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How To Make It To The White House Without Really Trying
President Polk, a Democrat, needed a commander to win his war with Mexico, but all the good generals were Whigs. Now, could the winning general steal the Presidency from the party? As a matter of fact, he did.
June 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 4
Assuming that Congress would declare war and that the city of Monterrey, some 250 miles to the west, would be his target, he began preparations. In the absence of definite instructions from Washington, however, it was hard to commit himself with single-minded intensity.
He neither expected nor wished to take command of American land operations against Mexico. Rather, he wrote his son-in-law, Robert Wood, in charge of the hospital at Point Isabel, his great desire was to be relieved entirely so that he could retire to his plantation at Baton Rouge. His insistent luck, however, was not going to let him escape.
In Washington, Congress on May 11 and 12 had declared war and had authorized Polk to recruit up to 50,000 twelve-month volunteers. The inevitable next question was the selection of a supreme commander. Secretary of War Marcy pointed to the logical candidate, Winfield Scott, six feet four inches tall and majestic of mien, the only major general in the Army of the United States. Polk, an intensely partisan Democrat, demurred. Scott, a Whig, was ambitious to be President. At the Whig nominating convention of 1839 he had been a strong contender to be that party’s candidate. Success in war might well transform him from an also-ran into a dangerous competitor. Polk wanted someone less unsettling, but on canvassing the small list of available generals, he could find no one who was an avowed Democrat. Faced by that vacuum, he yielded reluctantly and on May 13 appointed Scott to top command.
According to the reminiscences of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, Polk wanted a small war, “not large enough to make military reputations.” A small war meant a primarily defensive war. The strategy which Polk and his Cabinet evolved centered on seizing northern Mexico as quickly as possible, blockading the enemy’s principal ports, and then sitting tight until the bankrupt Mexicans agreed to sell the United States the territory Polk wanted.
Three drives were to implement that concept. Stephen Watts Kearny led one column of invaders from the Missouri River toward New Mexico and California. Another, commanded by General John E. Wool, was to rendezvous at San Antonio, Texas, and march across almost totally unknown deserts to Chihuahua. The third and biggest force, 14,000 men ranged around a nucleus of Taylor’s battle-tested regulars, was to be led by Scott in person against Monterrey.
Instead of riding forthwith to the battlefield, Scott settled down in Washington to learn what he could about Mexican terrain and to work out procedures for training, equipping, and transporting the raw recruits who would be his principal strength. Polk, who had never wanted Scott in command, instantly grew nervous. This was the time for action! Through Marcy he prevailed on Congress to pass a bill allowing him to appoint, without review, new generals to command the assembling volunteers. Scott regarded the move as a scheme to lift some Democratic wheel horse into power over him. Quarrels blossomed. In exasperation Scott wrote Marcy, “I do not desire to place myself in the most perilous of positions:—a fire upon my rear, from Washington, and the fire in front from the Mexicans.”
Polk chose to regard the hasty remark as insolent. While he was simmering, dispatches reached Washington about Taylor’s victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Bells pealed, whistles shrilled. Taking advantage of Old Rough and Ready’s whirlwind popularity, Polk on May 25 removed Scott from command in the field, despite the general’s grovelling apologies, and named Taylor in his place. The humiliation occurred less than two weeks after Scott’s initial elevation.
Meanwhile, resolutions of gratitude and Latin odes inscribed on crinkly parchment were pouring in on Taylor from dozens of American villages. A Louisiana delegation sailed to Matamoros with a promise of a golden commemorative sword. Back in the United States, Thurlow Weed, a Whig political boss, mused in the columns of his newspaper that Zachary Taylor might make a good Whig candidate in 1848. Reporters hurried south to interview the General. Naively he admitted to them that he had never yet voted in a presidential election, but added that if he had cast a ballot in 1844, it would have gone to the Whigs’ Henry Clay—a remark that set Polk’s political antennae quivering afresh.
Robert Wood had constituted himself a clipping bureau and diligently forwarded to his father-in-law batches of flattering editorials. In June, Weed transmitted to Old Rough and Ready certain unofficial feelers about his proposed candidacy. Taylor snorted. Neither Polk nor Scott, he answered on the twenty-first, need worry about his interfering with them in a quest for that high office, “which I would decline if proffered & I could reach it without opposition.”