America’s strangest chief executive was its 12th President Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana).
To explain, Taylor, a Southern slave-owner, kept slavery out of the West. In the process, Taylor possibly saved the United States from collapse.
Strangely, Taylor, who owned 100 slaves, worked hard to bring California, Utah, and New Mexico into the Union as free states. Thus, Taylor kept slavery from spreading to the Pacific.
“Old Rough and Ready”
Zachary Taylor was the first career military man to serve as President of the United States.
Taylor spent 40 years in the Regular Army rising to the rank of Major General during the Mexican War. General Taylor was a controversial but successful soldier.
For instance, Taylor was a slob who dressed in casual civilian clothes rather than uniforms. However, Taylor was an efficient officer and an aggressive field commander. Thus, the odd nickname “Old Rough and Ready.”
Taylor became a national hero by defeating the Mexican Army at the battle of Buena Vista on 4 July 1847. The Battle ensured U.S. victory in the Mexican war and enabled the American occupation of the Southwestern United States.
Ironically, Taylor became famous for helping win a war he probably opposed. Taylor, a Whig, probably opposed military expansion of the United States and wars of conquest. To explain, the Mexican War was the work of President James K. Polk (D-Tennessee), a Democrat. The Whig Party was the predecessor to the Republicans and the Democrats’ rivals.
Taylor’s views on the Mexican War are unclear because he kept his politics private. Oddly, Taylor’s habit of keeping opinions private made his political career.
The Strange Rise of Zachary Taylor
In 1848, Taylor had three attributes that made him an ideal presidential candidate.
First, Taylor was famous because of his Mexican War battles and colorful persona. Second, Taylor was not a politician, politics in 1848 as in 2020 were so corrupt voters distrusted all politicians.
Third, Taylor had taken no public stand on any of the issues of the day. Therefore, Taylor offended few voters.
To elaborate, in 1848 Americans were polarized over the issues of slavery expansion and the Mexican War. All the established political figures had well known opinions on those issues.
The Election of 1848
In addition, the leading Whig presidential Contenders; Henry Clay (W-Kentucky), U.S. Senator Daniel Webster (W-Massachusetts) and General Winfield Scott (W-Virginia) had sleazy or controversial reputations.
Clay had destroyed his reputation with the notorious Corrupt Bargain of 1824. In addition, Webster had a habit of taking money from any special interest. Meanwhile, Scott was tainted by rumors he was secretly Catholic in a protestant country.
Taylor was unknown and had no political reputation. Thus, Old Rough and Ready was a safe and popular candidate. Taylor was the ultimate outsider and he took no public stand on the slavery expansion or free soil issue.
Thus the Whigs nominated Taylor for President. To Taylor’s benefit, Democrats became fatally split between Free Soil and Southern factions.
To explain, the Free Soilers opposed expansion of slavery to the West. In contrast, the Southerners wanted new slave states in the West to increase their political power. In addition, many Southerners feared being outnumbered in the U.S. Senate Senators from new Western free states.
The Free Soilers Revolt
The Southerners outmaneuvered the Free Soilers at the 1848 Democratic Convention and nominated U.S. Senator Lewis Cass (D-Michigan) for president. In response, the Free Soilers walked out of the Democratic party.
When the Whigs nominated the slave owner Taylor, some anti-slavery Whigs and members of the abolitionist Liberty Party joined with the renegade Democrats. The three groups formed the Free Soil Party and nominated former President Martin van Buren (D-New York) as their candidate.
The Free Soilers won 10.1% of the popular vote but no Electoral College Votes in the 1848 election. However, the Free Soilers won just enough votes to put Taylor in the White House.
Ironically, the man the Free Soilers helped elect was secretly a staunch Free Soiler. Taylor, who was demonized as a slave-whipping monster during the campaign spent his presidency trying to stop slavery’s spread.
The Strange Presidency of Zachary Taylor
There was a bizarre divide between Zachary Taylor’s politics and personal life. Taylor owned a plantation with 100 slaves in Mississippi and became the last president to sell slaves in the White House.
Moreover, Taylor was the former father-in-law of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis (D-Mississippi). To explain, Davis’s first deceased first wife was Taylor’s daughter.
Oddly, Taylor and Davis were good friends. Davis, then a Democratic U.S. Senator, and his second wife were frequent guests at Taylor’s White House.
Interestingly, another good friend and adviser to Taylor was U.S. Senator William H. Seward (W-New York). Seward was a rapid opponent of slavery and a future member of Abraham Lincoln’s (R-Illinois) Civil War cabinet.
Gold vs. Slaves
The Free Soil issue exploded as Taylor entered the White House because of the California Gold Rush.
Tens of thousands of fortune seekers poured into California, and created a large mostly white American population. Most of the “Fortyniners” were Northerners and Free Soilers. Thus, any elected government in California would be anti-slavery.
Southerners feared the Californians would petition for statehood. Moreover, the gold guaranteed California access to a corrupt Congress in a cash-strapped United States.
There were economic motives behind Southern fears, the South’s political influence came from the vast amounts of money made from selling cotton to Britain. California’s gold could give Northerners the economic power to rival the South’s Cotton Money.
Thus, many Southern Democrats who had supported Polk’s war became opposed to California’s admission to the Union. Taylor, however, had other ideas, he wanted California in the Union as a free state.
A Secret Mission to California
To create that free state, Taylor circumvented the pro-slavery forces by sending an improbable secret agent to California.
Taylor’s agent was U.S. Representative T. Butler King (W-Georgia). King, a slave-owning Southerner sailed out of Savannah, Georgia, in April, 1849, to avoid detection by foes.
King’s mission was simple, tell Californians to organize a government and petition for statehood. Then let California Free Soilers know that the President was on their side.
The mission was risky because it revealed Taylor’s free-soil sympathies. Additionally, Southerners could try to sabotage King’s efforts.
King reached California and contacted a convention organizing a free state. The convention adopted a Constitution that banned slavery in the Golden State The path for California’s admission to the Union as a Free State was clear.
The Crisis and Compromise of 1850
When they learned of Taylor’s actions, Southern expansionists were livid because California was coming into the Union at the same time as the large slave state of Texas. Thus, California’s influence in Congress could offset Texas’s.
California’s sudden statehood application triggered the Crisis of 1850. The outline of the crisis was simple, pro-slavery Southerners wanted Texas in the Union, preferably as two or three states and slavery in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Meanwhile, the Free Soilers’s demand was stark: “no new slave states.”
Congress polarized along regional lines. Northern Free Soilers opposed all efforts to bring Texas into the Union. Southern Democrats opposed California’s admission. Three of the era’s greatest Congressional leaders; including Daniel Webster (W-Massachusetts), Henry Clay (W-Kentucky), and John C. Calhoun (D-South Carolina), could not diffuse the situation.
Making the Map of America
Finally, a rising political powerhouse; U.S. Senator Stephen F. Douglas (D-Illinois) worked out a compromise.
The compromise was simple, Texas, and California entered the Union as two large states and preserved the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Thus, the Crisis and Compromise of 1850 created the map of the modern United States.
Douglas did not diffuse the crisis, instead he delayed it by putting the conflict off to the future. One result of the compromise was that many Southerners began taking secession seriously.
Southerners began considering succession out of the fear Northerners could get a majority in both Houses of Congress. Ultimately, Southerners feared a Northern-dominated Congress could abolish slavery. Notably, when the Northern Free Soil Republican Party took control of both Congress and the White House in 1860, Southern states seceded.
Ironically, the secessionist leader of 1860 was Taylor’s former son-law Jefferson Davis, who became president of the Confederate States of America.
Why did Taylor do it?
Taylor’s support of California statehood laid the groundwork for both the compromise of 1850 and the polarization of the 1850s that led to the Civil War. Thus, Zachary Taylor destroyed the system his family relied on for its livelihood: slavery.
So why did Taylor do it? Why did Taylor take an action that hurt the Slave Power and the South? Although he had Free Soil sympathies, Taylor was not an abolitionist.
The logical answer was that Taylor the General and nationalist was acting to strengthen the United States. To elaborate, Taylor wanted California and its gold in the Union.
Taylor could have feared that California Free Soilers could have organized an independent Republic, or entered the anti-slavery British Empire. The British had abandoned their interest in California before the Americans discovered gold. After 1849, however, gold gave the City of London an excellent reason to seize California.
Another possibility is that Taylor thought California statehood was the only way to get Texas into the Union and preserve slavery. Either way, Taylor created modern America with his secret mission to California.
By offering Californians statehood, Taylor kept the West Coast American. Additionally, Taylor ensured that the Union had the money to fight the Civil War. To explain, the Union had plenty of money in 1861 because of California’s gold and Nevada’s silver mines.
The Strange Death of Zachary Taylor
We will never know what Taylor’s motivation was because the 12th President died in office on 9 July 1850. Taylor became sick after going to a Fourth of July picnic at the Washington Monument. Five days later, Taylor died of a mysterious stomach ailment.
The illness’s nature prompted speculation that somebody poisoned Taylor. Conspiracy theorists blamed the Southern Slave Power or Slaveocracy. However, modern medical examiners tested Taylor’s body in 2014 and detected no poison, The Courier Journal reports.
Ironically, we know little of Taylor’s thoughts because the Civil War the 12th President helped spark destroyed his personal papers. To explain, Union forces burned the house of Taylor’s son, Richard, who was off fighting as a general in the Confederate Army. The President’s papers were in the house when it burned.
In the final analysis, Zachary Taylor, the last slave-owning president, laid the groundwork for slavery’s destruction. Moreover, Taylor created the map of modern America.
Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest By K. Jack Bauer
Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850By Holman Hamilton