Why Did Zachary Taylor Oppose the Compromise of 1850?

Instructor: Logan Thomas

Logan has taught college courses and has a master's degree in history.

U.S. President Zachary Taylor served during a divisive debate over the issue of slavery. In this lesson, we will learn why Taylor opposed the Compromise of 1850.

A Nation on the Brink of War

By the 1850s, the United States had teetered on the edge of civil war for decades. Division over slavery and regional rivalry had plagued the Federal Government almost since the country's inception.

Already a war hero from his service during the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848, Zachary Taylor won the presidency while seemingly having little interest in politics and took office during one of the most divisive eras in American history. The hard questions facing the nation after gaining Mexico's Northern Territories boiled down to whether or not the country would expand slavery.

Zachary Taylor
Taylor

Taylor rejected any compromise with southern states and fought to prevent slavery from expanding into the western territories.

Background

As more western land opened for settlement, first through treaties or wars with Native American tribes and later from the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Southern planters moved west and brought the institution of slavery with them.

Settlers moved west in hopes of profiting from the fertile soil and vast amounts of land
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As territories applied for statehood, a fierce debate raged on the inclusion of slavery. Some believed new states had the right to choose the legality of slavery. However, politicians demanded a balance of slave and free states in the Union to avoid one side becoming stronger than the other. The vast western lands gained as a result of the Mexican-American War ensured the slavery debate would continue.

An Uninterested President?

From his time in uniform, Taylor had gained a great sense of nationalism and pride in the United States. As debate continued regarding the fate of lands gained from Mexico, many wondered what the new president had in mind for the expansive territories of the West. Since Taylor was a slave owner, most Southerners believed the president would open up the western regions for slavery. By the time he took office, however, Taylor was against the addition of more slave states. To avoid a deepening regional crisis in the country, Taylor had a plan for the new territories when he resigned from the military in January 1849 and traveled to Washington.

On the Fast Track to Statehood

The California Gold Rush in the late 1840s and 1850s saw the territory's population exploding. Rather than become mired in a compromise with the southern states, President Taylor wanted California to bypass the territory status and become a free state. He urged settlers in New Mexico to do the same.

Political Map of the United States around 1850
Map

Taylor hoped this tactic would avoid a lengthy debate in Congress and maintain the integrity of the nation. He tired of threats from southern politicians claiming they would leave the Union if slavery were outlawed in the new western territories. After experiencing warfare, Taylor believed the secession of southern states would only result in violence and suffering. When southern politicians threatened to leave the Union, Taylor responded by claiming he would lead an army to crush any rebellion. As the debate raged over what to do with the western territories, he only became more opposed to compromising with the southern states.

By October of 1849, California settlers drafted a state constitution outlawing slavery and applied for statehood. The delicate ratio of slave to free states in the government was upset by this development, pushing calmer politicians to search for a compromise.

A Compromising Situation

Esteemed politician Henry Clay, known as the Great Compromiser from his previous work in times of crisis, recognized the debate was spiraling out of control and began searching for a resolution. Taylor opposed Clay's proposal and continued claiming he would use military force rather than compromise.

Henry Clay
Clay

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