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Old Rough and Ready

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Zachary_Taylor-circa1850

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.

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  • smhten

    Yeah, that article was terrible. It tries so hard to blame the collapse of the Whigs on Zachary Taylor, when the real answer (SLAVERY!!!!!) is so glaringly obvious. To steal a line from Bobcat Goldthwaite, blaming Zach Taylor for the collapse of the Whigs is like blaming the bulldog on the hood of the Mack truck for the accident.

  • Joe_JP

    “On the same day I received your letter, I also received one from another man in Magnolia, which contrasts very curiously with what you say about Gen: Taylor. He says he knows ten men in Magnolia, who voted for Mr. Clay, that can not be got to vote for Gen. Taylor, under any circumstances. I am sorry to hear what he says, and glad to hear what you say. Our only chance is with Taylor. I go for him, not because I think he would make a better president than Clay, but because I think he would make a better one than Polk, or Cass, or Buchanan, or any such creatures, one of whom is sure to be elected, if he is not.”

    — Abraham Lincoln

    • witlesschum

      But what did he know!

    • Rob in CT

      Heh.

    • Colin Day

      An update

      Our only chance is with Clinton. I go for her, not because I think she would make a better president than Sanders, but because I think she would make a better one than Trump, or Cruz, or any such creatures, one of whom is sure to be elected, if she is not.”

      The more things change . . .

      • witlesschum

        I was thinking the same thing.

  • 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.

    In a less stupid world, this paragraph would save millions of dollars in textbook costs.

    • Domino

      harumph

    • Honoré De Ballsack

      In a less stupid world, this paragraph would save millions of dollars in textbook costs.

      Ah, but the sentiment has already been embedded in American popular culture:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8N7BSsU5oo

    • timb

      What we need is Jon Meacham or the ghost of Arthur Schlesinger to arrive and assue us, heatedly and contemptuously, that Jackson was the best pre-Civil War President.

      I would gladly bludgeon them, rhetorically

    • Malaclypse

      Proud parent moment: yesterday was mini-Mal’s school’s “wax museum” where they all dressed up as famous historical people. While I still say FDR > Lincoln, I respect her disagreement. But I love that she got in an argument with her best friend, who chose Polk, because mini-Mal realizes that stealing half of Mexico was wrong, and she’s very upset that nobody else understands this. “Dad, what is wrong with people? I mean what the heck!”

      EDIT: And I really don’t have a good answer for her, and I’m pretty upset that Manifest Destiny may be being taught uncritically. End-of-year conferences will indeed be a joy…

  • Denverite

    Dude, you’re on a roll.

  • Murc

    The Whig Party busted up because of slavery. Period, full stop. There is literally nobody who could have squared that circle, because the Whig Party was made up of an unholy alliance of southern slaveholders and northerners for whom abolition was increasingly an urgent moral cause. They were united only in their “small government” and “weak President” desires, and that was it. Anyone they nominated who actually won the Presidency in 1848 would have precipitated that alliance cracking up. Taylor, in fact, actually managed the internal contradictions very well from a political standpoint, but George Washington and Thomas Jefferson themselves could not have held the Whigs together.

    But even leaving all that aside… the purpose of that article was to draw an analogy to Trump. And the analogy to Trump is weak.

    The organization of political parties in the mid 19th century was so alien to modern-day ones as to be nearly unrecognizable in many ways. Decisions were made in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms, and often not even by the candidates themselves; it was actually considered gauche to do your own campaigning and deal-making at party conventions and gatherings. You needed surrogates. Often these surrogates would make promises on your behalf that you had no idea about and had never authorized but would be forced to honor or at least acknowledge later; the people cutting deals to get Lincoln the nomination of the nascent Republican Party were nakedly telling folks “Lincoln ain’t here” when they pointed out that they were committing him to positions he absolutely would not follow through on, for example.

    The modern primary system is not only entirely alien to that sort of top-down structure, it is alien even to the party structure we had fifty years ago. Trump won by taking his case directly to the voters, something literally not possible in 1848 because the voters didn’t have any sort of say whatsoever in who their parties nominee would be. The political leaders in charge of the Whigs and the Democrats were not idiots and would not knowingly nominate someone out-of-step with their constituencies, but running an “insurgency” was simply not possible back then. The closest you could get was being a “dark horse,” a compromise candidate that warring factions could agree on, but even dark horses tended to be establishment figures with long histories of political involvement.

    So yes, Trump’s rise is without precedent. It’s without precedent in both our modern primary system, and in the top-down system that preceded it. Hell, even if you disregard that major difference? Taylor was a victorious General. The country, even when it was less than a century old, had already a long tradition of “drafting” victorious war leaders into high political office, regardless of their prior political experience. That trend continues today; as late as 2004 there were a non-trivial number of Democrats looking for Wesley Clark (remember that guy?) to swoop in and save the country from Bush the Lesser.

    Trump has no history in politics. He’s not a war hero. He’s just a rich dude who decided who wanted to be President and convinced a strong plurality of members of one of our political parties to let him be their nominee.

    That’s never happened before. Like, at all. Even guys like Wendell Wilkie had political track records. It’s very telling this dude had to reach back 150 years to even draw a weak analogy, that’s how uncharted this territory is.

    • CP

      the Whig Party was made up of an unholy alliance of southern slaveholders and northerners for whom abolition was increasingly an urgent moral cause.

      Damn, they were the original New Deal coalition!

    • CP

      Also,

      Decisions were made in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms, and often not even by the candidates themselves; it was actually considered gauche to do your own campaigning and deal-making at party conventions and gatherings

      Is it me, or did it used to be standard practice that the candidate (and, if he won, the politician) wasn’t the ultimate Man In Charge so much as merely the front man?

      Not that this stuff doesn’t still happen today (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush), but from what I know of the era I just have the impression is was much more widespread and understood then. Hence, political machines, and “boss” politics.

    • timb

      The only Trump comparison I see is to the Gracchi brothers. Even then his politics are different, but they were demagogues who added threats and actual violence to the system

      • Rob in CT

        I think this might actually unfairly malign the Gracchi. I mean, they were violent. But I’m not sure they introduced violence at all. They were at most part of increasing the use of violence in Roman politics. I think.

        • timb

          Everything I read places the onus of mob violence on their heads. Their mob physically touched and removed an opposing tribune.

          I think, too, their ideas for reforming a broken system were important and I sympathize with them, but the pro historians always call them demagogues and starting the slide to Marius/Sulla

    • Bill Murray

      Cass notoriously stood for nothing except for a) whatever suited his current political needs and b) whatever southern extremists wanted from him.

      I don’t know. That statement sounds pretty much like Trump

      • rea

        Cass, though, had some substantive accomplishments.

  • Domino

    Damn Erik, that was fun to read. I had no idea about William Walker. Wow.

    Do you have some reading recommendations? The amount of failure/incompetence/evil during this period of the US is fascinating, in much the same way of a train wreck.

    • Rob in CT

      Walker. The O.F.: Original Filibuster.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filibuster_(military)

      These people were gigantic assholes.

      • wjts

        It is almost impossible to believe how batshit William Walker’s life was. After graduating from medical school (while still a teenager, as I recall), he gave up medicine and moved to New Orleans. He edited an abolitionist newspaper there and used the paper to expose a private military expedition planned by Southern slaveholder stop invade and annex Cuba. After that, he “invaded” the Baja peninsula with an “army” of a dozen or two men and proclaimed himself leader of the Republic of Lower California. This worked about as well as you would imagine. His expedition to Nicaragua, then in the middle of a civil war, worked a little better. He managed to get himself made President, and one of his very first acts in office was to reintroduce slavery to a country that had already abolished it (the passages in Walker’s book about the necessity for Southern politicians to not only preserve slavery in the U.S. but to (re)expand it to Latin America are very interesting reading). Along the way, he feuded with Cornelius Vanderbilt over building a trans-Nicaraguan railroad before being deposed and was ultimately killed by a British firing squad in his abortive second invasion of Nicaragua.

        • Rob in CT

          It is almost impossible to believe how batshit *so many* dudes from the 19th century’s lives were. But yeah, Walker may be top-tier.

        • N__B

          He was portrayed by Ed Harris in the movie. That’s a win right there.

    • wjts

      Shortly before he died, Walker published his memoirs of the Nicaraguan Civil War. Arizona University Press (I think) put out a facsimile edition in the mid-80s which can probably be found online for a couple of bucks. It’s a fascinating read.

    • AfferentInput

      I agree. This period is often overlooked in general education classes. It would be awesome to read a book about this string of shithead presidents.

    • Scizzy

      If you’re interested in Walker and men like him, the best books are probably Amy Greenberg’s Manifest Manhood and Robert May’s Manifest Destiny’s Underworld. Amy Greenberg’s recent book on the US-Mexican War, A Wicked War, is exemplary as well.

      If you’re more interested in the era, McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom covers 1848-1865 and is on the short list of greatest works of American history. Potter’s The Impending Crisis focuses on the politics of the 1850s and is a bit outdated, but still great.

      • CP

        Thank you for this (all I ever knew about Walker was that he had a shitty Ed Harris movie made out of his life. And I like Ed Harris). Got a couple of more recent history books to get through, but after that, those are all going on my reading list.

        • wjts

          If Alex Cox’s Walker is so shitty, how come it got a Criterion release? (N.B.: This argument cannot be applied to Michael Bay movies, because I said so.)

          (I don’t think Walker is a bad movie so much as it is wildly uneven.)

          • CP

            I guess that equates to “bad” in my head.

            • wjts

              It’s got some good performances and an interesting idea (telling Walker’s story through the lens of Reagan’s Nicaragua policy). It’s not a great movie, but when it works, I think it works pretty well.

              • Rob in CT

                I may have to try and track this movie down. I’ve never heard of it.

      • timb

        At first I thought you omitted What Hath God Wrought by mistake, then I realized you were specifically talking 1848 to 1859.

        • Richard Gadsden

          Battle Cry of Freedom and What Hath God Wrought are explicitly part of a series, and they don’t do a bad job of meeting up in 1848.

          I’d love to read a book doing 1820-1860 (starting with the Missouri Compromise and ending with Lincoln’s election) about the battles between the Slave Power and its opponents.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I don’t know what actual historians think of Potter, but while I would certainly start with Battle Cry or What Hath God Wrought I still think it’s really good.

        • Scizzy

          Potter is great, it’s just that contemporary historians like Ed Baptist, Adam Rothman, and Walter Johnson have done a lot to uncover the cultural, racial, and economic foundations of Potter’s political history. But the Impending Crisis is still well worth reading – it will certainly outlive Wilentz’s much more recent treatment of pre-Civil War politics.

  • rea

    Taylor was also Jefferson Davis’ father-in-law, incidently.

    • Joe_JP

      Right. Taylor didn’t want her to marry him because Taylor didn’t want her to suffer the life of a military wife. So, he resigned from military life and went back to plantation life. She died soon afterwards (in 1835) of malaria.

      • ThusBloggedAnderson

        Which she was arguably more likely to contract on a damn plantation than she would’ve been on a military base out west or wherever.

    • Bruce Vail

      Taylor’s son was a general in the army of Confederate States of America. He was apparently a pretty good one…

      http://civilwar.wikia.com/wiki/Richard_Taylor_(general)

      • rea

        He was apparently a pretty good competent one

    • Colin Day

      On the plus side, Taylor had a positive effect on one of junior officers, Ulysses Grant.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Anytime that Gil Troy comes up, I always make a point of mentioning his unusually ridiculous contribution to the Both Sides Do It genre: his October 2008 blog post declaring that any progressive is a hypocrite if he or she denounces Sarah Palin as unqualified but fails to denounce Al Franken for being just as unqualified. Troy incidentally doubled down on this idiocy about six months later when he proudly repeated the claim about Franken and Palin on a panel about the 2008 elections at the 2009 Organization of American Historians conference. Troy loves playing the Last Honest Man in an age of partisanship. But he subscribes to a kind of dogmatic centrism that is only truly at home on the WaPo’s editorial pages.

    • frylock

      That blind centrism is also at home on the Globe and Mail’s opinion pages, on which, naturally, Gil Troy used to appear frequently.

      • Scott Lemieux

        To be Scrupulously Fair, his presidential campaigns course is one of the better ones I took as an undergrad.

        • vic rattlehead

          I enjoyed his recent book on the Clinton administration/90s American politics. Maybe not because it was so great, but it was precisely the subject I wanted to read about at the time I was looking. I did end up scribbling a ton of marginalia (mostly “??” and “B.S.”). But read with an open mind yet critical eye, it was actually pretty solid (I am not a political scientist or historian though). Nowhere near the abomination the linked piece is.

    • Lev

      Yeah, Washington centrism is by far more ideological than either the prevailing liberal or conservative ideologies.

  • frylock

    Gil Troy!! I took several classes with him at McGill in the aughts. It always struck me that he was more concerned about his brand as a “reasonable conservative” than actual history. I remember one of his hobbyhorses was trying to rehabilitate Reagan’s perception among liberal historians… good luck with that!

  • Bootsie

    It was either McPherson or Potter who said that Buchanan was a northerner who stabbed northerners in the back and Taylor was a southerner who stabbed southerners in the back (or at the very least, told them to fuck off when it came to secession.)

    • Manny Kant

      Not just anti-secession. Taylor wanted to admit California as a free state, full out, with no compromises. There’s basically three positions during the 1850 crisis:

      1) the pro-compromise position, held by the majority of southern Whigs (e.g. Clay, Toombs, Stephens) and northern Democrats (e.g. Douglas), but also some conservative northern Whigs (e.g. Webster, Fillmore) and moderate southern Democrats (e.g. Henry Foote, Speaker Cobb).

      2) the pro-slavery expansion, anti-compromise position, held by the majority of southern Democrats (Calhoun, Davis) and a few extreme southern Whigs (can’t think of any examples).

      3) the anti-slavery expansion, anti-compromise position, held by Free Soilers (Chase), the majority of northern Whigs (Seward, notably), and a minority of anti-slavery northern Democrats (David Wilmot).

      Taylor very clearly was in the third camp

  • Manny Kant

    A couple of points that I think you misstated or elided, perhaps:

    Firstly, nominating an extreme states-rights southerner like Tyler was not actually a necessary compromise the Whigs had to make in 1840. They could very easily have nominated a moderate, nationalistic border-state Clay supporter that year, and it’s kind of a fluke that they didn’t. Basically, in 1840 the Whigs were split mostly regionally. Northerners mostly supported Harrison (a few backed Winfield Scott, and Clay obviously had some northern support) and southerners mostly supported Clay, whose work with Calhoun on the compromise tariff had made him more popular among southern Whigs than he had been in the past or would be in the future. When Harrison won the nomination, the idea was to choose a southern Clay supporter to balance the ticket. The initial candidate was, I believe, John M. Clayton of Delaware, a totally unobjectionable middle of the road Whig. But Clayton (and possibly other more mainstream Clay supporters) was kind of sulking about Clay losing the nomination, and turned down the offer. Nobody knew much about Tyler, but he was perceived by the convention to not clearly be all that different from Clayton. Obviously they were wrong, but there was no sense that only an extreme states rights southerner could have been nominated.

    Secondly, as to Taylor’s presidency, it’s worth noting that he took as his primary advisor William Seward, the leader of the anti-slavery faction of New York Whigs. Though chosen largely as a candidate of the southern wing of the party, Taylor governed very much as the Northern Whigs’ man, to the point that until his death he was basically opposing Clay and Webster’s compromise efforts and basically taking the stance of Seward’s northern anti-slavery wing of the party. Would he have signed the Compromise of 1850? I think the fact that he was vocally opposed to Clay’s omnibus right up until his death suggests that he would not have.

    • Scott Lemieux

      To go on a tangent, the Seward House in Auburn is pretty awesome. Combine that with the Tubman house and it’s a solid afternoon if you’re visiting the Finger Lakes or a relative in prison or something.

      • The Tubman house was named a national park recently. I need to visit it.

        Of course, the more I learn about Seward, the less happy I am to know it. He was a complete supporter of Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policy while he was Secretary of State.

  • Scizzy

    Yes, laying the blame on Taylor for the death of the Whig Party is an untenable argument to make. If anything, his willingness to compromise on the extension of slavery marks him as one of the more insightful politicians of his age. Moreover, the willingness of career Whigs like Clay, Webster, and Fillmore (loathe as I am to lump him in with the preceding giants) to compromise on slavery in the territories was far more damaging to the party than anything Taylor did.

    As for the Taylor vs. Van Buren question, I think Taylor comes out ahead. Van Buren deserves some share of the blame for the Trail of Tears and the Second Seminole War and proved utterly ineffective against the Panic of 1837. Taylor, being blandly ineffective in office, was a clear step up.

  • Nepos

    Nice post! I’ve long been somewhat fond of Taylor as a President, almost certainly because McPherson paints him in a decent light in Battle Cry of Freedom.

    And because I like imagining the looks on the faces of southerners when Taylor endorsed free state California.

  • CP

    The problem of American politics in 1848 wasn’t Zachary Taylor. It was the slow collapse of the American political system over slavery.

    Well, that last sentence if nothing else sounds like something you actually could make a Donald Trump analogy out of.

    “The problem of American politics in 2016 isn’t Donald Trump. It’s the [okay, “slow collapse” might be too dramatic… or not. The future will tell] of the American political system over…” Well, there’s no one word like “slavery” or “segregation,” but it’s the same underlying issue: racism. Or “identity politics,” if you prefer (expanding from racial prejudice to include other things like religious and nativist prejudices, though those are often just another way of saying racism, as well as prejudices over gender and sexuality).

    • bender

      Thank you for this post, Mr. Loomis. The times we are in do resemble 1848. I believe the American political system is in slow collapse again, but not over racism or economic inequality, both of which can be addressed within the current system.

      The economies of the industrialized world face two massive intertwined problems: rapid climate change and dependence on fossil fuels as a highly concentrated energy source used to power resource extraction, manufacturing and transport.

      Industrial capitalism is set up to requires continually expanding markets and consumption the way a shark has to keep moving in order to breathe. Sharks don’t run out of ocean, but we are running short of both ecosystems to wreck and the easy to extract, highly concentrated energy sources which powered the industrial revolution. Even if we weren’t running out of cheap fossil fuel, it’s clear that we have to leave it in the ground to keep the climate change from accelerating.

      Minor adjustments are not sufficient to deal with these dilemmas. A few countries are beginning to rework their economies to meet the new conditions, which require being less energy intensive, consuming fewer resources and aiming to become steady state, which is the only state with a long future.

      American national politics isn’t capable of facing this head on, understandably so given our history from the beginning of European settlement. That is why the candidates running for high office are inadequate to the times. Neither spreading blame to scapegoats nor business as usual do much except putting off engagement with the underlying problems. I expect the 2020 election to be worse.

  • Lev

    Nah, Andrew Jackson is the much more obvious proto-Trump. Not entirely a great comparison since Jackson had held political office before, but in terms of their values and what drove them, it’s a pretty close match.

    • Murc

      I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think this is actually unfair to Jackson. Jackson was clearly animated by a great sense of patriotism and had a genuine vision for the country and its future. It was a terrible vision whose spectre still haunts us today, but it was at least an ethos.

      Trump’s only ethos is narcissism. He has no vision for the country. He has no sense of patriotism or some plan for how to build a future. Trump only believes in his ego.

      • Lev

        And this explains his involvement with Aaron Burr how?

        • jroth95

          What, did Trump go to Hamilton and root for Burr?

    • Bruce Vail

      Agreed.

      Terrible policies married to a disagreeable personality. Also, unusual hair.

      • timb

        I’ve long thought Trump and Jackson were the same

  • Bruce Vail

    I rather like it that Politico canvasses the colleges looking for historians to write short essays pointing to historical events that might have relevance to politics today.

    I’m looking forward to an essay from Erik comparing Trump to Andrew Jackson…

    • ThusBloggedAnderson

      Pretty sure Jackson woulda known just what to do with the Muslims and the Mexicans.

      … tho to be fair, I did google this up:

      “I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the President and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion nowadays enjoys in this county in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government.” –Andrew Jackson, Statement refusing to proclaim a national day of fasting and prayer.

  • ThusBloggedAnderson

    OT, wondering what HA! Goodman’s written about in the past 24 hours, but afraid to look.

    • wjts

      Something about unskewed Facebook likes for animated YouTube rap videos.

    • witlesschum

      wondering what HA! Goodman’s written about in the past 24 hours,

      Maybe we are objectively despicable, after all.

      • ThusBloggedAnderson

        Well uh, YEAH.

    • i8kraft

      “I told you not to do it, but now you’ve done it, and look what you’ve made me gone and do it. I’m officially a Trump supporter”

  • Gwen

    Ignoring what they stood for and just looking at efficacy, I’ve always had a soft spot for James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson.

    But yes, taken as a whole package, Zachary Taylor was probably the least embarrassing of that era.

    Incidentally, he is my little brother’s namesake (“Taylor” is also a common middle name on my mom’s side of the family).

  • sleepyirv

    I think you’re being slightly unfair to the Democrats, who can be said to be tapping into the average American’s distrust of economic elites and crony mercantilism that could be expected from the Whigs. It’s not particularly worthwhile to try say a certain economic policy in the 19th Century was the correct one and the only reason to oppose it was for malicious purposes.

    • jroth95

      tapping into the average American’s distrust of economic elites in order to prop up a literally feudal system of unfathomable wealth and (to say the least) inequality in the South.

      The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince poor whites that Southern elites are their anti-elite allies.

  • Dennis Orphen

    This comment was posted from Rough and Ready, CA, where I’m passing through about 10 minutes after reading the original post.

    • Hogan

      Should have turned left at Albakoikee.

  • ThusBloggedAnderson

    I also have to say that I love that photo in the post, because it’s from that early time when the idea of cleaning yourself up for your photo (daguerrotype?) portrait hadn’t occurred to most sitters yet.

    • so-in-so

      Maybe that WAS cleaned up by his standards?

  • Tracy Lightcap

    Two things about this.

    First, Taylor was a much better general then people gave him credit for. He never lost a battle, he never tried to weasel out of a fight due to numerical or tactical disadvantages (this is why he was Grant’s idol), and even when he was surprised, like at Buena Vista, he showed great steadiness and presence of mind and, again, won. In terms of style he was more like Julius Caesar then any other general in our history; just as careless at times and just as successful.

    Second, I have to say a word in defense of Polk. When he took office, he faced not one, but two crises concerning American expansion. One – the one Eric always goes to – involved the Americans in Texas and their insistence on joining the Union. That one did involve the expansion of slavery, albeit with the real possibility that much of what was then New Mexico would enter the Union free. Recall that we tried to buy the whole thing from Mexico (there were only about 5000 Mexican families in the whole vast expanse and we did offer a decent price and forgiveness of Mexican trade debts) before Polk provoked the border dispute led to war. And, indeed, we did buy New Mexico (at a sharp discount) as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Nowadays we’d call it a war of choice.

    The other dispute -the question of Oregon – preceded the Mexican War. There was never any question that the American settlers in what is now Washington and Oregon would enter the Union sooner or later as free states. But Polk risked – and it was close – a war with the UK(!) over where the border would be between BC and Oregon Territory. Iow, before he moved to admit Texas as a slave state, he had already risked war to establish a vast free territory in the Northwest. Polk wanted Texas in the Union as a slave state; that’s what made Jackson turn to him in 1844. But he also fulfilled his promises to the free settlers in Oregon and at much, much greater risk.

    The picture, iow, is by no means as clear cut as people these days tend to think. Personally, I think Polk, like Jackson, wanted to keep the balance in the Senate that would keep slavery from becoming a national political issue and, as a consequence, dissolve the Union. It was a vain hope, but you can see why they did it. It wasn’t all economic interest, iwo.

    • Bruce Vail

      For what it is worth, Harry Truman thought Polk one of our great presidents.

    • I think you are wrong about Polk’s desires. He was an expansionist generally, yes, but he was a pretty lowly person who was very much committed to aggressive schemes to expand the slave power. There was a reason John Quincy Adams despised him so.

      • Tracy Lightcap

        Hey, at least he was a college graduate! True, UNC only had 13 students, but he wasn’t a “lowly person” by the standards of the time.

        Also, I’m not sure he was dedicated to expanding slave power. He was the only Democrat of any prominance who was willing to go through with Taylor’s abortive annexation schemes, and by 1844 getting ahold of Texas had become a national issue. That’s why Jackson “invited” him to the Hermitage and told him to run for president; no Democrat who opposed annexing Texas (*cough* van Buren) could possibly win. And, of course, anybody who supported anything that might lead to Texas entering the Union would be hated by JQA.

        In short, I don’t see Polk doing much more then anyone else to “expand the slave power”. He had answered an inquiry by some Ohio Democrats by saying that he thought that the annexation of Texas should go ahead and, sure enough, when the General said he would support him for president if he would “expand the slave power” by annexing Texas, Polk said yes. Up until that time he was kinda hoping to be van Buren’s Veep or get another shot at being governor of Tennessee. But … he also knew a main chance when he saw it.

        Or, in short and damning with real faint praise, I think Polk was an ambitious politician and no more dedicated to expanding slavery then any other Democrat of his time.

    • I think Tracy is wrong in this analysis of Polk. As Hietala makes clear in Manifest Design, Polk was never serious about 54′ 40. He sold his Texas policy to the North by positioning Texas as a gateway to remove slaves from the union as cotton used up the soil. Slaves would move from the Old Southwest to Texas and thence to Mexico where they could live freely among the mestizo Mexicans who were their racial equals (in his mind). But when the war broke and his followers started declaring for slavery in All-Mexico and California the jig was up.

      • Tracy Lightcap

        I think Dave’s account doesn’t hold up.

        1. I’ve read Polk’s diaries (wish all presidents had that habit) and I can assure you that he was dead serious about the border for Oregon. Further, the Brits, especially their ambassador to DC, took him seriously as well. They backed down due to the preponderant US presence in Oregon and a grudging respect for Polk’s seriousness.

        2. This “slaves will move to Mexico” business is true; he did say that, just like Jackson did. And he had little respect for the Mexican’s governing capability, though, given their history to that point, who could blame him? But Eric is right: Polk provoked the war and used it to get New Mexico. Problem = he knew that California, where the bulk of the population were Mexicans (and, hence, anti-slave), would never enter as a slave state, any more then whatever Oregon ended up as would.

        3. So he ended up playing the balancing game. Let Texas in as a slave state, then find a new free state to keep the Senate balanced and prevent an anti-slavery amendment to the Constitution from being introduced. After the end of the war, he had plenty of choices of new free states. And, sure enough, that’s what happened in 1850 (Texas slave, California free). But by then Polk, who had promised not to run again and didn’t, was dead, probably from cholera. No doubt he would have approved, however; like most Jackson Democrats, his main policy aim was to keep slavery from becoming a national issue and destroying the Union in the process.

  • jroth95

    I kind of want to print out that last para for my middle school daughter so she can refer to it when she gets to that part of American history.

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