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The Emergence of Zachary Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready”

Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster significantly contributed to the developing anti-slavery sentiment in the North by his Plymouth speech delivered on December 22, 1820. For decades afterwards schoolchildren would memorize passages of the anti-slavery speech thereby helping spread both his ideas and his legend. Although mainly remembered as being an anti-slavery speech, Webster was specifically criticizing the slave trade, and carefully avoided applying his emotional language to slavery itself. This pattern holds throughout his career approving of the then existing slavery while opposing expansion of it and lauding and giving priority to the “Union.” Webster stated:

let us pledge ourselves here, upon the rock of Plymouth, to extirpate and destroy it. It is not fit that the land of the Pilgrims should bear the shame longer. I hear the sound of the hammer, I see the smoke of the furnaces where manacles and fetters are still forged for human limbs. I see the visages of those who by stealth and at midnight labor in this work of hell, foul and dark, as may become the artificers of such instruments of misery and torture. Let that spot be purified, or let it cease to be of New England.

This speech proved to be the high point of Webster’s anti-slavery zeal, although he continued to stress his feelings against slavery, he prioritized union with the slave south far more. Senator Webster had his eye on the presidency, but his southern tour of 1848 convinced him that it was a famous general had stolen the hearts of his countrymen. Webster fell in line and campaigned hard for the Whig Party’s nominee General Zachary Taylor.

“Old Rough and Ready,” General Zachary Taylor, was another in the string of slaveholding American presidents during the antebellum era. Like Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk before him, Taylor’s career combined the business of human enslavement with a military career that pitted him against Indians and Mexicans. Unlike Jackson, however, Taylor was a descendant of the European settler elite, with James Madison being a distant cousin. His great-grandfather, James Taylor enjoyed a military career serving prominently in the American Revolution earning him a six-thousand acre land grant.

Throughout Taylor’s life he enjoyed material wealth accrued from the labor of slaves. His grandparents also were slaveowners and his father’s holdings increased from 7 in 1790 to 37 in 1810. Richard Taylor devoted a good portion of his time to crushing Indian resistance and working black slaves and his son, Zachary’s career followed a similar path as he inherited a number of enslaved blacks. Zachary Taylor’s leadership of military actions against Native American communities neatly dovetailed with his growing land and slave holdings. In 1822, Taylor became the commanding officer at a post in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and used his advantageous position there to purchase a plantation in West Feliciana Parish, forty miles from Baton Rouge.

The 18 “prime hands” were managed by what Taylor termed “a very worthless overseer.” Taylor remained optimistic feeling that he would reap a profit the following year, his workforce having grown to 21 “acclimated” field slaves. In 1830, Africans enslaved on the Taylor Louisiana plantation died in droves due to overwork and brutality. Nevertheless, by the late 1840s, he could claim 145 blacks as his property. Taylor’s Cypress Grove Mississippi cotton plantation had 127 enslaved blacks on it at the time of his death in 1850. During his campaign for the presidency opponents charged that Taylor had a total of 300 enslaved Africans, a charge the presidential candidate denied. Whatever the exact number of slaves Taylor owned, he achieved the status of one of the “great planters” of the South by virtue of this ownership. His Mississippi plantation lay in the most prosperous slaveowning region of the state making the absentee owner a member of the slaveholding elite.

It was Taylor’s military career that propelled him into the national spotlight. From 1828 to 1837 Taylor was the commander of several forts in the midwest. Particularly important to his emerging reputation was his role in the Black Hawk War that broke the Native American power in the area. Many Whigs opposed his nomination for president, however, while others felt that Taylor’s popularity as a war “hero” offered an ideal opportunity to regain the presidency. Congressman Meredith P. Gentry, A Whig, felt that his party had to nominate Taylor and that he would easily gain the nomination “but for his negroes and cotton bales” referring to his slaveownership and cotton plantation. Northern politicians including William H. Seward, who enjoyed a reputation as an opponent of slavery, young Abraham Lincoln as well as future Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens were all enthusiastic supporters of Zachary Taylor’s candidacy.

Taylor was wooed by both the Whig and Democratic parties since as a war hero and political unknown he had the potential to be both popular and malleable. The Calhoun-led Democrats sought him as did the nativist faction and the Whig Party. The Hero of Buena Vista, who had never voted, was a political unknown with wide appeal, especially to an anxious Whig Party hoping to duplicate its 1840 success in running a former general for the presidency. Whigs ran the slaveholding Taylor as a “no party” candidate, as a man whose fame overshadowed his lack of political experience and party affiliation. In the North, however, Whigs hoping to implement the party’s economic policies and opposition to the Mexican War were outraged at the nomination of a man whose fame derived precisely from that conflict. Eventually, Northern Whigs demanded that the non-committal Taylor commit himself to a “no territory” pledge. Unbeknownst to them Taylor had already reached the conclusion that the lands seized from Mexico were useless to slaveholders and that since Mexican law had banned slavery there, the status quo was the preferable way to maintain sectional unity.

Working out of the national office of the Whig Party, Illinois’ Abraham Lincoln also spoke in New England on behalf of Taylor. Early in the campaign Lincoln hoped that slavery would not be an issue in the campaign, but Polk’s bold moves against Mexico doomed that hope. Forced to attempt to quiet New England Whig anxieties, Lincoln contended that the Mississippi slaveholder would foster freedom and adhere to basic Whig principles The Whig Party, who portrayed Taylor as a loyal slaveholder in the South and as an anti-slavery maverick in the North, tried to play both sides in pushing forth another “war hero” as their candidate. Combating the rival Free Soilers’s appeal to a section of the Whig constituency, Lincoln maintained that although “General Taylor” was “a slaveholder” he nevertheless would “do more to prevent the extension of slavery than any other man whom it is possible to elect, therefore we go for Taylor.”

Millard Fillmore, nominated for Vice President in order to balance the ticket, immediately tried to dampen southern fears that he was against slavery. He was at pains to convince them that while he was actually against slavery he would not ever actually advocate any real policies to impact it. He beat back a Democratic charge that he had insisted that Congress had the power to halt the interstate slave trade calling it an outright lie. Ultimately he retreated to the position that while he was against slavery, he maintained that Congress had no constitutional right to interfere with it as it was the state’s right to perpetuate or eliminate the institution. Still, the heat from the ticket’s supporters in the South was relentless prompting the “Rough and Ready Clubs,” Taylor’s campaign organization, to issue a statement that “the charge of Abolitionism recklessly advanced against Millard Fillmore” by “unscrupulous partisan opponents” was “for the purpose of exciting sectional prejudices against him” and “has no foundation whatever in truth . . . .”

President Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor, 12th President

1849 to 1850

Birth:November 24, 1784 Barboursville, Virginia

Death: July 9, 1850

Education: None

Religion: Episcopalian

Profession: Soldier, Planter

Political Party: Whig

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Slaveowner, pro-slavery Politician

Secondary Form of Relationship with African-Americans: None

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Zachary Taylor, May 31, 1999.

William Ballard Preston felt that Zachary Taylor’s candidacy could head off a sectional collision over slavery. “General Taylor beyond doubt is the man for the crisis. He is sound on the slave question. He is not embarrassed by it.” Yet, in the aftermath of the campaign in which Whigs said one thing in the South and another in the North, slaveholders were disappointed in Taylor. The campaign of 1848 pitting Taylor against Michigan Democrat Lewis Cass had been marked by a silence on the subject of slavery by the two leading presidential candidates. Despite the fact that during the campaign in the South Taylor was held by supporters to be a defender of the South and slavery’s “rights” even before officially taking office President-elect Taylor privately urged the white settlers in California and New Mexico to draft constitutions for statehood, including or excluding slavery. His plans to make California a free state and his support for the Wilmot Proviso alienated his southern supporters and provided fuel for his long-standing opponents.

Taylor sought to bolster national unity by ignoring sectional controversies that were progressively polarizing the nation. Writing to Jefferson Davis, his former son-in-law, in the spring of 1848 that:

. . . this Wilmot question should never have been agitated, nature has so arranged mtters as regards the ceded territory, which will prevent the existence of Slavery in any portion of it; . . .this proviso was gotten up with no other object but to array the North against the South, & I much fear its injurious effect before it [is] finally disposed of . . .

Taylor could tolerate the discussion of slavery in the North, but within strict limits. Taylor maintained that when the North went “beyond the point where resistance becomes right and proper,” the South must “act promptly, boldly and decisively, with arms in their hands if necessary, as the Union in that case will be blown to atoms, or will be no longer worth preserving.” Indeed, Taylor’s son, Richard, having previously managed his father’s plantation, became a renown lieutenant general for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

During the 1848 presidential campaign Taylor’s experiences with blacks during the fight to despoil the Seminoles of their Florida territory was cited as evidence of his fairness. According to letters sent by General Taylor, he told his Native American “guides” to assure the blacks who lived with the Seminoles that he would work to “have any slaves who may have intermarried with the Indian Negroes purchased on reasonable terms & made free if they could raise the funds necessary.” Reportedly, Taylor’s efforts enabled three to four hundred blacks to avoid a return to enslavement and join the forced march of the Seminole to their new “homes” in Arkansas.

After war broke out with Mexico, Taylor was dispatched to the front. Routing a far larger Mexican force at Palo Alto, Texas, Taylor quickly achieved fame in the war. Fighting alongside his future-son-in-law Jefferson Davis, Taylor defeated General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana at Buena Vista. While Taylor was pessimistic with regard to the revival of slavery on the very territory where Mexicans had abolished it, he remained a die-hard defender of the institution. Writing to the future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Taylor declared, “So far as slavery is concerned, we of the South must throw ourselves on the Constitution & defend our rights under it to the last, & when arguments will no longer suffice we will appeal to the sword, if necessary to do so. I will be the last to yield an inch.” Defiantly, he wrote that slavery had become a volatile question as a result of “the intemperate zeal of the fanatics of the North, and the intemperate zeal of a few politicians of the South.” Taylor had perhaps John C. Calhoun in mind with the latter reference.

Taylor and his running mate Millard Fillmore defeated Lewis Cass and General William O. Butler in the 1848 presidential election. The Democratic Party platform had opposed any federal intervention with respect to slavery. Taylor, however, was even more stridently proslavery, and had no past connections with notions such as “popular sovereignty,” which left the question of slavery to the will of a territory’s settlers at the time of statehood as the Michiganer Cass did.

President Zachary Taylor, however, died five days after consuming an excessive amount of cherries and milk on the fourth of July 1850. Vice-President Millard Fillmore assumed office in mid-July 1850. While ostensibly not as expansion-oriented and more willing to compromise the Southern slaveholding interests than many other Southern politicians of the era, Taylor was nevertheless a die-hard defender of slavery to the end. He was willing to allow new free-soil states such as California and New Mexico to enter the Union reasoning that the soil and climate were unsuitable for slavery. In a manner similar to Madison, and other Founders, Taylor urgently sought compromise and wanted to remove slavery from the agenda of the United States in order to stabilize it. With this blanketing silence, the cries, sufferings, and protests of slaves would go unheard giving the system a new lease on life. Unfortunately for Taylor and the others this was not to be.