October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
The dark troubles of disunion that beset America as mid-century approached called for a man who had slain dragons (or one who appeared to have accomplished something of the sort). So the Whigs, mindful that they had won their one and only presidential election with a military man in 1840, decided to enter the lists with another in 1848. He was an authentic hero, all right: Indian fighter and frontier soldier, victor over the Mexicans at PaIo Alto, at Resaca de la Palma, and—most gloriously—at Buena Vista, where he had conquered Santa Anna and a force outnumbering him four to one. What if he had never voted lor a President? He said he would have voted for Clay, the Whigs’ candidate, in ’44, didn’t he? And if he belonged to no party, what difference did that make? He held strong prejudices, and prejudices were every bit as good as principles. What was even more important from a practical standpoint, he had no personal enemies within the Whig party, as did those veteran campaigners, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.
The electorate—drawn more readily to personalities than to ideas—conjured up its image of a man who could settle all the important problems, and decided that Zachary Taylor fitted the image. Plain, honest, uncomplicated, “Old Rough and Ready” was just about what his nickname suggests; squat and thickset, he made a better appearance on horseback than on foot because his bowed legs were so short. His face was that of a reliable farmer, burned by the Mexican sun and deeply lined by years of exposure to the elements. In Mexico his casual dress had been a source of continuing amusement to the troops: he usually wore what was handy (at Buena Vista it had been an old brown overcoat), and often appeared in a floppy straw hat and a pair of antique gray trousers. Fellow officers once estimated the total value of Zack’s “uniform” at $7.50.
His appeal for the voters, based in part on deeds, stemmed also from the notion that he possessed the power to set the country right. When he did announce himself it was scarcely a resounding statement of principle: “I AM A WHIG,” he proclaimed, “but not an ultra Whig.” Yet that was enough to keep the voters happy; compromise, not extremes, was the order of the day. As James Russell Lowell’s humorous Biglow Papers put it:
When he gave an inaugural address that was one of the shortest in history, “negative and general,” and poorly delivered, the crowd, ever optimistic, cheered him mightily.
In a peculiarly appropriate way, Old Rough und Ready suited the Washington of 1849. A “jumble of magnificence and squalor,” it was then no more than a third- or fourth-rate town with little knots of settlement, dusty streets, and an ugly collection of brick government buildings.
The Executive mansion was of little interest to most foreign visitors, who thought it lacked splendor and taste, but Americans considered it their own, and roamed through the large public rooms almost at will, admiring the mirrored walls and flowered carpets, not to mention the President and his family. One caller at the White House left this picture of the man who was then in charge of America’s destiny:
“On arriving there, I was at once ushered into the presence of General Taylor, who sat at his desk. The presidential feet rested on another chair … He wore a shirt that was formerly white, but which then looked like the map of Mexico after the battle of Buena Vista. It was spotted and spattered with tobacco juice. Directly behind me, as I was soon made aware, was a cuspidor, toward which the President turned the flow of tobacco juice. I was in mortal terror, but I soon saw there was no danger. With as unerring an aim as the famous spitter in Dickens’s American Notes, he never missed the cuspidor once, or put my person in jeopardy.”
Another visitor thought Taylor singularly unfitted by training, experience, and aptitude for the Presidency; still another said he had not one spark of genius in his soul, and that, while his purposes were honest, “the mass of his knowledge is indeed small enough.” Of his Cabinet appointments, Horace Greeley wrote: “Whenever any one of them shall drop out or be ‘hove over,’ he will sink like a stone and never be heard of again.” In all truth, there was nothing wrong with the homely virtues he possessed except their hopeless inadequacy to the job and to the times. Zachary Taylor’s tragedy was that his fellow Americans confused good intentions with greatness, naÏvely believing that all would be well once he was in the White House. As Francis P. Blair observed of the voters’ taste in Chief Executives: "They have tried Tyler and Polk, and yet the country has not been materially hurt. If two such Presidents cannot injure the nation, nothing can!”
Only sixteen months after taking office, Taylor died (ingloriously, of too much sun, ice water, and raw fruit). And the people mourned, unaware as yet that his short term had begun a decade of unparalleled failure to find a national leader. Not until 1860 did the major parties nominate men capable of greatness. By then it was too late to save the Union.