Monday, November 16, 2015

Zachary Taylor: Country first, slavery second

Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
Zachary Taylor served as the 12th president of the United States. And even though he served for only 16 months in the office, he goes down in history as one of the best presidents of all time. This is because he did not abuse the office to advance an agenda, and did everything in his power to protect and defend the Constitution.

He was born in a log cab the son of a planter.  As he grew older his family prospered and moved to a larger home with 10,000 acres and 26 slaves.  He was educated, although he preferred the military over law or ministry. He had no college education.

He would spend most of the next 40 years in the military.  He lead troops in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Seminole War.  He became a war hero in the Mexican War that broke out in 1846 after John Tyler approved the annexation of Texas, and after James K. Polk tried to buy New Mexico and California from Mexico.

Polk had accomplished the goal of expanding America from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Pacific, and from Canada all the way to Mexico.  He was a very popular president, and he probably would have easily won the presidency in 1848 had he decided to run. But he opted not to.

So this set the stage up nicely for Taylor.

Taylor's political clout grew as a result of his heroics in the Mexican War.  He considered himself a Whig, despite the fact his party was opposed to the Mexican War.  He announced his candidacy only a few short weeks prior to the Whig convention.

The Whigs initially spend all their energy condemning Polk's war policies.  They had to reverse course quickly as Polk surprised everyone by signing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War and gave the U.S. vast new territory. The Whigs in the Senate supported the treaty.

A new strategy was to nominate the war hero Zachary Taylor.  This was mostly a desperation move, as it appeared the democrats were well positioned to easily win the presidency unless Taylor was the Whig nominee.  It was thought that his military record would appeal to northerners, and slave owning status would appeal to southerners.  Also making him ideal was the fact he was a commoner who was born in a log cabin.

The democrats nominated Lewis Cass, and the Free Soil Party nominated former President Martin Van Buren.

Many Whigs did not like Tayler because he was not fully dedicated to Whig ideal.  Still, he was their best chance at gaining the presidency.  He did not condemn the war with Mexico.  He did not criticize Polk.  He did, however, promise no new wars.  The rest of the Whigs had no choice but to follow his lead. Instead of criticizing Polk, they decided to champion for new states to become free states.

The election of 1844 was the first election to take place on the same day in every state, and the first time it was held on a Tuesday.  Taylor won the popular vote by 138,000 over Cass, although he was 79,000 short of a majority (he won 47% of the vote).  He did, however, succeed in winning 163 of 290 electoral votes, giving the Whigs their second chance at the presidency (their last victory was in 1840 with William Henry Harrison).

As with their last victory, this one would also be short lived.

Taylor was elected in a time where tensions regarding slavery were high.  This was heightened as the country was expanding westward.  The creation of the Free Soil party had southerners worried that abolitionists might gain control of Congress.  The expansion of the union south had northerners worried about the addition of more slave states that would throw off the balance.

This balance was important for controlling Congress. Northerners feared if there were too many slave states, southerners would force slavery on the entire union.  Southerners feared if there were too many free states, abolitionists would eliminate slavery.

Thankfully, even though he was a slave owner, Taylor believed holding the union together was more important than slavery. In order to keep the peace, he championed for California and New Mexico to enter the union as free states.  Southerners, however, did not like the idea of two potential free states entering the union.

On January 29, 1840, fellow Whig Henry Clay offered a compromise that he thought would allay tensions between the north and south.  The compromise would allow California to enter the union as a free state, abolish the slave trade in Washington D.C., and strengthen the fugitive slave law.  New Mexico and Utah were able to decide the issue of slavery on their own.

Some viewed the compromise as generally good, especially considering it would have given both sides what they wanted and kept the union together.  Others viewed it as generally poor because it prolonged the institution of slavery in the world's greatest nation, further tarnishing its reputation.  Furthermore, the believed (and rightly so) that strengthening of the fugitive slave law was an ardent violation of natural rights -- it was a mockery of justice.

Despite the compromise being composed by a fellow Whig, Taylor joined those who opposed it.  So long as Taylor was president, the compromise was never going to become law.

Another thing he supported was the independence of the Utah territory from the federal government to alleviate the Mormon population's concerns over religious freedom.

He also had one small foreign policy success, although it had some saying that it was a violation of the Monroe Doctrine, which stated that no European nation could establish colonies, or interfere with interests, in North or South America.  He signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with Britain, which said that any Central American canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans would be open to both American and British ships.

Then tragedy struck.  On July 4, 1850, Taylor attended a ceremony at the unfinished Washington Monument on a day that was chilly.  He suddenly fell ill with stomach cramps and died the following day.  He was 65. His vice president, Milford Fillmore, became president.

Fillmore was a fan of the compromise and immediately signed it into law.  It became known as the Compromise of 1850.

Suspicions continue to swirl that Taylor may have been the victim of murder by arsenic by his pro-slavery opponents.  One such theory suspected that his friend Jefferson Davis, who was at his bedside when he died and heard his last words, was responsible for his death.  Even after his body was exhumed in 1990 and tested for arsenic, the true cause of his death remains a mystery.

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