Saturday, June 30, 2007

Number 12: Zachary Taylor

Years in office: 1849-1850
Pre-service occupations: general, plantation owner
Key events during his administration: California gold rush begins (1849), Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850), Compromise of 1850 (completed just after his death), cornerstone laid for Washington Monument (1850), his death

Presidential rating: Neither successful nor unsuccessful (e.g., right down the middle), and somewhat popular


Old Rough ‘n’ Ready, Zachary Taylor, governed just like his moniker: rough, but ready. Taylor was not a politician, nor was he a highly educated man. His schooling, as it were, came from almost 50 years of fighting Indians and Mexicans—and winning friends with both. A slave owner, Taylor bought a cotton plantation that became his home, but he was no die-hard defender of slavery.

If any man was less prepared for the office of the presidency than Zachary Taylor, I am unaware of who it was. Essentially, the man was a cult of personality: a war hero sought out by the Whigs to be a presidential candidate for no other reason than he was a Whig and a war hero—and an extremely popular one at that. The two previous war heroes elevated to the presidency had some government experience. Taylor had absolutely none.

But as the more popular of the two Whig generals who won the recent unpopular war with Mexico—unpopular to Whigs, that is—Taylor’s fame, appearance and character seemed the perfect antidote to the dour, suspicious and cranky Democrat president, James K. Polk.

Taylor is another one of the “forgotten” presidents between Jackson and Lincoln. Being the second president to die in office has contributed to Taylor’s forgotten status—people remember firsts, but not seconds. His abbreviated term was largely undistinguished, but it wasn’t terrible, either. In fact, Taylor threatened one action that gives further credence to what Lincoln would actually do one decade later.

He wasn’t a brilliant man or a deep thinker; but he was practical, a top-notch general, and his actions in Texas and northern Mexico helped win that war. Much of his life revolved around his career in the military, punctuated by periods as a gentleman farmer (e.g., plantation owner).

So, why in the world did the Whigs choose him to be their standard-bearer in 1848? And better yet, why did he win—and how good were his 16 months in office?

Frontier soldier
Zachary Taylor came of age in Kentucky, and he called Louisville home early in life. He entered the army as an officer before the War of 1812, thanks to his father’s connections. He was actually in William Henry Harrison’s command, but missed the Tippecanoe campaign because he had been called east to testify on some matter.

During the war, Captain Taylor was kept busy with recruiting and manning forts. He saw action on a few occasions against Indian tribes allied with the British. On one occasion, Taylor was in charge of Fort Harrison up the Wabash River, which he successfully defended against superior numbers. Later in the war, he was tasked with an expedition up the Mississippi to establish an outpost at Rock Island, but fierce Indian opposition turned him back.

He was called east to join a new regiment, but the war ended before it was formed. Congress immediately reduced the size of the army, and Taylor, miffed that other officers were promoted over him, resigned and went home to farm—only to be invited back to the Army in 1816 as a major.

Later Taylor would bounce between Louisiana and the upper Mississippi, serving in the Black Hawk War—a sad, misunderstood affair that for want of a translator might have ended peacefully. Rising to colonel, Taylor revealed a certain fussiness in his character, as well as roughness. It’s an odd combination, really. He fussed over his rank—a frequent pastime in the small antebellum army—but actually managed to steer clear of the army politics that bedeviled other officers. Wherever he went, he tried to bring his family. They lived well, but in the field, Taylor would live as roughly as his men.

During this period, Taylor developed a serious disdain for militia and volunteers, considering them worthless as soldiers. Taylor also developed a perchance of disobeying—or, more delicately, ignoring—orders with which he disagreed. For example, when ordered to rejoin his command in Wisconsin while he was in Louisiana on other duties, Taylor took his sweet time, using the excuse of ice on the Mississippi. He never faced disciplinary action for his fudging and hawing, but when it mattered most in Mexico, it almost cost him everything.

His long, dull army career would be punctuated by his service during the Seminole war in Florida, where Taylor would fight—and win—the conflict’s only pitched battle. His actions in Florida actually had a real chance to bring the Seminole war to a conclusion, but the commander-in-chief of the Army came to Florida and literally messed things up. Taylor got so disgusted he demanded a transfer out.

To sum up his army career prior to 1845: he served. It was largely solid, and he earned his rank and respect. He also developed an almost unique skill of detachment when dealing with the various Indian tribes, a skill that served him well as president. Taylor had the ability to deal with Indians as equals, contemporaries, instead of enemies; he could see things from their point of view, and turn potentially bloody situations into peaceful encounters. His diplomatic skills with the tribes averted two different Indian wars when he was president.

But Taylor was in the right place at the right time when in 1845, President Tyler sent him to command the Army of Observation in Louisiana in case of hostilities over the annexation of Texas.

Family and plantation master
Other than gaining senior rank, with its good pay and benefits, Taylor found another bonus from his army life: he set down roots the rich farmland in upper Louisiana. He purchased a plantation and had it managed in absentia.

Taylor was truly interested in the plantation, but unlike other slave owner presidents, he wasn’t a die-hard slave power/states rightist. More on that below.

His family life was for the most part good, as well. His wife, Peggy, loved setting up house wherever duties took him (and she was able to join him). They lived in style whenever they could, too, which may seem odd for an officer on the frontier.

Peggy bore him six children: one son and five daughters. Two daughters died from fever in infancy, and another married Jefferson Davis over her father’s objections. Taylor objected not so much to Davis but to Davis’ profession—an Army officer. Despite his own career, Taylor wished his daughters to marry outside the Army. Davis solved the problem by resigning, and Taylor removed his objections. But the daughter died three months later. Another daughter, Mary, served as White House hostess due to Peggy’s ill health.

The son, Richard “Dick” Taylor, became famous in his own right as a Confederate general.

As with Taylor's pre-war service my intention is not to give a blow-by-blow history, but rather illustrate Taylor's character. He grew angry over slights against him, but this time, someone was definitely out to destroy him. He was calm and deadly in battle and magnanimous when the fighting stopped. Those qualities served him as president, but few historians until late have recognized those qualities in his presidency and given him due credit. (The United States Military Academy's official map of Taylor's Mexican War campaigns is an excellent tool for following the action.)

After the annexation of Texas, Taylor’s renamed Army of Occupation set off by boat and land for Corpus Christi, Texas. His force had about 2,000 men total, all Army regulars, which accounted for about one-fourth of the entire Army at that time. After a period of training, boredom, more training and more boredom, Taylor finally received orders in February 1846 to move south to the Rio Grande, the southern end of Texas but 100 miles inside land that Mexico claimed.

An uneasy feeling settled over the American and Mexican camps during April, with Taylor under the impression—and orders—that he was there to defend American soil from Mexican invasion, and Mexican forces believing Americans were the invaders (they believed the 1836 treaty at San Jacinto, which ended the Texas war of independence, was null and void, and hence Taylor’s starting point at Corpus Christie was the southern extent of American soil). The ball finally went up in early may when a force of 1,600 Mexican soldiers attacked an American patrol, killing 16 Americans. Taylor responded forcefully, per his orders.

By some accounts, Taylor had initially bungled by leaving his supplies mostly unguarded 30 miles away at Port Isabel, while building a largely impregnable fort (Fort Texas) across from Matamoras, but without much supplies. Regardless, Taylor left for the coast for his supplies while leaving a sufficient force at Fort Texas. On the way back, American and Mexican forces collided for the first time, forcing Taylor to cut his way through to Fort Texas.

Taylor won these opening battles of the war—Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma—largely through superior artillery. The Mexicans quit the immediate area and Taylor finally entered what was indisputably Mexican territory after the formal declaration of war.

Militia reinforcements were rushed to Taylor, but it was fall before the two sides seriously clashed again.

Monterrey, crossing the president and Buena Vista
Gen. Taylor crossed the Rio Grande and peacefully occupied Matamoros. He then moved west, eventually investing the Mexican city of Monterrey, where his reinforced army fought a bruising battle against Gen. Ampudia’s numerically superior forces. Once again American artillery proved decisive, as good emplacement allowed American troops access to the fortress city, where heavy hand-to-hand street fighting commence. The bitter battle of Monterrey (Sept. 21-23) was a draw, and cost Taylor 531 casualties to Ampudia’s 367.

Exposed far inside enemy territory, still facing a superior force and with the real probability of one more attack wrecking his army, Taylor negotiated a two-month armistice with the beaten Ampudia in exchange for the Mexican retreat from Monterrey. He let the Mexican army simply withdraw. President Polk exploded in anger when he heard the news, and demanded that Taylor resume hostilities. Taylor had no authority to negotiate an armistice (though Scott’s orders actually said that he could do so if the situation warranted) and believed Taylor should have taken the whole lot prisoner. Regardless of the actual situation thousands of miles away, the cost in blood and the victory, the dour Polk privately raged at Taylor. Publicly, he said nothing, but his feelings were now clear: he had it out for Taylor. Polk would have Gen. Scott command the campaign against Mexico City, and leave Taylor languishing with a depleted force in northeastern Mexico. Polk was becoming aware that, due to Taylor’s successes, he was being thought of as a presidential candidate—and Polk did not like that one bit.

Necessity forced Gen. Scott to strip down Taylor’s army, and place Taylor on the defensive. But Taylor actually ignored the War Department’s orders to return his army to Monterrey and instead occupied Saltillo, a city more favorable than Monterrey. His defense was that a Mexican force was moving to engage him—which, in fact, there was. (Scott and Taylor had believed the Mexicans would move to engage Scott and leave Taylor alone, but they were wrong.) Gen. Santa Anna was heading toward Taylor’s army with at least 20,000 men, and Taylor, having already lost most of his veterans to Scott’s army, now numbered around 4,500—most of them untried volunteers.

He fell back to Buena Vista, and after politely turning down Santa Anna’s demand for surrender, battle was joined Feb. 22-23, 1847. In what really was a near-run thing, Taylor and his subordinates whipped Santa Anna’s forces and scored a stunning victory. American forces suffered 267 dead, 456 wounded and 23 missing, while Mexican forces suffered 549 dead, 1,039 wounded, 1,800 missing and 294 captured. Santa Anna falsely declared victory and went back to Mexico City to prepare to meet the new American threat, but the truth was Taylor had thrashed him soundly, and there were no more clashes in northeastern Mexico for the remainder of the war.

Taylor, however, had fought his last—and greatest—battle.

Fame and the Whig candidate…
Taylor never actively sought the White House. His candidacy was truly grass-roots. Rough and Ready clubs and Taylor clubs began not long after his victories in Texas. Taylor at first was even astonished that he was being considered, and held to his opinion that military men did not belong in the White House.

But when it became clear to him that he was being sidelined in the war for the crime of being a Whig—and for crossing Polk—Taylor let it be known that he was not disallowing the possibility. But, he also said, if a better man were to be nominated—Clay, perhaps—he would support him. Taylor would be perfectly content to spend a few more years in the Army at a quiet post and then retire to his plantation. If duty took him to the White House, so be it. If elected, then he’d serve as best he could. If nominated and not chosen, he’d go home. Taylor really didn’t care that much—definitely not with the fevered intensity of most who seek the office, that is.

But rather than risk backing the aging famed compromiser Henry Clay once more, or someone else who had strong stands on the issues of the day, the Whigs chose the war hero—the public blank slate. Taylor, based solely on his public image, would be their man. After all, it had worked eight years earlier. And with Martin Van Buren gathering disaffected Democrats and some Whigs under the new Free Soil party, promising to draw more Democrats than Whigs, and the Democrats selecting the unexciting Polk ally Senator Lewis Cass, Taylor seemed to be their sure bet to win the White House.

Taylor was counseled by his closed friend Kentucky Sen. John Crittenden, as well as his brother, Colo. George Taylor, to keep his political pronouncements quiet, and after a couple of potential embarrassments, he did.

During the 1848 convention, Clay made a final attempt to get the nomination, but the Whigs determined that the Great Compromiser was finished as a presidential candidate and chose Taylor. Die-hard abolitionist Whigs and Free-Soilers, furious at having to support a slave owner, started their own party and nominated Martin Van Buren as their candidate. Taylor, for his part, didn’t even campaign—both because it was still the custom of the day, as campaigning was done by proxy and through newspapers, but also because he was still on active duty. In the end, the popular Taylor beat the Democrats’ Lewis Cass and Free Soiler Van Buren to become the 12th president of the United States—even though he really didn’t want the job.

…but not a Whig president
The election of Zachary Taylor should stand as the shining example of who not to elect. The Whigs chose Taylor as their standard-bearer because he said he was a Whig. And Taylor had declared he was a Whig…but that was it. He was counseled on keeping his mouth shut on specifics, and told not to give his thoughts on what he believed beyond vague generalities. Many Whigs, therefore, simply assumed Taylor held the same beliefs, and a Whig president would naturally pursue a Whig agenda. Much to their astonishment, embarrassment and horror, Taylor proved to be no Whig (or Democrat, for that matter).

So Taylor simply told the truth as he saw it: he would be a president above party, and be president of the entire nation. He would defend the right of the South to have slavery and he would defend the right of the North to attack it—and he would fight extremists on both sides.

But after the inauguration, when Taylor started making decisions and talking about his plans, it wasn’t what Whigs wanted to hear: Taylor had no intention of bringing back a national bank (Taylor declared it dead) or restoring the tariff to 1842 levels—the two biggest Whig pet causes. Of course, Taylor bears some blame, because he could have told them this beforehand. But they weren’t interested in listening.

Quite simply, by choosing Taylor as their man in 1848 because he was incredibly popular, and not because he really stood rock solidly for major Whig causes, they wrecked their party. The coming fight over slavery, which would rend northern and southern Whigs, sealed the deal. Taylor was, in fact, the last Whig elected president. They would field candidates in 1852, ’56 and ’60, but for all intents and purposes, the party was on the way out and would be dead by the time the cannons roared at Fort Sumter.

Taylor’s cabinet
Taylor’s cabinet would not be a Whig-pleaser, either. They felt that the novice Taylor should have a strong, recognized voice in his cabinet, like Daniel Webster was as secretary of state for Harrison and Tyler. But to their dismay, Taylor chose men below the top tier of public notables. It proved to be a mixed lot. His secretary of state, John M. Clayton, was a nationalist who, with Taylor, would set a course for American interests that would be felt for the next 50 years. But Clayton had too many personal problems to be of too much use.

The best was his attorney general, Reverdy Johnson. His secretary of war, George Crawford, the former Georgia governor, would cause some embarrassment later over an old claim stretching back to the country’s founding. The entire cabinet resigned/was fired after Taylor’s death.

The biggest problem with Taylor’s cabinet is that not one of them had any strong connection with Congress, and Taylor himself did not understand or appreciate the necessity of having allies in Congress. This created such a lack of communication and cooperation between the White House and Congress that Whigs felt alienated. Even Henry Clay noted that:
"I have never before seen such an administration. There is very little co-operation or concord between the two ends of the avenue. There is not, I believe, a prominent Whig in either House that has any confidential intercourse with the Executive.” (K. Jack Bauer, p. 265)
Meanwhile, Democrats sneered that Taylor had chosen a cabinet that could easily control him. But such was not the case. Taylor delegated duties as he had done in the field, and solicited their advice when so desired, but he was his own man. His biographer Elbert Smith writes that:

“Long before he had been elected president, Taylor had stated the basic convictions from which he did not deviate during his brief term in office. If he and most of his cabinet were a harmonious group on important policies, it was because they agreed on what should be done and not because strong advisors had captured the mind of a weak and ignorant president. Indeed, on the subject of Texas and New Mexico, Taylor’s belligerence went far beyond that of his advisors. No one had to let Taylor be Taylor; no one could have kept Taylor from being Taylor. He was neither weak nor modest, and no had always been one of his favorite words.” (Smith, pp. 62-63)
Thousands of office-seekers
The Taylor administration quickly found itself besieged with literally thousands of office-seekers. Except for the 30 days of Harrison, and then the term of the pseudo-Whig Tyler, the Democrats had held the White House since 1829—and hence all of the thousands of appointed offices all across the country. Whigs eagerly awaited the spoils of office: post offices, collectors, judgeships, etc.; and so did Democrats, who believed Taylor when he said he wanted to be a president above party.

Immediately, Taylor was in trouble.

How could he satisfy everyone? In truth, he couldn’t. Taylo
r—like all other presidents—relied on his cabinet members to recommend office-holders, just as he had relied on friends and political patrons to recommend cabinet officials. But the whole process was wearying and dispiriting, and brought false charges of disingenuousness against Taylor.

Some historians have made hay over the fact that Whig and Taylor supporter Abraham Lincoln was overlooked for an office, but in truth the fault lay with Lincoln’s tardiness. And on an interesting note, Democrat Nathanial Hawthorne lost his office, but used his newfound time to write The Scarlet Letter.

A canal treaty 50 years before its time
President Taylor and Secretary of State Clayton pursued a treaty with Britain that laid important groundwork for the next century. It would take much space to explain the background, but essentially, first Polk’s then Taylor’s minister to Nicaragua were searching for a way to gain treaty rights for the construction of a canal in Central America to cut down on the debilitating, expensive and often deadly travel around South America. Britain was the chief rival/obstacle/potential partner, and the nations south of Mexico were still in turmoil following the revolutions from Spanish rule some 20 years earlier.

In the end, Clayton and Sir Henry Bulwer-Lutton negotiated the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, which called for neither party to exercise control over the areas or countries (Nicaragua, Costa Rica, etc.) where a proposed canal could be built, meaning no colonies, forts or anything else that would make one side suspicious of the other’s intents. In other words, strict neutrality. Although disputes over the treaty started almost immediately, it remained generally in force until 1902.

Taylor’s thinking in pressing for a canal and urging the diplomatic groundwork is a stunning achievement for an administration that is usually consigned the status of failure.

The new decade
On James K. Polk’s last day in office, he authorized the creation of the Department of the Interior, taking interior matters away from the Treasury and the Indian Bureau away from the War department. The new department came into being in Zachary Taylor’s administration, and he named Thomas Ewing of Ohio as its first head. (Ewing, by the way, was the foster father for William T. Sherman.) Unfortunately, Ewing started an unwholesome process of making it a patronage department. Nevertheless, for good or ill, Indian affairs would now have an exclusive department focus.

In the meantime, gold had been discovered in California during Polk’s final year, starting a new craze that added a fevered impetuousness to the rush to move west. The gold rush and the 49ers was one of the main reasons why Taylor encouraged California to move immediately to statehood.

During this decade, the fight over slavery finally came fully into the sunlight as a personal battle. Long gone were the days where merely the institution was assaulted as a lamentable evil; abolitionists now attacked slave owners directly as being morally deficient for holding human beings in bondage. Slave owners fought back with a vengeance, for example passing laws in Virginia demanding that the North leave slavery alone and calling on defense against northern “aggression.”

Taylor was attacked by fellow slave owners for daring to have as a friend the anti-slaver William Seward (who would gain lasting
fame as secretary of state under Lincoln and Johnson). Seward, a New York Whig, helped the administration with the voluminous appointments in the Empire State, for which Taylor was immensely pleased. But to die-hard southerners, an anti-slavery agitator had to be shunned at worst or held at arm’s length at best—never embraced as a friend. This seemingly ridiculous and petty affront to southern honor cost actually Taylor support.

(Side note: Taylor turning more to Seward instead of his own vice president, also a New Yorker, naturally upset Millard Fillmore, which I’ll deal with in the next entry.)

In fact, the Democratic press viciously and even insanely attacked Taylor almost from the very start of his presidency—which may seem like no big deal in that age of the openly partisan press. Their attacks are so incredibly outrageous that they have to be read to even be believed, and many of the Taylor bashing rantings are not too dissimilar from some of the incredible Bush hating rantings of today.

But Taylor, a ferocious fighter who made peace with Indians and Mexicans when there was no need for fighting, would make friends with who he damned well pleased—and his enemies could go hang themselves for all he cared.

The politics of slavery
Slave-owner Taylor had made it quite clear that he would not be slavery’s die-hard champion. While he would not press for the elimination of slavery in any fashion, the president believed, quite firmly, that slavery had no business expanding into the new territories. In his uninspired inaugural address, he weirdly even asked the people to just not talk about slavery (not an auspicious start to his presidency).

But when Taylor got his footing, he made clear that he believed that the nation no longer need fear the expansion of slavery because of nature: geography had set the limits on slavery. The climate of the new territories from Mexico was inhospitable to the slave system, so why even argue over it? Taylor even said that the Wilmot Proviso, a northern-state pushed bill designed to outlaw slavery in the new territories, was totally unnecessary for the very same reason. It was an argument over nothing!

But the lines were already drawn, the passions were high, Taylor’s exasperations were a little naïve and, simply put, Southern defenders of slavery were throwing a huge tantrum. Speaking as if all Southerners were slave owners and just loved the system, the old states-rights warrior John C. Calhoun, near death, threw what I can only charitably call a hissy-fit. He organized a Southern-only convention to create a highly paranoid “Southern Address” that accused the northern states of conspiring to destroy slavery and states’ rights concerning slavery going all the way back to the foundation of the country! (It was utterly ridiculous, and to their credit, nearly half of the attendees refused to sign.)

Calhoun’s final speech to Congress in early 1850 was so full of paranoia and hate against the North that it just defies belief, and many of his fellow Southerners, including Taylor, thought so, too. But those who sided with Calhoun were a dangerous lot, and believed that any slight against the South, whether real or, most likely, imagined, was the gravest insult and grounds for secession. The president thought they were off their rocker.

Southerners were also mad at Taylor for urging California and New Mexico to bypass the territorial stage and immediately seek statehood. California, newly flush with the discovery of gold in 1848, had a population explosion and was essentially lawless. By not wanting the land to remain under military control, Taylor gave his approval to the formation of a state government, which Californians did at the end of 1849. But their constitution banned slavery. Again, southerners were furious. How dare they! Now, Taylor could have counseled that they deal with slavery after passing a constitution, which would have mollified the states rights champions. But they were outraged that it happened before the fact—despite the fact that transplanted Southerners helped make the constitution!

Next, Texas, a slave state, was trying to gobble up much of the New Mexico territory (which included present-day Arizona). President Taylor would have none of it, and said he would keep the peace between the two states, even using United States troops to defend New Mexico. Taylor vowed—and this is key—that the latter had been won from Mexico and would remain as it was no matter what claims Texas made on it.

Most Taylor biographers neglect or completely misunderstand Taylor’s desire to keep New Mexico away from Texas, and interpret his stance in the upcoming Compromise of 1850 as pure obstructionism.

Some outraged southerners threatened secession, raising the specter of the nullification crisis of 20 years earlier. Texas, which was full of southerners, threatened to take by force from New Mexico what it believed was rightfully Texas land. Taylor once again proved to be his own man by explaining exactly what he would do to anyone who committed the “treason” of secession, or lead aggression against a territory in defiance of the federal government. In early 1850, Taylor exploded in anger after meeting with two Georgian congressmen in the White House. The two men had been early Taylor supporters, but now they demanded that Taylor drop his support for California’s admission as a free state. Taylor refused, and said he would support constitutional law. As the two stormed out, Hannibal Hamlin, the future vice president to Abraham Lincoln, found Taylor extremely agitated. Hamlin recalled that,

“…with an expletive I shall not repeat here, he said, with an emphasis that I shall never forget, that if they attempted to carry out their schemes while he was president they should be dealt with by law as they deserved and executed.”
(Smith, P. 104)
When Hamlin left, Whig editor and New York power-broker Thurlow Weed came in, and found Taylor still extremely agitated. He recalled Taylor saying he actually told the two Georgia congressmen that

“…if it became necessary, in executing the laws, he would take command of the army himself, and … if they were taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang them with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.” (Smith, P. 140)

Weed’s quote is probably embellished, because he added a third person to the scene who later swore he wasn’t present, but the quote is still passed off as authentic. Nevertheless, both quotes, with Hamlin’s being the more reliable, expose just how much Taylor was ready to fight for Union should it have become necessary. And that angered southerners even more.

But it never came to secession. The Great Compromiser, Henry Clay, proposed one final bill that dealt together with the great issues of the day: California, Texas and New Mexico, slavery in the capitol, fugitive slaves, and more. The president was happy with the thought of compromise, but believed, as did Clay’s old foe, Democrat Senator Thomas Hart Benton, that the issues should be dealt with separately—particularly because Taylor was keen to defend New Mexico from Texas no matter what.

In the end, a compromise was worked out—the Compromise of 1850—which, with the benefit of hindsight, we know was only a temporary cease-fire. However, Taylor wouldn’t live to see it. The compromise was still being debated when Taylor died suddenly midway through his second year in office.

Under the combined bill:

  • California would become a free state,
  • New Mexico would become a territory,
  • Texas’ debt would be assumed by the United States government in exchange for dropping claims to New Mexican territory,
  • Slavery in the remaining areas won from Mexico would be decided by “popular sovereignty”,
  • the slave trade would be abolished in Washington, D.C., and
  • the “fugitive slave act” would become the law of the nation.

The last odious part of the compromise let slave masters go anywhere in America to hunt for, and take back, escaped slaves.

Taylor’s ultimate role in the compromise is usually and uncharit
ably described as being an obstacle, as incapable of stopping the dead Calhoun and his allies, or intensely jealous of Henry Clay. But none is really true. He didn’t stand in its way at all, though his cabinet was not enthusiastic about it. Taylor, above all else, sought to keep the union together—and the omnibus bill seemed like the way to solve the current massive sectional crisis. It was Taylor’s inability to form allies and voting blocs in Congress damaged his abilities to sway the debate, and subsequently damaged him in history’s judgment. In addition, everyone tried to take credit—Clay, Daniel Webster, the South’s irascible Sen. Henry Foote, etc.—and paint the dead Taylor as someone who had been in the way.

But Elbert Smith says,

"He looked beyond his own immediate interests as a large slaveholder, recognizing that slavery could not be expanded, and tried to check unrealistic Southern demands that could only multiply Northern opposition to the institution itself. Instead, however, revisionists have made the compromise efforts the centerpiece of his administration and accepted the accusation of Taylor’s enemies … that he was an obstacle to its achievement. Supporters of the omnibus bill … defended him against the charge, and … insisted throughout that Taylor would support any compromise that did not give New Mexico to Texas. Their views, however, somehow escaped serious consideration by historians, including Taylor’s friendly biographers…

…The sudden removal of Taylor—by Providence, the Almighty, fate, or America’s usual good luck—just in time to enable Clay, (Stephen A.) Douglas, and Fillmore to save the Union was another illusion too exciting to bear closer examination.” (Smith, p.258)

It wasn’t exactly Taylor’s finest hour, but history has done a great disservice by getting Taylor’s role utterly wrong.

During the July 4, 1850, dedication of the laying of the Washington Monument, President Taylor took ill. He downed a whole pitcher of water, and took in some iced milk, cherries and cucumbers, but never loosened his clothes under the oppressive heat. Back at the White House, the old general finally loosened his clothes, but remained ill.

His condition worsened, and five days later, on July 9, he was dead.

We don’t quite know why he died. It may have been acute gastroenteritis. Possibly chloera. The immediate cause was probably a heat stroke. Some have speculated that he was poisoned, and in 1991 his body was exhumed and autopsied. Traces of arsenic were found, but only the normal amount found in all people, far less than a fatal dose. But assasination seems really far-fetched.

A stunned nation watched as Millard Fillmore assumed the presidency (and thanks to John Tyler nine years earlier, the succession happened effortlessly). Filmore would replace Taylor’s entire cabinet, and quickly make Taylor’s presidency his own presidency.

Final Assessment

Zachary Taylor wasn’t a successful president—but neither was he unsuccessful. He’s been long thought a failure, or a nonentity, but Elbert Smith argues that during his 16 months in office, Taylor charted a steady course through the middle of the hotheads on both sides at the start of this most turbulent of decades. Like Ulysses S. Grant a generation later, Taylor’s presidential reputation fell into the hands of his enemies, and their word on him was “final.” He was a “failed” president because they said he was, regardless of the facts and regardless of what Taylor actually accomplished and attempted to do while in office.

As it were, Taylor’s desire to be president of the entire country and not remain beholden to just the slave interests cost him dearly, as did his honest friendship with the anti-slavery power-broker Seward. Enemies considered him weak because he relied on others for appointments. Well, who else did? Every other president, that’s who! In short, Taylor’s refusal to be a tool made him a “failure,” not the actual facts. In his affairs with Indian tribes and foreign nations, Taylor was skillful and deft. In matters of domestic policy, Taylor charted a course designed to placate both sides of the slavery divide, making him a facilitator of the Compromise of 1850, not an obstacle as has long been charged. Taylor even tried to get the hotheads of the north and south to see the obvious: slavery just wouldn’t work in the southwest; so, fighting over expanding it there was just stupid. But few listened to him.

Taylor’s willingness to treat secession as treason was exactly the same reaction as Jackson’s, and even more blunt than Lincoln’s. Taylor was ready and willing to destroy secession—but it’s long forgotten, because the Secession Crisis of 1850 never happened, replaced, as it were, by the Compromise of 1850. Would Taylor have slapped down an actual session crisis like Jackson? Or would he have dithered like Buchanan and let it develop until it was past the point of return? It’s more than likely he would have done the former.

Zachary Taylor, one of America’s finest soldiers, deserves much better than being remembered as a presidential failure. He was a military hero, and a hero president, and it’s good that writers of history are finally taking note.

Final assessment: Neither successful nor unsuccessful (e.g., right down the middle), and somewhat popular (but not with the political class, and definitely not with the abolitionists)


The majority of information on Zachary Taylor is usually found in collections on the presidents or in books on the Mexican War. The American Presidents Series entry has not yet been released, but it is written by John S.D. Eisenhower, author of So Far From God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848. Again, I highly recommend reading that book, both for its historical value and for the fact that it is simply one of the best books on any subject you’ll ever read—non-fiction or fiction. If you want to understand America and Mexico together, you need to read this book.

I also wasn’t able to get a hold of Elbert Smith’s brand-new 2007 biography, Zachary Taylor: The Hero President, in time for this study, but I was able to use his earlier work, The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, part of the University of Kansas’ American Presidency series. Apparently, his general thesis remains unchanged. (If you haven’t guessed by now, I have been making heavy use of books from the public library systems of St. Louis County and St. Louis City for this study.)

Also for this study, I used the ponderous and plodding Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (1985) by K. Jack Bauer. Smith disagrees with Bauer’s conclusions, as do I.

All images are public domain and found in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division unless otherwise noted.

1. A daguerreotype of Zachary Taylor, probably taken for the 1848 campaign. I think it’s the best likeness of him.

2. Taylor and his faithful horse, Old Whitey

3. Margaret “Peggy” Taylor

4. Battle of Palo Alto, May 8th, 1846. Battle of Resaca de la Palma, May 9th, 1846. Lithograph by Klauprech & Menzel after Ange Paldi, 5th Inf., U.S.A.

5. US troops marching on Monterrey during the Mexican-American War, painting by Carl Nebel. Published in the 1851 book The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated.

6 Storming of Independence Hill at the Battle of Monterey. September 1846. Copy of lithograph by Kellogs & Thayer, ca. 1847. National Archives and Records Administration. John S.D. Eisenhower, in So Far From God, took particular note of a similar image made most likely by the same artist, depicting the same street fighting in Monterrey. “This picture is remarkable for its realism at a time when artists in the United States usually depicted battle scenes in largely formal terms.” Compare this 1847 lithograph to the next image.

7. "A little more grape Capt. Bragg"—General Taylor at the Battle of Buena Vista, Feby 23d, 1847. This rather fanciful depiction of the battle of Buena Vista was created as a campaign poster. It depicts a real incident, where Taylor instructed one of his artillery captains to step up his fire (which helped win the battle), but it also shows Taylor wearing a full general’s uniform, which he almost never did. Taylor favored buckskin and jeans and a slouch hat—chosen for comfort, not style. His casual disdain of military pomp would impress young Ulysses S. Grant, who would emulate his hero’s style during the Civil War.

8. An anti-Whig campaign poster, which truthfully depicts the sole reason for selecting a Mexican War hero as presidential candidate. Taylor is not actually the general depicted, but the sentiment sit fit when Taylor was tapped to be their champion.

9. A standard campaign poster depicting Taylor and his running mate, New Yorker Millard Fillmore.

10. An extremely rare and damaged picture of Taylor’s cabinet. The president stands at center.

11. An idealized portrait of Taylor created for the campaign

12. The United States in 1850, after the compromise took effect. Map is courtesy of courtesy of Florida’s Educational Technology Clearinghouse. Credit:

13. Official White House portrait of President Zachary Taylor (White House Historical Association)

14. A somewhat comic yet sympathetic portrayal of the culminating episode in the flight of slave Henry Brown "who escaped from Richmond Va. in a Box 3 feet long, 2-1/2 ft. deep and 2 ft. wide." In the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, the young Brown emerges from a crate as several figures, including Frederick Douglass (holding a claw hammer at left) look on. Details of Brown's escape, whereby he had himself shipped via Adams Express from Richmond to Philadelphia, were widely publicized in a narrative of his ordeal published under his own name in 1849. The box itself became an abolitionist metaphor for the inhumanity and spiritual suffocation of slavery. It is shown on an undated broadside published in Boston. (Library of Congress description.)

15. Clay, Fillmore, Calhoun, Webster in the Senate, 1850. Henry Clay (presenting his compromise), Millard Fillmore (presiding), John C. Calhoun (right of Fillmore), and Daniel Webster (head in hand) in the Senate, 1850. Created by Peter Rothermel in 1850.

16. Matthew Brady took this daguerreotype of Zachary Taylor in 1849

17. Taylor on his death bed, in the White House, July, 1850.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Number 11: James K. Polk

Years in office: 1845-1849
Pre-service occupations: state legislator, U.S. representative (Speaker of the House), governor (Tennessee)
Key events during his administration: Mexican War; peace with England over Oregon territory; states admitted to the Union: Texas (1845), Iowa (1846) and Wisconsin (1848); annexation of territories that eventually became New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming; reduction of the tariff (1845); and establishment of the independent Treasury (1845); Seneca Falls Conference (1848, the first major women's sufferage conference).

Presidential rating: Highly successful, and mixed on popularity


“Who is James K. Polk?” Whigs derisively asked during the election of 1844. The answer, actually, is simple. James K. Polk could rightly claim to be the most successful president in America’s history, because he is the one man who achieved all of his stated goals by the time he left office.

He’s the president most associated with manifest destiny, having added more territory to the United States than any other president, including Jefferson. (Although, John Tyler could rightly claim co-ownership of the manifest destiny mantle, at least in an idealistic sense, as I explained in the last entry.)

Historians generally place Polk near the top of the heap when they rank the presidents, but outside of academic circles and history enthusiasts, he’s largely forgotten. Why?

Perhaps it’s because he served one term then died shortly after and never became a senior statesman. Perhaps it’s because, as biographer John Seigenthaler suggests, he was sandwiched between two Whig terms (well, Tyler wasn’t much of a Whig) and was stuck in a period of largely uninspired presidential leadership—“lost” between the giants of Jackson and Lincoln.

Perhaps the war that he led so overshadows him that even if America vaguely remembers the Mexican War that added New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and California to the Union—and made sure Texas stayed in—America just doesn’t remember the president associated with that war.

Regardless, when historians rank Polk, they usually place him at number 7 or 8. But just who was he?

A sickly child
When people think of presidents who were sick as children, most think of Theodore Roosevelt. (Teddy’s cousin FDR, of course, is the one people think of as a sickly adult.) But James Polk had quite a rough and painful childhood. Often ill, he couldn’t build his physique doing chores on the farm with his brothers, so he paid attention to politics. His grandfather, father and uncles would rail against Federalists and praise Jefferson, and naturally Polk became a life-long republican.

His parents wanted to send him to school, but first they had to deal with his frightening and baffling illness. They had enough money to send him to one of the best surgeons in the young country. It turns out that young Jim had urinary stones—not gall stones as had long been thought by historians; biographer John Seigenthaler believes he’s discovered that young Jim had urinary stones by matching the symptoms and results and verifying this with several physicians. At age 11, a doctor probed for the stones and removed them, with alcohol being the only anesthesia. The operation most likely made him sterile, as Polk would father no children.

You can imagine the sheer agony of that surgery, but apparently, as Seigenthaler alludes, it gave Polk a genuine toughness.

Now healthy, he studied law and under excellent tutelage, entered the bar and practiced in Tennessee. Even during the Panic of 1819, he did well. And in the 1820s, politics lured him and he never looked back.

Slave master
Like many antebellum presidents, Polk owned slaves. Unlike Tyler, Jefferson and Washington, though, Polk wasn’t torn with ambiguity over the morality of slavery. Nor did he design any plans for the eventual end of slavery. He accepted it as the natural order.

Also like many slave-owning presidents, Polk ordered the manumission of his slaves upon his death and the death of his wife. But Sarah Polk died in 1891, and the Civil War and the 13th amendment took care of the manumission.

Polk bought and traded slaves even while he was president. The salary of the chief executive being what it was, Polk supported the White House through his plantation (as did most other slave-owning presidents).

While Polk never went to the extremes of his immediate predecessor to defend slavery, or concoct a weird scenario whereby slavery would die out through diffusion over an expanded United States, Polk refused to let slavery guide his presidency. He believed, as he wrote in his diary, that slavery just would not work in the territories won from Mexico—he was largely correct—but he would also not sign on to Pennsylvania congressman Wilmot’s “Proviso” (legislation) that would outlaw slavery in those territories. However, Polk would not take any steps against slavery, either on principle or as a practical matter, at any time during his political career. For example, when he was Speaker of the House, Polk supported the gag rules to prevent the mere discussion of slavery in the House.

That action, of course, earned him the enmity of John Quincy Adams and gave new life to the aging New Yorker. Abolitionists viewed Polk as a villain because of 1) the gag rules, 2) as president he refused to sign the Wilmot Proviso and 3) he fought the Mexican War for what they believed was a pure land grab for the benefit of the slave power. More on that below.

Jackson’s student
After a stint in the state legislature, Polk came to Washington in 1824, the same year his political idol, Andrew Jackson, was “robbed” of the presidency through the “corrupt bargain” of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. Like all Jacksonians, Polk burned over the Adams-Clay victory, believing it a travesty that violated the will of the people. Polk deliberately became one of the primary obstructionists to the Adams administration, virtually serving as Jackson’s mouthpiece in the House and earning the sobriquet, Young Hickory.

Polk, like many a politician, did a complete one-eighty on some of his positions once he attained a higher office. As a new member of the House, he attacked President Adams’ seemingly outrageous abuses of executive power. But as a Jackson protégé and later, as Speaker of the House during the first two years of Martin Van Buren’s term, Polk was quick to defend executive power. When the shoe’s on the other foot…

Polk may have been dubbed Young Hickory, but in personality and temperament, he was nothing like his mentor. His chief political enemy, John Bell (a presidential candidate in 1860), who preceded and succeeded Polk as Speaker, repeatedly tried to goad Polk into a duel. Bell and his allies would heap amazingly harsh and insulting verbal vitriol on Polk—in the House chamber!—but Polk would never respond. He’d stay as cool as could be. Even Jackson, known for loving brawls, was impressed. Later, when Polk was president, Bell and the others apologized, and Polk accepted for he bore then no ill will. It’s probable that bearing that excruciating surgery when he was 11 gave him an endurance for such things. What Polk said about such men in private is another matter (see below).

Polk was different from Jackson in another way, too. Where Jackson was a fiery personality and an invigorating, if not brilliant, speaker, Polk was much more mechanical. John Quincy Adams recorded his partisan and conceited thoughts in his invaluable diary:

“Polk has no wit, no literature, no point of argument, no gracefulness of delivery, no elegance of language, no philosophy, no pathos, no felicitous impromptus; nothing that can constitute an orator but confidence, fluency and labor.” (Seigenthalor, p.53.) Seigenthalor goes on to say that “He was better than that, but confidence, fluency and labor were enough.”
In the meantime, Polk, as Speaker, took the unprecedented step of aligning his priorities with those of President Van Buren’s, but to little avail. The Panic of 1837, brought on in large part by the Jackson-Biddle bank war, was crushing the country. Rather than risk losing the Speaker election, Polk left the house in 1839 and went back to Tennessee, where he narrowly won the governorship from the Whigs who were taking over the state.

Old Hickory greatly approved, and approved of Polk, too.

Stumbles and the dark-horse candidate
But all was not well for Democrats, because 1840 proved to be the year of the Whig. Polk’s real reason for wanting the Tennessee state house was to become vice president, and then president, but Van Buren didn’t select him. Van Buren got whipped, anyway. And soon so did Polk, losing the governorship by a narrow margin during the next election.

Polk tried to regain the governor’s mansion a few years later, but he lost by an even wider margin. Henry Clay’s Whigs seemed to be on the ascendancy, and Young Hickory, once seen as the protégé of Jackson, seemed to be politically dead.

After all, he couldn’t even win in his own state any more.

He went to the 1844 Democratic party convention (one of the first-ever conventions) where Martin Van Buren was looking to make a comeback. President John Tyler was running without a real party and held his own convention for his short-lived candidacy, and the formidable Henry Clay, who believed the third time would be the charm, was going to be the Whig standard bearer. Tyler soon bowed out when it seemed he’d never have a chance. And Polk would have to be content with being a vice president, if anything at all (he instructed his supporters to back Van Buren, initially). But then Van Buren and Clay simultaneously and literally committed one of the biggest miscalculations ever in American presidential politics.

It’s always fascinating to consider where presidents and candidates go horribly and irretrievably wrong. Sometimes it’s a series of gaffs, as happened with John Kerry, who started things off with “I voted for it before I voted against it.” Sometimes it’s a promise famously broken, such as George H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips: No new taxes.” Sometimes it’s a cover-up that’s worse than the actual crime, a la Richard Nixon. Sometimes it’s a “Yearrrrrgh!” hollered after a poor primary showing.

In 1844, Democratic kingpin and former president Martin van Buren and the powerful Whig Henry Clay had come to an understanding that to make Texas an issue of the election would be to make slavery the issue, and neither wanted that. Van Buren never publicly disclosed his position on slavery because of his careful party-building and Clay himself was a slave owner. So, the two men, often bitter political enemies, issued public proclamations on the same day in April 1844 against the immediate annexation of Texas. They knew most of the public wanted Texas, but they believed the public would bow to their superior knowledge of the situation and let them handle matters. But they were wrong.

The public wanted Texas now, because of the Alamo, because of the 100,000 Texans whom were related to people all over America, and because of feelings that Texas belonged to America, not Mexico, England or anyone else.

Support for both leading candidates dropped.

Van Buren had a lock on the nomination that spring but after his proclamation came away with nothing. The pro-annexation Polk, who just that spring was politically dead, suddenly found himself in the running for president on the Democratic ticket as the first-ever dark-horse candidate. It wasn’t quite like the Lord calling Lazarus from the grave, but with brilliant convention wheeling and dealing by his allies, Polk overtook Van Buren and won on the ninth ballot.

Clay, meanwhile, came off sounding like a 19th century John Kerry when he twice tried to explain his position on Texas and slavery to an Alabama newspaper. He even believed that the public would elect him, the senior statesman, over the inexperienced Polk because, well, because he was Henry Clay.

Newly invigorated, Polk used the Texas issue to win the election over Clay 170 to 103 votes in the electoral college and by 38,000 popular votes. Jackson’s protégé sealed the presidential ambitions of Clay for good, as he never ran again.

The diary and the solo president
The dark horse, however, quickly established himself as his own man, beholden to no one—not Van Buren, who despite losing the nomination nevertheless secured the New York vote for the Tennessee slave owner, and not even Jackson. Declaring his intention to serve only one term, Polk dismissed the advise of allies and friends and appointed whomever he wished to cabinet and other posts. He quickly burned a lot of bridges, and even without the amazing successes of his administration, it is questionable whether he would have been re-nominated.

There’s a very good reason for it, and Polk left us a multi-volume testimony as to why.

Outwardly, Polk seemed a controlled man—even colorless. But inwardly, he was much different. If you think that Richard Nixon was the most paranoid man to reside in the White House, then you don’t know James K. Polk. When Polk set up his cabinet, he deliberately chose men that pledged they would not seek the White House—and also men he could control. The only one to break the pledge was the secretary of state, Pennsylvanian James Buchanan (which raises the question of why Polk didn’t get rid of him, but part of the answer lays with the fact that Polk could control Buchanan).

Polk was not really a likable man, which made his lovely wife, Sarah, all the more useful as White House hostess. She was charming and friendly to all, and a skillful diplomat to boot. Polk, on the other hand, was formal and calmly pleasant. But in his diary, he was vicious, partisan, paranoid and treated anyone who was not 100 percent on his side as an enemy.

Polk’s presidential diary, which he began in August 1845, makes the White House tapes of Kennedy, Johnson and even Nixon tame by comparison. Even John Quincy Adams’ celebrated diary is not as highly charged as this. Polk would be at ease in person with someone he believed slighted him, but that night would rip him to shreds in his diary. Even long-time allies fell victim to his pen if they weren’t pure in his eyes. Democrats who cooperated with Whigs—sometimes even to pass his own legislation!—became “traitors.”

Whigs, of course, were unceasingly savaged—even Generals Taylor and Scott, his brilliant commanders during the Mexican War. They never lost a battle, and with inferior numbers delivered victory. Because of their crime of being Whigs, Polk never gave them a single word of praise in his diary.

That’s not to say that the vitriol wasn’t one-sided. Polk was savaged by his enemies as well, even in his own party. But Polk’s verbal vitriol appears only in his diary. He had different ways of snubbing people in public.

Was Polk unbalanced? A megalomaniac? Maybe. He believed he could run the government all by himself, and crowed about it to his diary when he hadn’t held a cabinet meeting for five months.

The four great goals
President James K. Polk laid out four ambitious goals for his presidency, as recorded by Treasury Secretary George Bancroft, and he achieved three early and the fourth during his last year in office. Three of the four have had a lasting and profound effect on the United States, which, again, makes the largely forgotten status of Polk so baffling.

The four great goals were (in no particular order):

  • re-establishment of an independent treasury,
  • reduction of tariffs,
  • settle the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain, and
  • purchase California from Mexico.
Notice that actually fighting a war with Mexico was not one of goals. Nevertheless it became the centerpiece of his administration.

The treasury
Martin Van Buren had sought to establish a treasury as one of his solutions to the Panic of 1837. Congress finally made it law in 1840, but it died in 1841. Polk believed it a good idea, and revived it. He changed it’s name, but the concept was the same: take federal deposits out of private banks—just as Jackson had done with the now-defunct Second Bank of the United States—and place them in an independent treasury. The treasury would be wholly responsible to the government and, even though the secretary would be a political appointee, the body itself would be independent and not subject t o political whims.

Congress easily passed Polk’s treasury bill, and his version of a treasury lasted unmolested until the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. Score one.

The tariff
Tariffs were already an old fight in politics, and they would be fought over into the 20th century until the establishment of the income tax. Polk’s goal here was to reduce the latest tariff, which northern industrialists and Democrats (and Whigs) favored, and southern Democrats disdained. It was a familiar argument.

Polk has dissembled on the tariff question during the campaign, but now he put forth a tariff reduction bill that made northerners howl because, Polk sneered, it cut their profits. Nevertheless, the bill barely passed the Senate, with Vice President Dallas casting the tie-breaker. Score two.

Our final northern boundary dispute with Great Britain occurred during Polk’s term, and if the Court of St. James thought John Tyler was something of a hothead, they were in for a surprise with the next U.S. president.

The Tyler administration had proposed that the joint occupation of the Oregon territory—which included present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming—be ended with America taking everything south of 49 degrees, which is the present day border. Polk’s secretary of state, James Buchanan, continued with the proposal, but Britain’s ambassador haughtily rejected it, saying the dividing line should be at the present-day Washington-Oregon border.

An angered Polk demanded that the British acquiesce to a much different border, at the fifty-fourth parallel, or by Gd there would be war. Fifty-four forty or fight! became the new rallying cry. (It’s a mistake to say that “fifty-four forty or fight!” was a campaign slogan; it wasn’t.)

But England did not want war, and cooler heads prevailed. Eventually, the forty-ninth parallel became the border—the original Tyler administration proposal—and we’ve been at peace ever since. Score three.

President Polk wanted California, and believed that the only way to secure the United States permanently from the possibility of foreign aggression, that is, from England or France, was to be anchored firmly from coast to coast. Polk truly had no intention of ripping California from Mexico. He wanted to buy it outright. But war with Mexico over Texas intervened, and Polk would win California by a meager force of arms in that direction—but he would still make remittance to Mexico for California (and a lot more land to boot). Score four—but only after two years of war.

I don’t want—or have the space—to give a blow-by-blow account of the Mexican War here (also because some of the exploits will come up in the next entry, on President Zachary Taylor). Instead, I’ll give a brief overview. But if you are unfamiliar with what the Marines sing about when they invoke “the Halls of Montezuma,” you should read John D. Eisenhower’s So Far From God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848. It remains the best account of that war, and is in fact one of the best books on American history.

Here’s a quick summary: Gen. Zachary Taylor’s Army of Observation, sent to the Gulf Coast by President Tyler late in his term, moved to Texas under Polk’s orders. Taylor was to wait at the Rio Grande—in the supposed disputed territory claimed by both Mexico and Texas/America. Mexican forces attacked Taylor first on American soil, and the game was on. (This was, if you will, the 19th century version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.)

Taylor responded and won at Palo Alto and a bigger victory at Resaca de la Palma in May 1846. Polk asked for and received a declaration of war a few days later on May 13. Taylor advanced further and won a bitter battle at Monterrey. American forces under Phil Kearny and others moved on the Southwest and California, while a Naval force secured two California ports. California and the southwest were secure by 1847. Polk decided a campaign against Mexico City was in order, and he placed Commander-in-Chief Winfield Scott in command. Scott stripped Taylor’s command, and landed at Vera Cruz in March 1847. Meanwhile, the depleted Taylor left Monterrey against orders and won a final smashing victory at Buena Vista in February (which, not coincidentally, placed him on the road to the White House). Scott advanced from the coast and won hard-fought battles at Cerro Gordo, Molino del Ray, Churubusco and Chapultepec. He finally took Mexico City in September.

American forces won almost every single battle, even though they were outnumbered on nearly every field. A peace was finally arranged. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the American-Mexican border was secured at the Rio Grande, and America got California, and what would become most of New Mexico and Arizona, as well as Nevada and Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming, a total of 500,000 square miles (not counting Texas). The rest of New Mexico and Arizona would be added in 1853 with the Gasden Purchase. In exchange, Mexico received $15 million. The 8,000 Mexican families now in U.S. territory had the choice whether to stay or return to Mexico. Most stayed.

Roughly 13,000 American soldiers died during the war, most from disease (especially yellow fever) or other non-combat causes. About 1,700 were killed in combat. Mexican casualties are estimated at approximately 25,000.

Side note: The Mexican War is often overlooked, just as Korea is overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam, or treated as a “rehearsal” for the Civil War, as many of the major figures in that later conflict got their field training in this war. But the Mexican War was a major event in its own right, a demarcation line in the history of the nation. However, because the war wrapped up in fine fashion, and the controversies were overshadowed in a few years by the larger issue of slavery and the excitement of the gold rush in the new territory, as well as the president’s death three months after his term ended, the war faded. And that’s a shame. But before that happened, there were some who weren’t going to let the war pass without a challenge, no matter how victorious.

Few modern American high school or college students fail to graduate without learning something of Henry David Thoreau and his “civil disobedience.” The Massachusetts author, protesting the Mexican War, refused to pay a tax; so, he spent a night in jail. Courage! (Other dissenters included Ulysses S. Grant, who was quite unknown at the time. Second Lieutenant Grant considered the war the greatest evil perpetuated by a larger nation upon a smaller one, but as he was in the army and a recent West Point graduate, he did his duty and served well in the field.)

But far more demonstrative—and widely known—were the fights in Congress and the attacks in the abolitionist press against the war. During the first year of the war, nearly everyone supported the war, and there was a massive outpouring of goodwill and volunteer enlistments in the army. Congress voted an overwhelming declaration of war, with Whig support.

But despite the victories and the march on and capture of Mexico City, the public began to sour on the war, especially as the peace negotiations dragged on into 1848. Whigs, who gained control of Congress in 1846, turned against the war. Many Whigs claimed the war was nothing more than a war of aggression for land. Some Whigs, led in part by Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, challenged the official version of event that precipitated the shooting war. The Polk administration claimed Mexican soldiers attacked an American patrol on American soil; Lincoln and other Whigs now claimed that the attack happened in the disputed territory, where Taylor was not supposed to be. Who was right?

Technically, Polk was, because according to the treaty that ended the Texas war for independence, Texas’ southern border was the Rio Grande, not the Nueces, 150 miles to the north. But the Mexican government didn’t recognize that treaty as they claimed General Santa Ana had signed it under duress after San Jacinto.

At war’s end, a Congressional resolution was passed by the Whig majority praising Gen. Taylor for his service in “a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States.” Congressman Lincoln would have a hard time shaking those words 12 years later.

Regardless, the Whig charge that the war was unconstitutional is completely wrong, and is as laughable as the Democrats’ complaints today against the Iraq war. In fact, the Democrats of today are acting exactly the same as the Whigs of the 1840s: voting overwhelmingly voted for the war when it was popular, then turning against it when its popularity has waned.

Polk’s victory
Whether it was a necessary war, however, is another thing entirely. Perhaps Polk would have even agreed with the Whigs had there not been such enmity between them. Polk, actually, really didn’t want to fight a war with Mexico. He wanted the land, and he wanted to keep Texas, and he would have gladly paid Mexico for the western lands.

But when Mexico refused, Polk readily gave them war. Polk actually fought what he considered a limited war with Mexico. At first, Polk deliberatively limited operations to the American Southwest. But he underestimated the Mexican desire to fight and Mexican anger against America. He then ordered the Mexico City campaign, which “conquered” Mexico.

Many Democrats actually urged Polk to take all of Mexico—white man’s burden again; get poor Mexico under America’s protective wing. But Polk demurred, and had no intention of holding what Scott had so brilliantly captured. After the peace was signed and money exchanged, the new borders were drawn. And the United States finally stretched unbroken from coast to coast.

No second term
Polk had no love for his successor: Zachary Taylor, the brilliant general whom Polk believed was incompetent, untalented and a fool.

Had Polk even wanted a second term, he wouldn’t have lived to enjoy it. He died on June 15, three months after leaving office.

Perhaps his sour personality weighed him down as much as the office did. Or perhaps it was his insistence on doing everything himself. Regardless, Polk’s often shaky health finally caught him at age 53.

Final Assessment

As noted above, James K. Polk was arguably the most successful president ever, because he achieved every one of his goals. I draw the line, though, at calling him one of the greatest. I used to agree with Harry Truman’s assessment. But after investigating him in-depth, I’m starting to wonder.

Polk could often be a mean, vindictive man. A bully, if you will. A man incapable of giving praise to anyone who didn’t agree with him. A man so stuck on himself and his own abilities and ambitions that he rode roughshod over anyone who got in his way. Is that really a sign of greatness?

There’s no doubt that James K. Polk looms large over this nation: the Mexican War, 11 new states and a treasury system that lasted almost 70 years. Those are incredible accomplishments.

He was “great” in terms of his accomplishments, but often—but not always—small in terms of his character.

(Which brings up a conundrum for another time: you can be great on character but lousy on accomplishments; you can be great on accomplishments and lousy on character; you can be lousy on both; but it is a truly exceptional president who is great on both.)

Final assessment: Highly successful, but mixed on popularity.


The Polk entry in the American Presidents Series, written by John Seigenthaler, is quite a good summary. (Although he describes John Tyler’s term as “listless,” which I found it to be anything but.)

Also interesting for exploring Polk’s character is William Dusinberre’s Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk (2003).

You can also check out The Diary of James K. Polk During His Presidency, 1845-1849.

John D. Eisenhower expertly chronicles America’s first foreign “excursion” in the highly readable and entertaining So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848. The title refers to a statement made by the Mexican president in 1877: “Poor Mexico; So far from God, so close to the United States.”

A more classical entry, but no less readable, is the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Year of Decision: 1846, by Bernard DeVoto, which covers much more than the Mexican War.


All images are public domain and found in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division unless otherwise noted.

1. Reproduction of an 1849 Brady daguerreotype taken while Polk was still president

2. Portrait of young Polk

3. A rather ridiculous campaign card of Polk which stretches more than the imagination, and tries to make Young Hickory look like Old Hickory

4. View of crowd with umbrellas, in front of platform on east portico of U.S. Capitol, where Chief Justice Roger B. Taney administers the oath of office to James K. Polk. Originally published in The Illustrated London News, April 19, 1845.

5. Sarah Polk in a lithograph published by N. Currier

6. Polk’s cabinet, minus Buchanan. Polk sits second from the right. This is the first-ever photo taken of a president with his cabinet. Photo on White House web site, copyright belongs to James K. Polk Memorial Association, Columbia, Tennessee. (I’m not sure of the rights here; I may have to remove this photo and link to it instead.)

7. Photograph of the White House taken in 1846

8. Official White House portrait of James K. Polk, 11th president of the United States (White House Historical Association)

9. Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War, a painting by Carl Nebel, published in the 1851 book The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated

10. Battle of Churubusco, during the Mexican-American War, a painting by Carl Nebel, published in the 1851 book The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated. Both this and the previous paint are startling images for the time.

11. Soon-to-be famed photographer Matthew Brady took this daguerreotype of President Polk in February 1849, one month before the end of his presidency and four months before the end of his life.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Number 10: John Tyler

Years in office: 1841-1845

Pre-service occupations: U.S. senator, governor (Virginia), vice president

Key events during his administration: annexation of Texas (1845), Florida admitted to the Union (1845), Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842), Tyler (Pacific) Doctrine (1843), Treaty of Wangxia (1844)

Nicknames: His Accidency, the Acting President and the Vice President Acting as President

Presidential rating: Successful (but…) and largely unpopular


When President William Henry Harrison died on April 4, 1841, the country entered constitutional turmoil. What was supposed to happen? Would Vice President John Tyler now become president? Would a new election be held? Would Tyler merely be a caretaker president until the next scheduled election? It was new territory, and the country wasn’t sure what to do.

Fortunately for the country, John Tyler was certain, prepared and made sure that he—and he alone—was the president for the remainder of Harrison’s (now Tyler’s) term.

As the first man to assume the presidency after the president died in office, Tyler performed a service to the nation that cannot be undersold. If Adams and Jefferson established the peaceful transition of power between political enemies, Tyler established, or more correctly affirmed, the constitutional continuation of executive authority when the president dies in office.

Today, presidential succession is only thought about when a running mate is selected, but in 1841, many Whigs and Democrats did not recognize Tyler as president. Some members of congress wanted Tyler to be a figurehead while the secretary of state or even congress ran the executive branch. But Tyler would have none of it, and properly asserted his authority. Since 1841, power has transferred smoothly amid times of crisis eight times, thanks to Tyler. (* See note at bottom.)

Nowadays, Tyler is a forgotten president. If he’s remembered, it’s for what he did in 1841, the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” or for the notion that he is the only “traitor” president because he was elected to the Confederate Congress. He’s also regarded as a failed president, which I believe is a crime of history.So, what of his presidency? How did the Virginian planter handle the affairs of the executive once the major crisis was solved?

A childhood among greatness

John Tyler spent his formative years among a who’s who of Virginian and early American politics. His own father, also named John, was a well-respected politician and early agitator against the slave trade (but not against slavery). Among the elder Tyler’s contemporaries were Jefferson, Madison and Bishop James Madison, onetime president of William and Mary College and something of a kingmaker in Virginia politics.

Young John absorbed much from these men, and he developed a keen sense of America’s destiny, which he shared in powerful oratory throughout his political career. Although Tyler never left the American seaboard—ever, in fact—he came to believe that America had a special destiny to fulfill. Being around such men as Bishop Madison and Jefferson helped hone that vision into a burning desire to take America to the far coast and beyond.

This vision would be codified as “manifest destiny,” and would be identified with Tyler’s presidential successor, James K. Polk, but I believe that Tyler deserves as much credit for the vision of American continental greatness as Polk and Jefferson.

America was destined for greatness, Tyler believed, and he would articulate this belief better than most politicians in the early republic. Whether as a Senator or Virginia’s governor, Tyler articulated a great America, a worldly America, a nation that led instead of followed. Biographer Edward P. Crapol marvels that Tyler appeared so worldly and cultured for a man who never once left the eastern seaboard.

Tyler explained his ideas for America in a visit to New York City in 1843:

“For how can the example of a democratic America be resisted? Do you not perceive that a light is breaking forth everywhere? That this same free America has already civilized a continent, which when we were boys was almost all in a wilderness state?” (Crapol, p.190)

A little flowery, sure, but he meant every word.Tyler also developed a strong sense of republicanism; and how could he not, considering his childhood heroes. But as president, he often betrayed his pure Jeffersonian republican ideals in favor of expanding executive power—even into areas that could justly be called unconstitutional—all in the name of securing America’s destiny.

The “accidental” president

When William Harrison died, Tyler got his chance—earlier than expected—to implement his ideals for American greatness. But Harrison’s sudden death and Tyler’s ascension to the presidency left Whigs very nervous—especially the number one Whig, Henry Clay. Kentucky’s favored son believed he should have gotten the nod in 1840, so he was not happy that the ex-Democrat Tyler was now president. Clay was mildly relieved that Tyler retained Harrison’s all-Whig cabinet, but was put on guard when Tyler announced that he would be no mere “cipher” for the Whig-controlled Congress and would pursue his own course and policies.

Clay’s worst fears were realized when Tyler vetoed key Whig legislation, including a new national bank. Whigs were so upset with Tyler that they expelled the president from the party in 1841, and most of the cabinet resigned that September except for Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Now he was not only an ex-Democrat, he was also an ex-Whig.

Tyler “came back” to the Democrats when he appointed John C. Calhoun as secretary of state to replace the dead Abel Upshur, who had replaced Webster after the latter resigned in 1843. The appointment of Calhoun, with his well-known defense of slavery and the South, helped further drive Whigs north and the base of Democrat power to the South.

Worse, many people in and out of politics never recognized Tyler as president, referring to him as “His Accidency” or “the Acting President” or even “The Vice President Acting as President.” Tyler would return unopened any mail, no matter how important, that failed to address him properly as president.

But President Tyler wasted no time in asserting his authority, however, and making his stamp on the national and international scene.

Slavery’s president

The chief hallmark of John Tyler’s presidency that most historians point to was his defense of slavery. John Tyler realized at a politically early age that slavery was a big problem; that it was, in Jefferson’s words, “a wolf held by the tail,” dangerous to hold but too dangerous to let go. Tyler wasn’t especially fond of slavery, but he accepted the “superiority” of white over Negro as the natural order, as did most whites back then.

As a U.S. senator, slave owner Tyler became ill at the sight of slaves dragged in chains and put on the auction block in the nation’s capitol. He promoted legislation to ban the practice in D.C., but it failed. Like his father, Tyler had a moral obtuseness concerning slavery: The slave trade—trafficking in humans—was despicable, but slavery itself was just hunky-dory.

Also as a U.S. senator, he became aware of just how delicate and troublesome slavery was when the nation experienced the first public convulsion over human bondage with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Tyler, prescient that slavery could rend the nation, came up with a unique solution: Expand the nation by creating more slave states, thereby dispersing slavery over a much wider space. Slavery would then gradually die out as it did in the northern states. As ridiculous as this idea sounds, Tyler actually believed it could work, as it also fit in with his dreams of an America destined to stretch from coast to coast.

Defending America as a slaveholding republic became a cornerstone of his administration, which is one of the reasons why some historians tend to dismiss him as a failure and a sop to the Southern states.

No president defended slavery more than John Tyler. Although it was American policy to “defend” the institution of slavery on the foreign scene, Tyler did it stronger than anyone else.

Part of it has to do with his status as a Virginia slave owner. Although both he and his father looked askance at the slave trade, slavery itself was acceptable. To us, it’s a distinction with no difference. But to men such as Tyler, real equality between (white) men was maintained as long as slavery existed. (** See note at bottom.)

Mostly, however, his defense of slavery was wrapped in his belief in the Jefferson-Madison “extend the sphere” model of republicanism, where territorial expansion and the viability of the republic intertwined. Abolitionism posed a gigantic threat to this model of America’s destiny. Abolitionists detested Tyler probably more than any other antebellum president because he was a prominent and unapologetic slaveholder. Tyler returned their detest, for he viewed abolitionists as troublemakers who would rend the Union over slavery, thus denying the great nation its great destiny. Although he never went so far as Andrew Jackson did in fighting abolitionists (Jackson permitted Southern states to interfere with the U.S. mail by removing abolitionist literature), Tyler snubbed them and would not receive them at the White House.

In fact, part of Tyler’s Anglophobia, explained below, was tied to abolitionism. He believed that abolitionism was an English plot to disrupt the Union by attacking slavery, as evidenced by prominent English anti-slavery orators who came to America early in his term. It was a fanciful imagining at best, but it played into Tyler’s fears, and he used it to great effect to add to the anti-British sentiment during 1841-42.

Of course, like all early presidents, the glaring contradiction of America as a beacon of liberty while simultaneously being a slaveholding nation was never discussed in official channels, or even acknowledged. (This led to awkward situations, such as the refusal to recognize Haiti, another free republic, because it became a republic through a slave revolt. The United States would not recognize Haiti until 1862.)

Diplomatic “war” with England

As mentioned, Tyler was an Anglophobe. The term fits, because Tyler did fear English world domination. In the 1840s, as the saying goes, the sun never set on the English empire, and Tyler feared that the British were attempting to eke away at potential and real American holdings in Maine, the Pacific coast and rim, the Caribbean and even the republic of Texas. While his and secretary of state Webster’s Anglophobia was just a tad bit stretched, England was America’s chief antagonist, and there were several affairs with England that needed strong resolution, and fast.

War fever, or more correctly, a reluctant resignation that war with England was nigh, ruled in American politics during the first two years of his term. Although the prospects of a third war with the former mother country were not pleasant, Tyler and his Navy Department, under the highly capable Abel Upshur, used the scare to press Congress for modernization of America’s coastal defenses and Navy. Not all of Tyler’s and Upshur’s wish list was accepted, but the beginning of the transformation of the Navy from exclusively sail-powered to sail and steam-powered began under Tyler and Upshur, and they deserve much credit. (Upshur created the U.S. Naval Observatory and the regularization of the officer corps, including the introduction of the rank of rear admiral and admiral.)

Tensions with England were already high over the trial of a British citizen held in America. In a bold but curious move, President Tyler threatened to withhold British Ambassador Fox’s passport if the citizen was found guilty and until the matter was resolved. But the man was exonerated. Later, however, relations with England took a sharp turn downward when slaves revolted on the American ship Creole, murdered their master and sailed the ship to a British Caribbean protectorate. The British authorities there let the mutineers and the other captive slaves go free, much to the outrage of the South and joy of northern abolitionists. Coupled with the British sinking of the Caroline in Canadian waters during Van Buren’s term, continued occasional impressments and a few other “outrages,” the South turned to slave owner Tyler for swift justice.

It didn’t come fast enough, and subsequently Tyler’s stock fell in their eyes. Tyler seemed to vacillate, but he really wasn’t. Instead, he and Webster played a very crafty game of diplomacy with England. Secretary Webster and his counter-part, Lord Ashburton, hammered out an agreement during the hot summer of 1842 that came out quite favorable to the United States. England basically apologized for the attack on the Caroline, promised no repeated of the Creole affair, agreed on a mutually beneficial Maine-New Brunswick boundary, and understanding that impressments would finally stop, and also agreed to a joint cooperation to patrolling the shores off of Africa to stop slave traders. This last part surprised abolitionists, who had written Tyler off as an evil “imbecile.”

It was a huge diplomatic triumph for Tyler (and Webster) and although Tyler’s hotheadedness created some later misunderstandings on the wording, Tyler deserves much credit for blustering while seeking a peaceful resolution.The only point of contention not included in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was the status of Oregon, which both nations jointly occupied. Tyler, in a brilliant bit of political chicanery, pulled Mexico and Britain into a scheme of land and money swapping that was designed to be rejected. (America would pay Mexico for two choice California ports, America would give Britain favorable land in Oregon in exchange for leaning on Mexico for the deal.) Tyler’s scheming was more designed to force England to the table again. It didn’t work out the way Tyler wanted, and the Oregon matter wasn’t solved until Polk’s term.

More manifest destiny—to the Pacific

All early presidents had their eyes focused westward, but none more than Tyler. His successor, James Polk, is usually the one most associated with manifest destiny because of the Mexican War and the fact that he added the most territory to the United States. But I believe the mantle jointly belongs to Tyler, and biographer Edward P. Crapol seems to agree.President Tyler gained two diplomatic triumphs that are long lost to history: recognition of the independence of Hawaii and the Tyler Doctrine, and the opening of China to American trade.

The Hawaiian Islands, then also known as the Sandwich Islands, became a Christian nation with a constitution, and the monarch, Kamehameha III, sent emissaries to Washington to seek recognition. The emissaries, William Richards, a Calvinist missionary, and Timoteo Haalilio, who was “almost as dark as an Ethiopian,” arrived in D.C. in 1842. Haalilio became the toast of D.C. But after several frustrating meetings with Webster, the two threatened to go to England first. That got them an audience with President Tyler, who authorized recognition of Hawaii—and what was accepted to be United States protection of Hawaii and the American missionaries there against foreign interference. In other words, Tyler extended the Monroe Doctrine to include Hawaii!

In the second instance, Tyler, at the prompting of American merchants, and fueled by the recent British success in the Opium War with China, sought a trade partnership with the Celestial Empire. In 1843, he and outgoing Secretary of State Webster sent a man named Cushing to China to open diplomatic and trade relations, with $40,000 authorized by Congress. Cushing proved to be a terrific choice, because he learned to be patient and respectful with his Chinese counterpart. In the end, Cushing secured a trade and ports deal with China that was better than what the British had won. The wisdom of seeking trade with China should not be dismissed, as exports to China (tobacco, cotton and grains) went from $9.5 million in 1845 to $22.5 million in 1860.

But sadly, Tyler received no credit for these moves. In fact, I was totally unaware of the “opening of China” to trade. As a schoolboy, I only heard of the “opening of Japan”—which, incidentally, Cushing sought to do, but Tyler’s administration ended before it could happen. But Tyler would later claim the “seeds” of opening Japan were planted in his term.

Domestic affairs, spies and impeachment

Much of President Tyler’s focus was on America’s borders and international sphere of influence, and with good reason. But when he turned to domestic affairs, he made a lot of people mad. The Whigs expelled Tyler from the party because he went against their agenda, chief of which was the recreation of the national bank. He vetoed the bank because he believed it went against states rights. He also declined to support the Whig Congress’ tariff, but two years later, did support a limited tariff for northern manufacturers, but Whigs gave him little credit.

Whigs were so upset with Tyler over his vetoes of the bank and tariff that they claimed that Tyler has “misused” the veto, which was a ridiculous charge. Instead, they were misusing the concept of impeachment. The first-ever articles of impeachment were drawn up in the House, but the attempt failed, as they never made it out of Rep. John Quincy Adams’ committee.

Still, the attempt stung. And why wouldn’t it? Tyler was being persecuted for not being a Whig. (Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?) However, if Congress had known what Tyler was doing with “secret service” funds, it might have been able to impeach him on something very tangible. President Tyler, when executing his foreign policy, often employed spies and special diplomats who operated in secret and were paid for out of a “secret service” executive fund. Tyler and Secretary of State Webster were, in fact, using federal funds to wage a secret propaganda campaign inside Maine to get its citizens to believe that they themselves were behind the impetuous for a peaceful resolution with England over the Maine-New Brunswick border. Why was this unconstitutional or border-line unconstitutional? Because of the money involved, and the fact that the executive branch was waging a covert propaganda campaign on Americans. But the issue never came to light while Tyler was president.

Tyler used spies and unofficial “ambassadors” in other capacities throughout his presidency, especially in England, and especially in the defense of slavery. One “General” Duff Green, with a bankroll of executive money, served as “slavery’s ambassador” to England, doing what he could to disrupt antislavery sentiments, much to the disgust of America’s actual minister to England.

He often stretched the Constitution in ways that he professed to abhor before he held the office. But once he held the reins of power, and had the opportunity to enact his vision of national destiny, he shoved aside his republican ideals in favor of the bigger goal.

Back on the domestic front, Tyler and Whigs did come to an interesting agreement on the purchase of land: Under the “log cabin” bill, which Tyler signed, a man could lay claim to 160 acres before it was offered publicly for sale, and then pay $1.25 an acre for it.But his stand on defending slavery naturally alienated abolitionist New England. Conversely, because Southern Democrats didn’t think he was doing enough to defend slavery, and because he had left the Democratic party, he was not their favorite man, either. So Tyler was a “man without a party.” “His Accidency” was scorned and disrespected from all sides, and was not popular.

Partially because of how he attained the presidency, Tyler abstained from making many changes to federal offices for two years. It was only when the bug to become president in his own right grew strong that Tyler began working on party building, but by 1843, it was largely too late in the game for that. Nevertheless, he did the usual purging of postmasters and other office-holders—another betrayal of his pure republican principles. He also commissioned a fawning biography of his life that he “urged” postmasters to buy and deliver.

But strangely enough, when Tyler made the one extended trip of his presidency outside of Washington and Virginia, he was treated as royalty. In Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City, the Tyler party was feted in grander style than any other president had been. Tyler was canny enough to recognize that it probably wasn’t so much for him as it was for the office of the presidency, considering a presidential visit back then was still something extraordinary. Still, even abolitionist Boston treated him with respect, although the real toast of the town was Daniel Webster, just recently departed from the State department, in town as part of the massive 75th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Regardless, Tyler took the outpouring as a good sign that he was on the road to re-election. And he would use Texas to seal the deal.

Texas, ho!

The Mexican War, in modern memory, is always associated with Tyler’s successor, James Polk. But President Tyler bears as much responsibility because, although Polk brought on the shooting war, Tyler made the final drive for the annexation of Texas. That act precipitated war with hapless Mexico, and Tyler knew full well that it would. I’m not trying to establish Tyler as a villain; rather to make sure that it’s understood that the Mexican-American War, which began in 1846, had its roots in Tyler’s administration.

America had long sought to acquire Texas. Some believed it was rightfully ours since the Louisiana Purchase. John Quincy Adams was blamed for “losing” Texas in the Adams-Onis Treaty back during Monroe’s administration. Jackson had his eye on Texas when his protégé, Sam Houston, won Texas’ independence in 1836. Jackson’s second protégé/mentor (a weird relationship), Martin Van Buren, demurred on annexing Texas. It finally fell to the ex-Democrat/ex-Whig Tyler to push through acquiring Texas for the Union, and he did so with relish.

Daniel Webster was no fan of annexing Texas, so Tyler actually put off the Texas matter until the issues with England were put to rest. After all, he and Webster formed a good team. But when it came time to pursue Texas, Tyler—and Webster—knew it was time for him to go.

His interim secretary of state, Hugh Legare, a longtime Tyler confidant and Texas advocate, died suddenly while the president was in Boston. The personal blow put a damper on Tyler’s re-election plans, and he ended the tour and did not head to Ohio and Michigan as planned. But he found another Texas/expansionist stalwart: the brilliant Navy secretary, Abel Upshur.Upshur entered into a secret negotiation with his Texas counterpart, over the objections of the English and Mexican foreign ministries, who believed (correctly) something was afoot. Mexico even said that if the United States were to annex Texas, war would result. Tyler and Upshur were not deterred.

Tyler allies in the Senate also gave brilliant speeches explaining why Texas’ annexation was not merely a sectional (e.g., slave power) matter, but one of national importance. One senator from Mississippi even gave the absurd argument that Texas would serve as a funnel for blacks to leave the country to Mexico and Central and South America, playing up on racial fears.

The well-liked and smooth Upshur secretly secured the necessary two-thirds votes in the Senate without Tyler’s arch-nemesis being aware of it. Texas seemed a little wary of the deal, though, having been burned once by the Van Buren administration. But at that point, annexation—and Tyler’s re-election—seemed assured.

Then tragedy struck. In February 1844, the day that Upshur’s counterpart agreed to annexation, Tyler, Upshur and several guests were cruising the Potomac on the USS Princeton, the Navy’s most advanced steamship. The recently widowed president, smitten with Senator David Gardiner’s daughter, Julia, lingered below deck with her to hear his song sing a song—which probably saved his life. A cannon misfired and exploded, killing Upshur, the secretary of the Navy, Senator Gardiner and several others.It was the worst calamity to befall any administration: two cabinet members killed, and a third dying mere months before. (One happy note: Tyler had gallantly rushed a fainted Julia from the scene, carrying her from the ship. Four months later, over the wagging tongues of gossips and bores, Tyler and Julia were married, and she stayed with him until his death 22 years later.)

In addition, without Upshur, Tyler’s Texas plans began to fall apart—and arguably ended his chance for re-election. Tyler tried pursuing another four years, but Tennessee’s James K. Polk, an up-and-coming star in the Democratic Party and a staunch disciple of Jackson, seemed to have a better chance at the Democratic nomination than Tyler—or Van Buren, who was making another run at it. (The Whig nomination for Tyler was, of course, out of the question, and it went to Clay.) Rather than engage in a bruising fight with Van Buren and Polk, who shared many of the same views as Tyler, the president decided that another four years just wasn’t going to happen, and he bowed out. But he continued to seek Texas.

Texas’ annexation played a large role in the campaign of 1844, and when pro-annexation James Polk won rather handily over Whig Clay and third party candidate Van Buren, President Tyler gained the impetuous he needed to ram legislation through Congress.

Tyler first submitted the annexation treaty to the Senate, but without Upshur it failed to gain the requisite two-thirds majority. Northern members worried at the potential disruption of the balance of power, and there was no way the new secretary of state, John C. Calhoun, would or could convince them otherwise. As many as four new slave states could be carved from Texas, it was argued. The president then turned to an unusual and unprecedented parliamentary trick: he sought a joint resolution from Congress that required only a simple majority. Was it constitutional? Some argued that it wasn’t, including old Albert Gallatin, Jefferson’ secretary of the Treasury, who had told Jefferson not to worry about the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase! But it passed rather handily over the loud objections of Whigs. Congress gave Tyler what he wanted, and annexation was proclaimed in Texas. Tyler himself was unable to officially welcome Texas into the Union as president, as the state did not come in until December 1845, nine months after he left office.

But the triumph was definitely his.


John Tyler left the White House in March 1845 on just about the highest note of any president: Texas was coming into the Union, and he had scored another triumph with the China treaty.

He retired to his Virginia plantation with Julia, returning briefly to Washington to defend Daniel Webster from corruption charges. (Webster was exonerated.) But the elder statesman and defender of states’ rights came back into the public light again in February 1861 to sponsor the Virginia Peace Convention, which sought a compromise to war. Tyler, who long sought to hold the Union together, advocated secession when Virginia rejected his suggestions. He then served in the provisional Confederate Congress and was elected to the formal Confederate Congress, but died in early 1862 before taking his seat.

For those reasons, he is considered a traitor—but no more of a traitor, I think, than Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who are still highly revered among many people. (Is there something less honorable about being a political traitor than being a military traitor? I wonder.)

Final Assessment

How did the Virginian planter handle the affairs of the executive once the major crisis was solved? Better than expected, and better than he is given credit for.And in fact, John Tyler, for all his moral obtuseness, may be the most important of the “forgotten” presidents. After all, many successive presidents have evoked Tyler’s passion for America’s special and unique destiny, including Lincoln, Grant, Wilson, FDR, JFK, Reagan, and George W. Bush, who did so in his second inaugural in 2004.

Tyler used executive privilege in ways that were dangerously close to being flagrantly unconstitutional. Had they been known to Congress, he could have been rightly impeached for using “secret service” executive funds to meddle in state affairs and fund private spy operations.

Tyler often turned his back on his stated republican ideals in the name of expanding executive powers. Biographer Edward Crapol and noted historian Arthur Schlesinger argue that the imperial presidency, which began in Jackson’s term only to temporarily disappear, began anew in Tyler’s term, and there is a lot of truth to that:

“A number of President Tyler’s contemporaries thought his doctrine of executive power undermined the republican principles he formerly held so dear. For example, the editors of the prestigious and influential National Intelligencer, Joseph Gales and William W. Seaton, charged that Tyler’s executive actions violated the constitution because he assumed powers never intended to be employed by the chief executive. They claimed that the prerogative power that that Tyler exercised had no legal standing or constitutional standing. The editors were correct. John Tyler had come to embrace and champion the broad executive prerogatives he found so objectionable when wielded by his predecessors.” (Crapol, p. 281)

But overall, his vision for an America that spanned the continent and influenced commerce and trade well across the Pacific and around the world was powerful, and started to come to fruition at the very end of his term. President Tyler rarely gets credit for the many far-reaching diplomatic triumphs of his administration, and that’s a shame. Historians overlook just how influential Tyler was in his four years, and instead concentrate on his defense of slavery, his assumption of office, and his “traitor” status.

He’s usually ranked in the “below average” or “near failure,” around 35 of 44 presidencies. I strongly disagree. If I were ranking Tyler against the other presidents, I would place him “above average.” His diplomatic achievements alone place him far above many of the rest.

So, this is what I was getting at when I wrote above that Tyler was “Successful (but…)” True, he had a lot of achievements, but he often played too loose with the Constitution to achieve his goals. He was by no means a failure, though.

Final assessment: Successful (but…) and largely unpopular.


An excellent book is Edward P. Crapol’s John Tyler: The Accidental President (2006), which takes a more generous view of Tyler’s presidency than previous works. Also useful is The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (1989) by Norma Lois Peterson, part of the University of Kansas’ American Presidency Series.

* Succeeding a president who died, was assassinated, or resigned were: Fillmore (Taylor), A. Johnson (Lincoln), Arthur (Garfield) T. Roosevelt (McKinley), Coolidge (Harding), Truman (F. Roosevelt), L. Johnson (Kennedy), and Ford (Nixon).

** I had a long talk with my wife about this. It’s actually, thankfully, very hard for someone like me to wrap my mind around such piffle. I understand on an intellectual level how someone could think themselves superior to another, and therefore be master and slave. But emotionally, I can’t. I don’t think it’s just because I’m Christian and I am a “slave” to the real Master, Jesus Christ. I think it’s because I came of age in post-Martin Luther King America, where that kind of raw racism is dying. It’s not dead, as race hustlers of all kinds try to keep it alive. But it is dying. And thank God.


All images are public domain and found in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division unless otherwise noted.

1. Portrait of John Tyler

2. Official White House portrait of John Tyler (White House Historical Association)

3. Tyler Receiving the News of Harrison’s Death. Supposedly that is Daniel Webster’s son delivering the news to an already prepared John Tyler.

4. Wood carving of John Tyler created in 1841.

5. The very crafty and capable Daniel Webster served as Tyler’s secretary of state until 1843.

6. First Lady Letitia Christian Tyler, who died during Tyler’s term.

7. Texas in 1845. Rights for this map are found here.

8. Tyler’s second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler, whom the president married in 1844, making Tyler the first president to marry in the White House. She outlived him by several decades; after Congress gave other presidential widows pension, she fought and won a pension for herself, despite her husband’s status as a “traitor.”

9. The elder statesman: a daguerreotype of John Tyler near the end of his life.