Introduction and Early Life
By the 1840s it was clear that slavery had rose to become the main issue every American was concerned with. Abolitionists, slave owners, and compromisers all had different solutions to the problem that were causing divisions in the country to grow. The people needed someone to unite them and Zachary Taylor became the first president expected to do so. Taylor was born on November 24, 1784 to a wealthy planter family in Virginia. As with previous presidents, he happened to have been born in Orange County. However, his family moved west into what is now Louisville, Kentucky where his family lived in a small cabin before building a luxurious plantation. He had an interesting view on slavery for someone who was grown into a planter family. He would develop his own plantation in Louisiana, but never really had any pro-slavery sentiments. Over time his family became more powerful as the city of Louisville boomed. His father, Richard Taylor, came to own 10,000 acres of land with twenty-six slaves. Taylor’s father had also been a military man. He served as one of George Washington’s aides. Taylor was a smart man and he learned fast. In June 1810 he married Margaret Mackall Smith.
Following his father’s footsteps, Taylor also joined the military and was the fourth distinguished soldier to be elected president. By 1808 he was an officer in the military. In the War of 1812 he defended the Indiana Territory from Native Americans. Later he would be at war with the Seminoles in Florida. Finally, no doubt the greatest part of his military career was in the Mexican-American War when he decimated Santa Anna’s army at the Battle of Buena Vista. The slovenly Taylor was generally a bad speaker and did not look like much. After all, he was the general with the famous nickname “Old Rough and Ready.” Nevertheless, Taylor’s military victories against Mexico rocketed his growing fame. This popularity made him an ideal candidate. Taylor was an honest man who seemed to have no connections with Washington D.C. (he actually did) and he always came off as straightforward. For these reasons Taylor was likable and not scary and unappealing like Andrew Jackson. It is for these reasons the Whig Party picked up Taylor for the next presidential election. On the other hand, President James Polk once said Taylor was “exceedingly ignorant of public affairs, and…of very ordinary capacity.”
The Presidential Election of 1848
Expansion in the west made the United States a large nation that extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Since its birth in 1776, the US, which started out as thirteen states with territory to the Mississippi River, had more than doubled its land. This was thanks to a variety of diplomatic events: The Louisiana Purchase, the Oregon deal, the annexation of Texas, and the Mexican-American War are the most known of these events that shaped the country. However, the expansion had brewed the slavery issue into the territories. The Missouri Compromise had muted the issue for a generation, but now it had rose back. The Democrats had to deal with a growing division in their party between pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups. Former President Martin Van Buren wanted to run for president again. He had become known as a strong abolitionist and wanted to end slavery. However, preferring to remain as silent as possible on slavery, at the convention in Baltimore, Maryland they instead nominated Lewis Cass. They looked to Cass’ experience to help them win 1848. He had served as Secretary of War, ambassador to France, Michigan governor, and now a US senator from Michigan.
Taylor, who had been confronted by both parties to be their nominees, decided on the Whigs because their views fit his views more than the Democratic views did. The slave owner who was not a slavery advocate, the southerner, and the general had many different characteristics in his life that would win over voters from a variety of backgrounds. At the Whig National Convention in Philadelphia, Taylor was nominated over Senator Henry Clay and Senator Daniel Webster. The other war hero of the war with Mexico, General Winfield Scott, was also defeated in the nomination on the fourth ballot. To balance the ticket, the comptroller of New York, Millard Fillmore, was made the vice presidential candidate. The Whigs also benefited from a new third party called the Free Soil Party. The party was made up of disgruntled anti-slavery Democrats who nominated Van Buren for president and Charles F. Adams (son of the abolitionist former President and Representative John Quincy Adams). These Democrats from states like New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin were alienated by the Democratic Party’s silence on slavery.
The election itself was fought with little issues, but much enthusiasm about the candidates. In the north Taylor campaigned as a man who was against the infamous spoils system set up by Jackson’s presidency. In the south he was campaigned as a slaveholder. The Whigs also took every advantage advertising his military experience. The general himself tried to be as indifferent as possible, declaring that he would not use his veto power and go along with what Congress proposed. Democrats, as they had always done, campaigned on their traditional opposition to tariffs, a national bank, and federal infrastructure. By now though, the Jacksonian issues had become outdated and the Age of Jackson was over. The Free Soilers attacked both parties for being controlled by the agendas of southern planters. Mathematically though, it was impossible for Van Buren to win the presidency. Taylor won with 47.3 percent of the popular vote and 163 electoral votes. Cass won 42.5 percent of the popular vote and 127 electoral votes. Van Buren won no electoral votes, but took 10.1 percent of the popular vote. Overall, Van Buren took away Democratic votes which Democrats argued later made Cass lose. This is likely false, because the Free Soil Party was founded on anti-slavery principles and these abolitionists would have likely went for Taylor if they did not vote for a third party. As with most times there is a major third party ticket, the winner did not take a majority of the popular vote showing just how divided the country was on the slavery issue. Finally, one of the most interesting things about this election was that Taylor had never registered to vote and didn't make an effort to do so in his own election.
North vs. South
Zachary Taylor was tackling an issue that had existed since the founding of the republic and even before that when America was just British colonies. Slavery had built the southern economy after the use of indentured servants had died out. When the Constitution was ratified, the north won a critical victory when slaves were declared ⅗ of a person because the south wanted them to count in full in order to gain more districts in the House of Representatives. It was quite hypocritical for planters to argue that slaves should be counted as people but don’t get the right to vote. Nevertheless, the country moved on ahead and was able to tone down the slavery issue with various compromises. These compromises kept the country from tearing itself apart, but by now there had been a huge religious revival in the form of the Second Great Awakening. Many abolitionists saw slavery as immoral and wrong to have in a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values. These religious forces took to newspapers and churches in order to spread their word. The slave trade was dead, but not slavery as an institution (no matter how uneconomical it was). The south, which had become known as “King Cotton” or the “Cotton Aristocracy” saw slavery as their way of life. The popular image of the wooden mansions painted white with columned porticoes and elegant gardens surrounding them was quite real.
Around 60 percent of all American slaves worked in the cotton industry, often operating cotton gins. Sugar and tobacco planters also owned slaves and were allied to the cotton industry. These three crops were the most profitable of anything that could be grown. In fact, slaves were mostly owned by upper class individuals who could afford huge estates and plantations. However, the southern gentry only numbered 15,000 families. Usually the middle class in southern states owned from a few to a dozen and the poor none. The cost of a slave could vary from $15 to $60. There were a lot of factors when purchasing slaves. Slaves themselves had come to get used to their place in society (mainly because they had no choice). It is interesting to consider that the African slave trade began in Africa itself. Slaves who went to America were better off than those staying to serve in Africa. There were different jobs slaves had, but most ended up being field hands. Others were servants for wealthy families. A small fraction learned a trade. Most southern whites did not have a hatred or physical repulsion for slaves. Many white children were raised by black nannies. Some owners were brutal and had their slaves work hard hours while using flogging to punish them. Other owners were not as brutal, but respected their slaves. Nevertheless, slavery was a terrible system that was long overdue to be eradicated in the US.
In contrast to the south, the northern states had not grown from slaves and farms. Yes, they had many rural areas but the north was more concerned about industry. The Industrial Revolution had already begun by at least a decade in European countries as hundreds to thousands of factories were built to manufacture goods. The United States had been going through this industrialization too, but at a slow extent. The emergence of cities led to hotbeds of industry and political power. In big cities like New York City, Boston, and Chicago large political machines were formed that controlled several surrounding counties and even sometimes the whole political atmosphere of a state. New York City was the heart of the abolitionist movement, the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded there in 1833. Boston added to the movement with not an organization, but instead a journalist named William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison argued for complete emancipation of slavery with no compensation to slaveholders or else the north should secede from the Union. A more moderate view was held by journalist Theodore Weld in his weekly journal The Emancipator. He brought out an 1838 study called Emancipation in the British West Indies which passed abolition in exchange for compensation to planters, which did work and was peaceful. More right-wing emancipators preferred to be called anti-slavery men and they wanted to stop the spreading of slavery to the territories and wait for slavery to die down in the south itself. It was not just essays and newspapers that abolitionists used, poems were used as well:
“No slave-hunt in our borders - no pirate on our strand!
No fetters in the Bay State - no slave upon our land!”
Immigrants poured into these states to start new lives. Germans and Poles went to the Midwest in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Irish went to the northeast and most notably Boston, and Italians went along the central east coast to New York and New Jersey. These people became farmers or workers. They were able to live the American dream and some went famously as far to become the richest men in America. These immigrants were usually against slavery themselves. Their homelands had at some point in time abolished it or never had the institution in place. Because of this growing population, northern states clearly had an advantage over the south in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, but this was less so in the Senate. In order to keep the country together, Senator Henry Clay, now seventy-three, proposed the Compromise of 1850.
The Compromise of 1850
Tensions had grown over the statehood of California. The state’s population boomed when gold was discovered in 1849, causing a great flow of settlers to take all their belongs and move west to find their fortune. Mining camps were formed and people were able to find gold through a simple process called “panning” or a more efficient but laboring device called a “long tom.” The discoveries were priceless and more than paid off the war California was fought to acquire. From 1848 to 1858, the yield of gold was $550 million. Real gross domestic product for that same period was 4.95 percent. Gold gave solid growth to the American economy. The non-Native American population in California grew from 14,000 to 250,000. The small port of San Francisco became a major city that offered many opportunities for those who did not find gold. Americans weren't the only people settling in “Gold Country.” Asians from their ethnic lands and Europeans from Pacific colonies traveled to the territory as well.
When the territory sought statehood, Congress battled over if it should be a free state or slave state. Clay’s compromise focused on this issue. The bill was co-sponsored by a rising Democratic politician, Senator Stephen A. Douglas. California would enter the United States as a free state. In addition, the slave trade was banned in Washington D.C. One might think this is a bad deal for the south, but they got some benefits by getting the New Mexico and Utah territories to have the choice through referendum to decide slavery when applying for statehood. Originally, a bill was proposed that would ban slavery in all US territories. Finally, their best benefit out of the compromise was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This part of the compromise required northerners (law enforcement and citizens) to cooperate with capturing slaves and returning them to their masters.
Northerners were outraged at the controversial Fugitive Slave Act. They believed a conspiracy that southerners controlled Congress and got what they wanted. This was a foolish and dead wrong. The north won California and the capital city. These victories should not have gone unnoticed. At this point slave owners wanted to keep slavery safe in the south, not expand it north. Clay’s intentions were to prevent the country from dividing, not to let “Slave Power” rule the day. The debates on the Senate floor are considered some of the greatest in history. It was also the end for the prominent southerner John C. Calhoun. The senator was too feeble to speak on the Senate floor, but a friend read his important address opposing the Compromise of 1850. Calhoun declared it a victory for the north that threatened the Union. He died on March 31, 1850, of tuberculosis ending a life of strong political involvement and a legacy that favored states’ rights. Calhoun was not the only man against the compromise, Taylor surprised many people by coming out against it. He took back his claim that he would not use his veto power, threatening that he would veto the compromise.
The gears of legislation froze. Taylor wrote in a message to Congress that California should simply be accepted as a free state with no “exciting topics of sectional character which produced painful apprehensions in the public mind.” He meant slavery and talk of secession. Taylor himself said he would lead a force against the south and hang the traitors if they did secede. The general never got his chance. On July 4, 1850, the president attended a celebration for the still uncompleted obelisk-shaped monument that was to honor George Washington. The heat hit him, so he decided to have a bowl of fruit, a pitcher of milk, and a large quantity of ice water. In hours he complained of stomach problems that grew worse and he died five days later of gastroenteritis. Rumors started to spread that there was a conspiracy against him and we was poisoned, but as with the “Slave Power” conspiracy this was proven wrong. In 1991, his family was convinced by a historian to scientifically analyze his body. No foul play was found.
Zachary Taylor has no clear presidential legacy. He was overall a simple man who felt that he was doing the right thing. This showed with California because all he wanted to do was enter the state as free with no compromise whatsoever. In doing so he also proved to be a reckless president. He had no real agenda or vision. Taylor’s more significant contribution was his work as a general. It was Taylor who contributed to the defeat of Mexico with the Battle of Buena Vista. However, he contributed little as an American president. It is because of this that Taylor was not a significant president and not remembered well.