I guess I will write a post on the election. The 1848 election, that is.
Zachary Taylor is an odd president to defend and I’m not really going to do that here, but this piece by the presidential historian Gil Troy in Politico is deeply odd and really maligns Taylor for a number of issues going on in American politics in 1848 that were out of his control or that just swept him along. Basically, it argues that Taylor was nothing more than an ambitious idiotic general who betrayed his party’s principles to seek power. Get it, he’s talking about an earlier version of Donald Trump. But this really doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you squint a lot.
Sure, Taylor was a general who had never voted before. But the Whigs always faced two major quandaries. The first is that their positions weren’t popular with the American people. We think of the Whigs, when we think of them, as the party of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, a party that wanted to use the power of the government to build infrastructure and capitalism, a forward-thinking set of policies that would make the United States an economic power. And to some extent, that’s accurate. But the Democratic Party was simply far more popular because most of the nation really liked the aggressive toxic masculinity of Andrew Jackson and frontier culture. This always placed the Whigs in an electoral bind. Henry Clay could not win the presidency, no matter how much he tried. Troy states that Taylor was the last Whig president to win an election. True, but he was one of only two. The other was William Henry Harrison, another military general that the party could use to gain popularity. And in order to win that election in 1840, the Whigs a) needed a major economic recession it could pin on Van Buren and b) to make compromises with anti-Jackson forces who thought the Democratic Party did not do enough to promote the expansion of slavery. In other words, Harrison’s VP had to be John Tyler, who was an utter disaster and did more than perhaps any other person to move the nation toward the Civil War in the 1840s.
The second problem the Whigs faced was that they were a national party and therefore did not want to talk about slavery. At all. That was the only way they could remain a national party. That worked pretty well in the 1830s. But after Tyler and Polk, that was no longer tenable. By 1848, with the Mexican War and its overt theft of Mexican land to expand slavery ripping the nation apart, the Whigs were on the verge of collapse. Anti-slavery Whigs were starting to join third parties. The Whigs were tottering in the South because to win office in the South by 1848 meant supporting slavery expansion. Taylor didn’t betray Whig principles so much as demonstrate that the Whigs had no uniting principles by 1848. Sure, he was promoted by the party’s southern interests, but he was the ultimate pretty candidate who stood for nothing politically. He also required northern Whig votes to win the nomination.
Also, Taylor was a much better option than the odious Lewis Cass, who the Democrats nominated. Cass was basically Franklin Pierce with moderately less drinking. Cass notoriously stood for nothing except for a) whatever suited his current political needs and b) whatever southern extremists wanted from him. He was also old and in terrible health. Troy paints Cass as this experienced operator, as opposed to the unqualified Taylor, but sometimes experience is not necessarily a good thing. Cass was excellent at political survival and ambition, but even at the time everyone knew that was his total sum value, except to the slaveholders. It was the slaveholders who ensured that Cass was the nominee in 1848.
And in fact, as president, as brief of a period as it was, Taylor wasn’t too bad. Most importantly, he took a very moderate position on post-Mexican War questions. Yes, he was a slaveholder and was going to look after his own interests in this regard. But he also supported immediate statehood for New Mexico and California as free states, infuriating southerners, who called for secession against the Taylor government. Taylor responded by saying “taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang … with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.” He threatened to send troops to New Mexico to protect it from Texas’ ridiculous land claims that extended to the Rio Grande. Would he have signed the various laws making up the Compromise of 1850? Probably. But this is hardly a Donald Trump maniac we are talking about here.
None of this is to defend Taylor, per se. But honestly, you can make an entirely fair case for him as the best president between John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln. That’s because the bar is extraordinarily low, but note that you are talking about Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan here. If you are counting, that’s a genocidal maniac, the founder of the Democratic Party whose policies in advising Jackson drove the economy into the ground, a geezer who died a month into office, a man who named John C. Calhoun Secretary of State and made slavery expansion the official policy of the U.S. government, a man who stole half of Mexico to expand slavery, a hack who signed the Fugitive Slave Act and was worse all every post-Mexican War issue than Taylor, an alcoholic doughface who recognized William Walker as the legitimate ruler of Nicaragua, and another doughface whose response to secession was to leave a secessionist in office as Secretary of War for another two months. I mean, holy hell. Maybe there’s a case for Van Buren over Taylor, I don’t know. Probably not. It’s really bad. The problem of American politics in 1848 wasn’t Zachary Taylor. It was the slow collapse of the American political system over slavery.