ZACHARY TAYLOR | 1849-1850

Northerners and southerners disputed whether territories wrested from Mexico should be opened to slavery, and some southerners threatened secession. Zachary Taylor was prepared to hold the Union together by armed force rather than by compromise.

Born in Barboursville, Virginia on November 24, 1784, he was raised on a Kentucky plantation. A career officer in the army, he made his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and owned a plantation in Mississippi. But Taylor did not defend slavery or southern sectionalism. 40 years in the army made him a firm nationalist. He had policed frontiers against Indians and had won major victories in the Mexican War.

“Old Rough and Ready’s” homespun ways were political assets. His long military record would appeal to northerners; his ownership of 100 slaves would lure southern votes. He had not committed himself on troublesome issues. The Whigs nominated him to run against the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, who favored letting the residents of territories decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery. In protest against Taylor and Cass, northerners who opposed extension of slavery into territories formed a Free Soil Party and nominated Martin Van Buren. In a close election, the Free Soilers pulled enough votes away from Cass to elect Taylor to the presidency.

Traditionally, people could decide whether they wanted slavery when they drew up new state constitutions. Therefore, to end the dispute over slavery in new areas, President Taylor urged New Mexico and California to draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing the territorial stage. Southerners were furious, since neither state constitution was likely to permit slavery; Members of Congress were dismayed, since they felt the president was usurping their policy-making prerogatives. In addition, Taylor’s solution ignored several acute side issues: the northern dislike of the slave market operating in the District of Columbia; and the southern demands for a more stringent fugitive slave law.

In early 1850 Taylor held a conference with southern leaders who threatened secession. He told them that those “taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang…with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.” He never wavered.

Then events took an unexpected turn. After participating in July 4 ceremonies at the Washington Monument, Taylor fell ill. Within five days he was dead. After his death, the forces of compromise triumphed, but the war Taylor had been willing to face came 11 years later. In it, his only son Richard served as a general in the Confederate Army.

Permission granted to re-post by The White House Historical Association