Zachary Taylor's Failures

Instructor: Angelica Goldman

Angelica has taught college and high school history and social sciences, has a master's degree in history, and is a licensed FL teacher.

This lesson provides a look into the failures of American President Zachary Taylor. President Taylor's biggest mistake occurred before his death in office, and we will examine how this further pushed the country toward an inevitable Civil War.

Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor

Presidents don't always do well. Poor Zachary Taylor came to the Presidency both apathetic and unprepared. He hadn't really wanted to be the President in the first place, but friends and admirers of his military service persuaded him to run for office on the Whig ticket.

The now-extinct Whig party was the successor to the Federalist Party, so it was devoted to the Union. Its successor would end up being the modern day Republican Party, which had its roots in the anti-slavery movement.

Taylor wasn't exactly thrilled to hear he had won, but he set out to do his best. His brief term was marked by the slavery vs abolitionist (or anti-slavery) crisis unfolding in American society and politics. And so he made his one main goal the preservation of the Union, which he firmly believed was vital to uphold.

The Campaign Poster for Taylor and Fillmore
Taylor Campaign Poster

Unfortunately, President Taylor ended up failing spectacularly to prevent the coming Civil War. Not only that, but several of his decisions would actually speed up its dawning. President Taylor was a capable man who, despite his inexperience and lack of interest in the job, might have turned it all around using the one trait he had going for him - a strong sense of duty. Taylor was ultimately given no opportunity to rectify his errors in judgement. He became ill and died 16 months into holding the office of President.

The Mexican Cession Crisis

Though he was a Southerner and slave-owner himself, President Taylor proved to be as indifferent to the expansion of slavery as he was to many other political issues of his day. Upon discovering this, many Southerners who had voted for him on the presumption that he would be a staunch defender of their institution, were naturally quite upset. Talk had already begun in the Southern States of seceding, and this only served to further inflame them. Enter major crisis number one.

The Mexican Cession was territory that Mexico had ceded to the United States following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, minus the Texan claims. These lands gained by the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 would eventually become the modern States of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona.

The Territorial Area of the Mexican Cession
The Mexican Cession

The question of these potential future states' slave statuses was already bitterly dividing Congress. Why did they care so much? Well, prior to gaining these new territories, the Southern slaveholding states and Northern abolitionist states had just about an even split in Congress. The South was deeply concerned that if new anti-slavery states were admitted, eventually Congress would vote to abolish slavery in all of the Union. Add that Northerners were actively aiding fugitive slaves in escaping and starting new lives up North, and you have an angry, boiling pot of emotion just ready and waiting to boil over.

Into the fray steps Taylor, who goes out there and says he thinks ALL the new states can come in as no-slavery states because he considered slavery to be economically infeasible in those territories, and he figured ''why bother?'' Obviously, that attitude added fuel to an already blazing fire.

As the South continued to threaten to secede, the inept Taylor grew increasing frustrated and increasingly more inclined to side with the Northern push to ban slavery in any federal territories, known as the Wilmot Proviso. In his only State of the Union address, Taylor continued to hammer at the South for spouting these secessionist views. Alas, Southern legislators only saw that the administration was supporting the admittance of two more free or anti-slavery states, and became even more aggrieved at what they perceived as a threat to their continued slaveholding way of life.

The Compromise of 1850

To Taylor's relief, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Stephen Douglas, three of Congress' most prominent legislators, began drafting the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise of 1850 was a series of bills (five in all) that attempted to settle the issues between the North and the South, and therefore avoid a potential secession and war.

A Map Showing the Free and Slave States under the Compromise of 1850
Map Depicting Free and Slave States

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