Term in Office: 12th president, 1849-1850
Political Party: Whig
Home State: Louisiana
Congratulations, friends. We have officially made it to the most absurd entry in my Ranking the Presidents project. Why do we even bother ranking Zachary Taylor? I, and historically most president rankings, exclude William Henry Harrison, who served a mere 31 days before perishing. James Garfield served a little bit longer, six months, but he too is left out of the fun. Zachary Taylor was in office for just 17 months, but this seems to be enough to include him in the pantheon.
This makes ranking Taylor along the same lines as those who got a whole term very frustrating. Much like John Kennedy, our discussion of Taylor gravitates towards “what could have been” rather than “what actually happened”- both lived in periods of tentative hope that soon degenerated into tumult.
Consider a few cases. One amateur reviewer of presidents under the moniker of cd strand wrote: “A simple man, an authentic southern gentleman who, had he lived, would not have tolerated secession, according to him. Wisely he opposed the Compromise of 1850, thinking instead that while slavery was a part of the constitution it ought not to be extended under any circumstance. His death was a tragedy for the nation as his inept successors were unable to stem the slide toward civil war.” John Eisenhower, Ike’s son, wrote a short book on Taylor for Arthur Schlesinger’s series on the U.S. presidents. Eisenhower queried, “Could he have prevented the tragic civil war that broke out a decade later?…we can only guess at the answer, but we do know that his contemporaries, Democrats and Whigs alike, generally viewed his death as a national calamity. I personally can come to no other conclusion.”
Is this conventional wisdom- that Taylor was a proto-unionist who might have charted a wiser course and averted war- true? Yes and no, but mostly no. There is a temptation to see a way out of the sectional tension because of who Taylor was. He was a deep Southern plantation owner reasonably popular in the North, a man with a national following because of his humble, simple mannerisms and military skill. In the field, he treated subordinates with respect, and put on none of the airs of more pompous generals, most notably Winfield Scott. On paper, how could this guy fail?
In the idealization of who Taylor was, we lose track of what he did, or rather, what he did not do. Experience and background matters. Many generals have become presidents, but many of them held some kind of office before (Jackson and William Henry Harrison had both served briefly as senators.) Grant, Eisenhower, and Washington all held a peculiar kind of generalship that required a politician’s tact and worked closely with the president, or in Washington’s case, the Continental Congress, giving them insights into how executive power worked in a civilian context. Taylor had none of these advantages. Taylor lacked any grounding in American politics whatsoever beyond having a set of vague but earnest political opinions and a number of friends who championed his candidacy. He never registered to vote, even when he was on the ballot, and when mail arrived at his manse informing him that the Whigs had nominated him for the presidency, he absent-mindedly refused to pay postage and never sent a response. Zachary Taylor was more of an ingenue than any other person who had taken the office.
It is easy to see why he was chosen by his party. By 1848, the Whig Party was badly divided, especially in the contentious matter of the expansion of slavery. Taylor, by 1848, was “Old Rough and Ready”, the hero of Buena Vista, and a blank slate. Or more accurately, like Daniel Boone or Davey Crockett, Taylor was a blank screen onto which one could project any virtue, and nearly any policy, that one wished. Moreover, the Whigs had realized that they had won their only presidential race in 1840 by putting forth a popular military hero who did not have a record that could be used against him. Why not try the strategy again? Taylor beat the unimpressive Lewis Cass of Michigan in a narrow vote; Cass, too, had been a general but with a greater carriage of political baggage; he had been the godfather of the concept of “popular sovereignty”, or letting a territory’s voting public decide whether or not to accept slavery.
It is possible that Zachary Taylor could have been exactly the leader that the United States needed in 1850, but didn’t get. Taylor’s rough-hewn mannerisms could cut through bad arguments, detect bullshit, and deflate the ego of any of the second-rate political minds he would have run into in dealing with Congress. History has a peculiar way of seeing simple-hearted fools through, when wiser, cannier and more complicated men and women falter. That Taylor’s daughter was briefly married to Jefferson Davis before she succumbed to malaria adds to the drama and the mystique of his time in office. Still, the learning curve in 1850 was very steep, and it seems unlikely that Taylor had the intelligence or the instincts or the wisdom to curb sectional tension and resolve the twin dilemmas of expansion and slavery that dominated the American conversation.
It is also possible that the Compromise of 1850, a set of bad ideas intricately woven together, from popular sovereignty to fugitive slave laws, would have turned out differently if Taylor, rather than his colorless successor, Millard Fillmore, wielded the veto pen. Taylor threatened to block the compromise if it threatened the concept of union between the states. Exactly what happened then– would the compromise provisions be altered? Would it be passed piecemeal, as in real life, with Taylor determining which parts were signed into law, and which were not?
Unfortunately, the bowl of spoilt cherries and milk that set Taylor’s death in motion in 1850 robbed us of the chance to evaluate his presidency on much more than these interesting counterfactuals. Instead, we are looking at a man with a dangerously low level of political experience, and none of the skills that could have compensated for it. His cabinet was full of obscurities like John Clayton and Robert Meredith who may have been competent at their best, but certainly could not have lent him the expert help that he needed. As blogger Big Mo points out, his cabinet also lacked a heavyweight like Clay who could serve as a useful liaison with Congress, where Taylor had a certain amount of goodwill, but precious few tried and true allies.
At the end of the day, the ledger of “what if” runs against Taylor. Likable and refreshingly unpretentious, he was a novice to American politics. Although he desired to be president of all Americans- not just the South from which he hailed, nor the North that largely elected him, Taylor was not very well equipped to navigate the rough waters that lie ahead. His unionism, his belief in America as a nation, and not a loose alliance of states, commends itself in hindsight, but beyond this, I can’t think of a president more deserving of the “Empty Carriage” category.