History turns on mere moments and incidents: as much as there is a slow long progress towards social improvement and justice, all it takes in one bad day / one weird day / one WTF day to send the flow of history down the wrong trouser leg of Time.
Writers call them "What If" moments. Some are real doozys: "What if Winston Churchill had been killed in that car accident in New York in the early 1930s?" "What if the Dutch held onto New Amsterdam?" "What if the Beatles accepted Saturday Night Live's offer to do a reunion show?" There's a ton of "What Ifs" surrounding World War II, both because of the enormity of the events and because there were so many close calls and bizarre coincidences.
And then there's this one: What If Zachary Taylor, President of the United States during the crises of 1850, hadn't died in office?
Taylor was the succeeding President to Polk, the second Whig to be elected to the high office and technically the second to hold it since Tyler was really a Democrat at heart, the fiend. Taylor came into office a military hero, a career general dating back to the War of 1812, and a man of certainty in an era of conflicting concerns.
As noted last week, Polk's administration had its successes but also its consequences. The expansionist movement pushing the nation's borders all the way out to the Pacific Ocean placated a good number of Americans but horrified many more. Because the ones who pushed for war to take land from Mexico tended to be Southerner pro-slavery politicians, hence the horrified reaction of the anti-slavery movement in the North and Midwest.
Slavery wasn't supposed to have survived into the 1840s, you see. Back in the day of writing up the Constitution, the economic models just didn't support slavery: costs were high and profits low. There was no singular cash crop that benefited from cheap labor on the scale to keep slavery as a thing. While the contemporaries weren't about to give it up - yes, racism is a factor - they figured they could put a deadline on it, especially regarding the shipment of slaves via overseas trade and that would dry up the slave market.
What changed was the cotton gin. Creating a relatively cheap means of harvesting cotton fibers easy to ship off to the budding steam factories of the the Industrial Revolution to convert into clothes and goods, the gin gave the southern states the cash crop that made slave-owners millionaires. Now they had a way to make slavery profitable. But because of the nature of cotton - a ground-consuming crop that needed more and more fresh land - those slave-owners needed to expand... and the deals made with northern politicians who viewed slavery as an evil had trapped slavery in a confined spot (south of the Missouri border per the 1820 Missouri Compromise).
The solution for the slavery forces was to grab all the land south of Missouri. This meant annexing Texas, and then war with Mexico to get as much of that nation as well. They even staged privatized military incursions (called "filibusters") into Central America on practically a yearly basis.
The overt attempts at expanding slavery didn't sit well with the anti-slavery Northerners. There had already been a few decades of cultural and geopolitical divide between North and South. The results of the Mexican-American War accelerated the radicalization of both sides to where Nullification was no longer the Word Of The Day, it was Secession. And that brought up the first stirrings of a potential civil war.
Into this maelstrom Zachary Taylor got himself nominated as the Whig candidate in 1848. Practically unique among candidates, Taylor was someone with no elective experience at all running for the highest office of the land. Even George Washington spent time in the Virginia Assembly. Nearly every other President had been a governor or congressman or senator. Taylor: no experience. Being a long-serving General made him experienced with some governmental duties, but that was about it. He literally had no public opinion about anything until he was nominated by the Whigs.
On the one hand, it made it easy for him to win: no opinions meant he had no track record that would offend potential voters. On the other, it made him a true wild card with a Congress that was quickly becoming a house divided.
It also makes it hard to determine his Character heading into the office. A legislative or political history could give historians a sense of if the man be Active or Passive, Positive or Negative. Taylor's lack of an agenda reeked of being Passive-Negative, for example.
His actual performance in office suggests Taylor was Active-Negative.
Taylor may not have had any opinions entering office but his nature had been well-developed by then and opinions formed fast and fierce. As a general of the nation's armies, he didn't think in terms of States Rights he though in terms of Union. His experience fighting in the western territories claimed as a result of the Mexican-American War showed him the new lands were incompatible with slavery's key crop of cotton. Above all, his experience working in a chain of command, where decisions and implementations were all top-down making him a rather Uncompromising leader, the primary trait of an A-N.
Taylor in office proved that Uncompromising behavior as the situation between South and North grew worse over the new territories of California and New Mexico. The discovery of GOLD in California by late 1848 led to a population boom in 1849: literally overnight the territory gained enough people to petition for statehood. Problem was, a vast majority of the population were Free-Staters (anti-slavery) and their proposed state government was Free, devastating the hopes of the Southerners who hoped to make the new territories pro-slavery. In response, Texas tried to claim the New Mexico territory for their own to ensure it would end up Slave-State.
Taylor would have none of it. He argued that the deal with Mexico had the United States purchasing that land and thus it was under federal administration. When the pro-slavery forces argued the point, Taylor made it clear: He would personally lead troops into New Mexico (as Commander-in-Chief it was allowable) and "hang any man taken in treason."
By 1850 the nation was close to civil war.
Congress still had the likes of John C. Calhoun (the bastard) pushing for slavery and States Rights, but it also had the likes of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and while Clay and Webster were pro-Union they were also pro-compromise. They worked out a new Compromise package to replace the Missouri Compromise: the new deal would allow California in as a Free State, which also gave the anti-slavery forces in the Senate a one-state imbalance over the pro-slavery states; an end to the slave trade in Washington DC but not slavery itself; formation of Utah and New Mexico territories that would not be allowed to pass any internal legislation about slavery one way or another; paying off Texas' claim to New Mexico with $10 million; and instituting a Federal Fugitive Slave Act that compelled law officers in Free states to arrest and ship back any suspected fugitive slaves to Slave states.
Taylor refused to support the Compromise of 1850. Although a slave-owner himself he didn't see the value in spreading it elsewhere and even actively campaigned for California and Utah territories to submit Free-State constitutions. In some respects he was right: at this point in the nation's history slavery was no longer an issue able to be compromised. While little documentation survived about Taylor's reservations against Clay's compromise efforts, Taylor had to have seen the way the nation was dividing over the issue. And as a staunch Unionist, Taylor had to know what was coming. He spoke against treason often and he spoke against "dissolution" of the nation.
It was in this environment that Taylor suddenly fell ill and died, in summer of 1850. Soon after his death the Compromise of 1850 passed. And if Taylor had left any predictions, it probably would have noted that the compromising solved nothing: the Southerners pushed even harder for more slave lands and more rights to own slaves; and the Fugitive Slave Act would become poison to the North, inciting them to even bolder acts of rescuing slaves from the South and helping them into Canada.
I mentioned last week how Taylor is the Ur-source for Presidential Conspiracy Theories. In a nation like ours, conspiracy theories is a cottage industry: conspiracies about what happened to our nation's leaders is like caviar. The fact that Taylor died at just the moment where his uncompromising nature meant civil war starting in 1850 (and not 1860) is too juicy a "What If" moment to overlook. That the stated cause of death - a combination of heat stroke and unsanitary drinking water (or milk) with a bad batch of cherries - sounds so bizarre to modern ears helped stir up a sizable interest in a possible assassination by poisoning.
There's been some exhuming of Taylor's body to find traces of arsenic (nope), and there's been a couple of not-so-plausible suspects and questionable interpretations of history (expected), but that's been about it. Taylor otherwise didn't leave much of a legacy other than his staunch Unionist stance at a troubling moment in American History. His Activist pushes to balance the post-war budget with higher tariffs, building of a railroad to connect the Eastern masses to the wide open West, and expanding a federal office to cover Agriculture did not come to fruition during his tenure.
It's a tempting "What If?": what if the United States had its civil war ten years earlier, before the advancements with weaponry made war more lethal and before the availability of railroad and telegraph? What if the European nations were more inclined to help the South because of the near-monopoly hold the South had with its cotton supply (by 1860 England had planned ahead and developed Egypt and India as alternate cotton sources)?
I can leave that to the fiction writers. Right now, I have to worry about getting my 400th post in for Monday. Prepare for a change, people... :)
Next on the Presidential Character stop: He deserves better recognition from history than a poorly-drawn poorly-written cartoon strip about a wingnut duck.