Among the best political letters Taylor ever wrote, containing his campaign goals and pledges, and providing important insight into his mind in the months leading up to his election as president in 1848.
He is humbled by his nomination: “That a convention representing nearly every State in the Union, numbering among its members so many Sages & Fathers of the Land during a state of high party times & feelings, should have nominated me an humble individual personally unknown to most of them, as a...
He is humbled by his nomination: “That a convention representing nearly every State in the Union, numbering among its members so many Sages & Fathers of the Land during a state of high party times & feelings, should have nominated me an humble individual personally unknown to most of them, as a suitable person to rule over them & the Country, without exacting promises or pledges of any kind is an honor I did not expect & fear I did not merit; for by doing so they manifested at least a confidence in my honesty, truthfulness, integrity & patriotism which has never been surpassed or truly equaled in this or any other country, since the days of the immortal Washington…”
Taylor offers his assessment of his Whig rival, Clay: "No one can entertain a higher opinion of Mr. Clay's great abilities, qualifications & claims on the country than I do…had there been anything like a certainty that he could have been elected, he would no doubt have been the nominee of said convention, instead of myself…a large majority in that case would have preferred him to anyone else…I have been for some time & still entertain the opinion that he Mr. Clay could not have been elected…”
Henry Clay was always the great hope of the Whig Party, with none less than Abraham Lincoln calling him his "beau ideal of a statesman.” He ran for president in 1824, 1832 and 1844, the last two times as their nominee. But although he came close in 1844, he never succeeded in getting elected. The very closeness of the 1844 election led Clay to set his sites on 1848, when he was convinced he could win. With that year’s presidential election upon him, in February and March he made a triumphal tour of the east to promote his candidacy. He was honored with great popular receptions in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, and on his way back to Kentucky he was received with a huge and enthusiastic crowd in Pittsburgh. But after three losses, more and more Whigs looked to find another nominee.
Zachary Taylor, a cousin of James Madison, joined the U.S. Army at age 24 and spent virtually the rest of his life in the armed forces. He fought against the Indians during the War of 1812, rising to the rank of major, and for the next 16 years served at various frontier posts doing similar duty. Promoted to colonel in 1832, he led a regiment in the Black Hawk War. He participated in the Seminole Wars of the late 1830’s, winning promotion to brigadier general as well as the nickname Old Rough and Ready. Taylor was then placed in command of the military department of the Southwest, a hot spot because of its proximity to the new Republic of Texas. In 1845, President Polk, pursuing his policy of expansion, ordered him to occupy Texas after its annexation to the United States was approved, and to defend it against a threatened Mexican invasion. The Mexican War ensued, in which Taylor won important victories at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey and Buena Vista. These successes brought Taylor widespread acclaim, and he was courted by both the Whig and Democratic parties for the November 1848 presidential election. He soon indicated his sympathy with the Whigs.
All through the beginning of 1848, the Whigs held meetings that acclaimed Taylor as their choice for the party’s presidential nomination. They tapped him because his long military record would appeal to northerners, while his ownership of slaves would lure southern votes, and his stance stressing national unity might appeal to both. The potential candidate, though he clearly sympathized with the Whigs, was not enthused about running. By the spring, however, he had been convinced to accept the nomination that would surely be tendered to him when the Whig convention met in June. The Taylor family tradition relates that he reluctantly agreed to accept the nomination when convinced it was for the good of the country. In June the Whig convention formalized his nomination. His campaign did not dwell on the details of matters in controversy, instead stressing that he would be a national rather than a regional president and that principle would prevail over politics. As his biographer, K. Jack Bauer states, “Taylor viewed himself as a non-partisan figure attracting support from all parties,” whether they wanted slavery, which in practice was a pro-southern position.
Autograph Letter Signed, 4 pages, Baton Rouge, LA, July 17, 1848, to Colonel John A. Watkins, a friend and political ally. “Dear Sir, Your highly esteemed & interesting letter of the 7th inst. this moment reached me offering me your kind congratulations on my success before the Philadelphia convention for which please accept my most cordial thanks, as well as for the interest you take in my reaching the high office for which said convention recommended me to the American people as a suitable candidate at the upcoming election for the Presidency in November next.
“No one can entertain a higher opinion of Mr. Clay’s great abilities, qualifications & claims on the country than I do, for the first office in its gift, & had there been anything like a certainty that he could have been elected, he would not doubt have been the nominee of said convention, instead of myself as I have satisfied a large majority in that case would have preferred him to anyone else; at any, I had no wish to have been in his way, preferring greatly his occupying the presidential chair to doing so myself as well as many others of the distinguished civilians of the country, for I can again truly say I have no aspirations for said office; but I have been for some time & still entertain the opinion that he Mr. Clay could not have been elected & had he been again brought before the country as a candidate the effect would have been the perpetuating the present party in power on the Country & which still may be the case, the effects of which in my humble opinion will have the effect of undermining the purity of our glorious institutions, & that too at no distant day, in such a way that there will be but little left of them other than in name; I presume therefore the question with the convention was not as to who ought to be selected as a candidate, but who could be elected with the greatest certainty, who would arrest the downward tendency of our national affairs, & bring the government back to its original purity as in the days of our first Presidents.
“No one can be more deeply impressed than I am with the distinction conferred on me by that intelligent pure & patriotic assembly in nominating me as a candidate for the first office in the gift of a great & free people. I may well say the first in the world; yet, I can assure you I felt neither pride or exultation when I received information of the honor conferred on me, which was brought by telegraph to Memphis & reached me at Cypress Grove by Steam boat soon after it was made, nor have I done so up to the present moment; & not doubt I would have been more elated at the time had I been informed that the Convention instead of myself had taken up Mr. Clay or someone else of the many distinguished civilians of the country. My indifference as regards this matter may be owing to the prospects of my reaching that high station, & as the time approaches from my entering on the highly important responsible duties connected with the same…besides I can not feel regret at Mr. C failing to get the nomination as he will doubtless be greatly disappointed which I fear he will not bear up against with that equanimity at his time of life that might have been calculated over some six or eight years since the nomination was made.
“That a convention representing nearly every State in the Union, numbering among its members so many Sages & Fathers of the Land during a state of high party times & feelings, should have nominated me an humble individual personally unknown to most of them, as a suitable person to rule over them & the Country, without exacting promises or pledges of any kind is an honor I did not expect & fear I did not merit; for by doing so they manifested at least a confidence in my honesty, truthfulness, integrity & patriotism which has never been surpassed or truly equaled in this or any other country, since the days of the immortal Washington, for which I do not possess language to express my sense of the obligation but will do all in power to deserve & retain their good opinion, of which I am duly grateful & which can never be forgotten.
“I have accepted their nomination & altho I cannot hope to meet their expectations, as well as yours & other friends, should the good people think proper to confirm what the convention has recommended I hope to discharge the important duties connected with my position in such a way as to merit the good opinion of all parties for at least the purity of my intentions, & my errors will be attributed to the head & not to the heart; & should I be so fortunate with the aid of my Constitution advisors or addition with the aid of other friends, as to allay in some measure the aspiring of party, & to bring the government back to the principles which guided our first Presidents I will have accomplished all if not more than I hope to do.
Please present me most kindly to your excellent Lady & accept my best wishes for the continued health & prosperity of you & your through a long life. With respect & esteem Your Friend & Servt, Z. Taylor.”
In November 1848 Taylor won the Presidency over Lewis Cass by a 163 to 127 electoral vote. As President, he quickly found himself holding the hot potato of how to deal with slavery in the new U.S. territories obtained from Mexico. Taylor was unique among the chief executives of his era, and therefore in a unique position to address the problem; being a Southerner slaveholder who defended the institution where it was, but who actively sought an accommodation that would satisfy the North. Thus did he intend to put his non-partisionship into practice. Feeling that slavery was inappropriate for the western territories, he supported organizing all the former Mexican lands into the territories of California and New Mexico, and bringing them into the Union immediately as free states. He also opposed a new fugitive slave law. Some Southerners felt betrayed and threatened to secede, and Congress worked on a series of bills ultimately called the Compromise of 1850, which would allow the expansion of slavery. Taylor stated that he would veto the bills, and telling the potential rebels that he would “command the army in person and hang any man taken in treason.” Then fate intervened, and Taylor died on July 9, 1850. His successor supported the Compromise of 1850, and its measures were signed into law. Taylor's death was such a victory for Southern secessionists that for well over a century many people thought they had poisoned him (in 1991 his body was exhumed, and his hair tested for traces of arsenic. No significant amount of poison was found).
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