Monday, February 22, 2016

Presidents' Day (belated): Zachary Taylor



Early in his career, Zachary Taylor was a neighbor of mine, more or less. He commanded Fort Harrison on the Wabash River, and organized its successful defense against the Lakes Indian warriors who attacked it in September 1812. Taylor managed to avoid embarrassing himself in that most embarrassing of early American conflicts, the War of 1812, and stayed in the Army for most of the rest of his life. During the Second Seminole War he distinguished himself at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee* and won from his troops, or perhaps his spouse, the nickname “Old Rough and Ready.” Taylor reached the zenith of his career during the Mexican War, when he took the city of Monterey and defeated a vastly larger Mexican force at the Battle of Buena Vista (February 1847). Taylor benefited, in the latter case, from his adversary’s decision to force-march his army across the desert before the battle, but at the end of the engagement the American general held the ground and won the glory. A year later he accepted the Whig Party’s nomination to the presidency, and a factional division in the rival Democratic Party helped him win the election.

As president, Taylor chiefly distinguished himself by dropping dead less than halfway through his term. Doctors identified the cause of death as digestive illness exacerbated by overeating on Independence Day. Amateur historians speculated in the twentieth century that someone had poisoned Taylor, though a 1991 analysis of his remains found no trace of the likeliest poison, arsenic. More recently Jane McHugh and Philip Mackowiak suggested that Taylor contracted gastroenteritis from an open sewage field near the White House, and that the same illness could have also afflicted William Harrison and James Polk. 

Taylor’s death, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog, probably spared the nation an early outbreak of civil war. In 1849 the president demanded that Congress admit the new territories of California and New Mexico as free states – not because he opposed slavery, but because he believed free-state status would avoid friction with the local white population. He would not brook compromise on this issue, and the Compromise of 1850, which provided for a local-option admission of slavery to New Mexico, would not have passed over his veto. Moreover, Taylor nearly started a shooting war with Texas by sending troops to Santa Fe during a border dispute with the Lone Star State. If fighting had broken out, other Southern states would probably have come to Texas’s aid and gone to war with the U.S. government. When Taylor died, however, his successor approved a Congressional resolution of the dispute that gave both sides some of the disputed land and paid off Texas’s sovereign debts.

Had war between North and South broken out in 1850, it is unlikely that the Union would have been able to raise sufficient troops to overpower the slave states, and likely that a pro-peace candidate would have won the 1852 election and given the secessionists their independence. Instead, Millard Fillmore and the 31st Congress gave the United States ten more years of inter-sectional peace, followed by a bloody war that ended the Slave South. Sometimes the most influential thing a leader can do is eat a fatally large dose of cherries and iced milk.


* Distinguished himself by claiming victory in the battle, even though the Seminoles and their maroon allies actually won.

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