Death in the White House
On July 4 President Zachary Taylor attended Independence Day festivities at the incomplete Washington Monument. It was a very hot day, and the President sat in the sun for more than two hours. During his forty years in the Army, Taylor had learned to brave the elements, so he bore the heat stoically. After the ceremonies the sixty-five-year-old Taylor strolled the banks of the Potomac before returning to the White House very hungry. He dined heartily on cherries, cucumbers, and possibly other fruits or vegetables, washing them down with plenty of cold milk and ice water.
Taylor, who had long been subject to digestive disorders, was not at his best the next day, though he did manage to write two letters and sign some papers. On July 6 the President’s intestinal pains grew worse. His family sent for a doctor, who administered calomel and opium. These provided a respite, but it was only temporary. On July 7 the aches and fever became severe, with brief spells of improvement failing to lift Taylor’s spirits. “In two days I shall be a dead man,” he declared.
At noon on July 9 a messenger brought word of the President’s critical condition to Congress, which immediately adjourned. The cabinet and Vice President Millard Fillmore gravely assembled at the White House as ordinary citizens thronged outside. Late that evening came the dreaded announcement: Zachary Taylor, Old Rough and Ready, who had withstood enemy fire from Fort Harrison, Indiana, in 1812 to Buena Vista in 1847 and led a conquering army across the Mexican desert, had died from eating bad cherries. The official diagnosis was cholera morbus, or what today would be called gastroenteritis.
Once the nation had gotten over its grief, it found itself with a new leader and perhaps a new outlook for resolving the sectional crisis. Despite being a slaveowning planter himself, Taylor had shown little sympathy for Southern concerns. He had favored admitting California and New Mexico as free states and excluding slavery from the rest of the vast new territories acquired in the Mexican War. The new Chief Executive was a New Yorker, the first President besides the Adamses who had never owned a slave. Would he be any more sensitive to the needs of the South? Could he stand up to the leaders of his own Whig party, let alone the Democratic-controlled Congress?
As great as were the political issues that Fillmore faced, a potentially bigger crisis loomed squarely ahead. On the day Taylor died, newspapers were filled with war talk about a border dispute between Texas and New Mexico. Such quarrels were not uncommon in the nineteenth century, and after the occasional stray bullet or two, they were usually settled by negotiation. This one, however, had gotten caught up in the same dispute that was poisoning virtually every other public question, for Texas was a slave state and New Mexico might be made free.
While Texas trained troops to defend the disputed area, a Richmond paper warned that the quarrel might “involve the whole Union in the dire calamity of civil war.” The threat was real, for many Southern hawks advocated coming to the aid of the Texans if the U.S. Army opposed them. It was easy to imagine General Taylor, the conqueror of Santa Anna, standing firm against the rebellion—even leading the Army in person, as he had threatened to do. But Millard Fillmore, a Buffalo lawyer? If he wanted to have a country left to preside over, he would have to learn his new job very fast.