The death of President Zachary Taylor on July 9, 1850, had profound consequences for the United States and possibly postponed the Civil War for 10 years.
Taylor had made a name for himself as a general during the Mexican-American War. He had impressed the men under his command as much with his humble, down to earth attitude as with his martial prowess.
In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant wrote of Taylor: “In dress he was possibly too plain, rarely wearing anything in the field to indicate his rank, or even that he was an officer; but he was known to every solider in his army, and was respected by all... It was the policy of the Commanding General to allow no pillaging, no taking of private property for public or individual use without satisfactory compensation...”
President James K. Polk announced that he would not seek re-election in 1848 (one senses he knew he couldn't win against either Winfield Scott or Taylor, both war heroes). Both Taylor and Scott went head to head to gain the Whig Party nomination, with Taylor emerging victorious. His opponents in the general election were Democrat Lewis Cass and Free Soil Party nominee and former President Martin van Buren.
As sectional tensions mounted in the wake of the Mexican War, southerners flocked to the banner of Taylor, a Kentucky slave owner. The newspaper “Richmond Whig” stated, “We prefer Old Zack with his sugar and cotton plantations and four hundred negroes.” A Georgia newspaper asked, “Will the people of (the South) vote for a Southern President or a Northern one?”
With strong Southern support Taylor was elected the 12th president of the United States. He quickly disillusioned his base in the South, however. As the population of California blossomed in the wake of the Gold Rush, Taylor encouraged it to apply for statehood before the Southern slave power took root there.
The acquisition of territories like California (and Utah) from the Mexican War prompted a new debate on the spread of slavery, and Taylor, a Southerner, had come out against those who had elected him to further the interests of the slave power.
Congress debated the issue fiercely. What followed came to be known as the “Compromise of 1850.” The compromise was a package of legislation designed to allow California into the Union as a free state, while at the same time placating the South. The crux of the compromise was the new Fugitive Slave Act, which empowered the federal government (at the expense of state's rights) to return runaway slaves to their Southern masters.
Taylor mocked the new compromise, calling it an “Omnibus Bill” because of its supposed ability to solve all of the nation's problems. The president preferred a plan to simply bring a free California into the Union regardless of the consequences to the compromise which left Utah and New Mexico open to the spread of slavery, not to mention the immorality of Fugitive Slave Act.
It was in the midst of this crisis that fate intervened. In his book “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” historian James McPherson writes: “(Taylor) spent a hot Fourth of July listening to speeches at the unfinished Washington Monument. Assuaging his hunger and thirst with large quantities of raw vegetables, cherries, and iced milk, the president fell ill next day and died on July 9 of acute gastroenteritis.”
Suddenly, Taylor was replaced by his vice president, New Yorker Millard Fillmore. In his book “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,” historian Sean Wilentz writes, “The ex-general who had become a southern Whig with northern feelings was suddenly replaced by a northern Whig with southern feelings...”
If Taylor had survived he almost certainly would have vetoed the Compromise of 1850, perhaps leading to the secession 10 years early of those states that would later make up the Confederacy. Fillmore, however, eager to placate the South, signed the legislation and postponed America's most destructive conflict for a decade.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the codeveloper of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]