Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Zachary Taylor

Forgotten American Blogging subjects usually fall into two categories--people who I think are admirable or real villains. But sometimes I am just interested in someone who I know little about. In doing research to teach my History of New Mexico course this semester, I found out that Zachary Taylor, despite being a plantation owner and slaveholder from Louisiana, bucked his region to oppose the extension of slavery in New Mexico. In fact, before his death in 1850, he pushed for a bill that would give New Mexico statehood without slavery. After his death, the Compromise of 1850 managed to kill this and allow New Mexico a form of popular sovereignty whenever the nation decided to admit the state (which wouldn't happen until 1912). So what gives?

Taylor was born into the Virginia aristocracy. A distant cousin of James Madison, he used his advantages to move into the US military where he remained until after the Mexican War. He fought in many of the nation's more notorious Indian wars of the early 19th century, including the Black Hawk War and the Second Seminole War, as well as the War of 1812. His time on the frontier made him suspicious of expanionist frontier politicians, something that would play a big part in his presidency. He thought they were happy to undercut the nation to promote their own interests. These ideas weren't so uncommon in the frontier Army. In modern histories, the US military gets portrayed as the enemy to Indians, but the reality was much more complex. The real villians were frontier settlers. It was almost always these "pioneers" who started problems with native peoples. The military generally just wanted to keep Indians and whites apart. When that inevitably failed because whites started killing Indians or entering their lands to mine or whatever, then the military came in to move Indians along, so it's not as if they come out looking golden here.

Taylor served with reasonable distinction, rising to become one of the military's top officers in the Mexican War and leading the Army south to the Rio Grande. This led Mexico to declare war on the US as Taylor's troops had clearly moved onto Mexican soil, whatever the Texans claimed. Taylor continued to serve in important battles throughout the war, though the Polk administration came to distrust him for his Whig leanings. Luckily for his posterity, he did not lead the army on their terrible march to Mexico City to crush Mexican resistance, a march known for the rape, murder, and pillage of US troops on the Mexican population.

Taylor won the Whig nomination for President in 1848. The Whigs always had problems running good candidates. They were a disjointed party who generally agreed that government should assist what then passed for big business, as well as supporting internal improvements. Other than that, the glue holding them together was a hatred of Andrew Jackson. Jackson had died in 1845, but their disdain for the Democrats remained strong. But the Whigs kept running Henry Clay for president and he kept losing. It would be like the Democrats today running John Kerry in three losing elections. Completely dispiriting. Their only victory came in 1840 when they ran General William Henry Harrison, but he died 30 days after he took office and his VP, John Tyler, was more of a disaffected Democrat than a real Whig. Taylor had a few things going for him. First, he was not Henry Clay. Second, he was a war hero who was not connected to the Polk administration. Third, no one knew what he stood for. This latter phenomenon more or less continued through the election and Taylor defeated a fairly weak Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass.

What Taylor didn't realize was how badly the nation was struggling with the slavery question and how much the war he starred in exacerbated these tensions. In fact, Taylor may not have known much about a whole lot of things. He was undoubtedly the least prepared man to be the president up to that time. He had served in no elected office and did not have the mind of Harrison, the other true military man who had held the office. He was pretty naive about the whole process and was completely unwilling to deal with the patronage process, a key part of every mid-19th century presidency.

Ultimately, what makes Taylor interesting is the way he found the slave power threatening. Taylor himself was a key part of that slave power. He was a large Louisiana landowner with hundreds of slaves. He had no interest in ending slavery. But his years on the frontier came back to him and he was quite skeptical of the quest of Southern politicians to expand slavery across the nation. He saw what a threat this was to the nation and moved against them. The specific issue he had to deal with was what to do with New Mexico and California. The South wanted those new territories to become slave states, despite the fact that the arid climate and predilections of the population made slavery preposterous there.

Taylor began to ally himself with northern Whigs like William Seward, later a key Republican and member of Lincoln's cabinet. He moved against slaveowners trying to invade Cuba in 1849. Most importantly, he wanted both California and New Mexico to be immediately granted statehood as free states. New Mexico even drafted a constitution. But he severely underestimated the extent that these new territories threatened the nation. Taylor's unwillingness to embrace the slave expansionist cause helped start the decline of the southern Whig party. Taylor was appaled at the talk of secession if the South did not get what it wanted and all of this moved him closer to Seward and other antislavery northern Whigs. Ultimately, Henry Clay began crafting the Compromise of 1850 to solve this impending crisis; among the key provisions was denying New Mexico statehood for the time being, although California was allowed to enter the nation as a free state, giving free states the majority in the Senate for the first time.

We can't know if Taylor would have signed what became the Compromise of 1850. Ultimately, Clay's power in Congress was much greater than Taylor could ever wield and given the danger the nation faced from southern fireeaters, I have trouble seeing him not sign the various bills that forestalled civil war for 11 years. Taylor is most famous for his death--he died in July 1850, supposedly from eating too many cherries with chilled milk. While this may have been a cause, more likely is that his food had been tainted by the cholera that had devastated parts of the nation in 1849 and remained a major killer in 1850.

Taylor was just a rich military guy who managed to become president. He wasn't particularly bright, nor a particularly good politician or effective president. But he put the interests of his nation over that of his section and his own economic interests and for that alone, he's worth remembering.

The literature on Taylor is quite small. The best book I know of, and where much of this information comes from, is K. Jack Bauer's 1985 book, Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest. There may be newer works but I don't of them. I doubt it anyway--what kind of future does a young historian who writes a biography of Zachary Taylor expect to have?