where southern states put secession on the table.
And then, as things were reaching a crescendo, President Zachary Taylor got sick.
The story goes that on July 4, 1850, Taylor attended the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington monument in Washington D.C., when he had a snack of cherries and iced milk and got ill. He’d actually been fighting on-and-off stomach ailments since arriving in D.C. – possibly due to the same poor sanitation that killed Presidents William Henry Harrison and maybe James K Polk. Five days after getting ill, Taylor died on July 9, 1850. He was 65 years old. And you can only imagine how the whigs felt as they wondered, holy smokes, is every president we elect going to die in office? And the answer is yes.
Taylor’s last words were, “I regret nothing, but am sorry that I am about to leave my friends.” Which have to be the sweetest last words yet on this show – I mean, maybe I’m a softy, but tear jerker. Taylor’s vice president, Millard Fillmore, was sworn in. And, in a dark mood, with compromise appearing dead and the president in a casket, most of Congress left the capital, unsure of what would come next.
And that cliffhanger is where I’m going to leave you today. The president is dead. The compromise of 1850 appears dead. And secession is on the table.
Ok, so, how had the nation, and the world, changed during the 16-month administration of Zachary Taylor.
Well, as we just saw, the United States was a bit of a disaster. Back before the Mexican-American war had even started, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson predicted, “The united States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man who swallows the arsenic, which will bring him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” He was referring to the debate over slavery that the acquisition of new land would unleash, and he was looking pretty damn right.
And it kind of did, kind of didn’t help that two titans who have come up again and again and again in this show died right around the time Zachary Taylor did. On March 31, 1850, Ol’ John C. Calhoun died, silencing one of the loudest advocates of slavery and disunion, but he left a ton of eager disciples behind him, like that Jefferson Davis guy.
A couple years in the future, on June 29, 1852, ol Henry Clay will die, depriving the united states of the Great compromiser right on the eve of the decade when he’d be needed most. In the case of Clay, only one man would really stand a chance of filling his shoes, and we’ll start to find out if Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas is up to the task next month.
Internationally, famine in Ireland continued to drive a flood of immigrants across the ocean and into the United States, something we’ll hear a lot more about in next week’s episode on Millard Fillmore.
So what can we learn from Zachary Taylor. I think it’s the strength and clarity you get when you refused to be governed by fear. When Yoda told Anikan that fear is the path to the darkside, he was onto something. We’re about to enter a decade where fear of what might be will lead to the dark side– it will lead to civil war. The south is afraid the north will end slavery, and that their freed slaves will kill them, and that paranoia will drive them to insist slavery not only be increasingly defended, but expanded. The next three presidents will be afraid of losing southern support, and reelection, so they’ll break the country bending over backwards to appease the south. And at the end of the decade, in 1860, southern states will start seceding when Lincoln is elected –before he’s even sworn in as president – because they’re afraid that he might end slavery. That famous FDR quote – the only thing to fear is fear itself – is more than pithy slogan. When you’re making decisions because you’re afraid, your fear is probably overruling your logic and causing you to make poor decisions. That, by the way, is why politicians are always trying to scare the crap out of you. Zachary Taylor was not a man driven by fear. You saw that in the war of 1812, in the Mexican American War, and when those two southern congressmen threatened to secede over California. Courage gave Taylor the backbone to be a strong president. Had he lived, it might have given him the clarity to chart a path away from civil war, and away from slavery, toward prosperity for all.
But he ate some cherries and died, so we’ll never know.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was Zachary Taylor, by John D. Eisenhower.
In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of Millard Fillmore, a man who will sell his soul and his political future to the southern slavocracy, and when that doesn’t work, he’ll sell it to a secret-society-turned-political party of anti-immigrant and anti-catholic bigots known as the ‘know-nothings’ instead. We’ll see how it works out for him.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.