Saturday, June 11, 2016

The President who killed a political party and almost destroyed a nation.

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At one time in American history, there was a political party that suffered from deep internal divisions. Southerns conservatives and northern business interests agreed on very little.  The main thing that held them together was their mutual hatred of the Democrats.  They deplored many actions by the other party that they deemed both damaging to the nation and unconstitutional.  They eventually nominated an outsider who only spoke of policy in vague generalities, was deeply hated by Mexicans, and who did not seem terribly committed to party principles.  Sound familiar?

Of course it does.  We are all familiar with the Presidency of Zachary Taylor, right?  Taylor was a long time military officer.  He had taken pride in the fact that he remain apolitical.  He had not joined any political party and had never even voted in an election.

Zachary Taylor
In 1848, the Whig party was trying to pick its Presidential nominee.  The pro-slavery southerners and the northern capitalists ran the party in an uneasy alliance.  Both groups generally opposed to the Jacksonian politics that dominated the Democrats, but had little else in common.  The Whigs were never a particularly powerful party in the US.  They were the remnants of the old Federalist Party, which had been crushed by the far more popular Democrats who dominated the first half of the 19th Century.

The only successful Whig ticket had been William Henry Harrison in 1840. Harrison had been a popular military General who was not overly focused on politics.  After plenty of internal squabbling, the Whigs chose a similar path for 1848. Gen. Zachary Taylor was a military hero.  He was not terribly popular with the Mexicans, having just crushed them in the Mexican-American War.  But that garnered him enough support among others to make him a credible candidate. Leading Whig politicians of the day largely opposed this outsider with no political experience.  He was a crude speaking westerner with no real polish or manners.  He did not seem to have any strong opinions on the issues of they day, but was seen by the masses as a strong leader.

The voters seemed to see Taylor as the anti-politician.  As late as 1846, he said that the idea of running for President “never entered my head … nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person.”  Despite a career in the Army, Taylor had inherited a great deal of land and was one of the wealthiest Americans of the period.  He was not beholden to anyone and refused to make deals even with other Whig leaders.

During this period, it was considered unseemly for candidates to campaign for office.  They had to be seen as being drawn by others into the job.  Any campaigning had to be done in a subtle way.  Taylor would write letters to friends and family opining on his political views and what the country should do.  The recipients would leak these letters to the press.  While not as direct as modern day Twitter, they had their effect.  Voters got to hear about President Taylor and his views on the issues of the day, at least in a vague way.

Taylor generally refused to get specific on any issues.  He selected another moderate politician, Millard Fillmore as his Vice President.  Fillmore had been a New York Congressman, but had left office five years earlier and was now a private citizen. The Party even decided not to issue a platform of issues.  The campaign would be run on personality rather than policy.

The election was a difficult one.  The Democrats made things easier by nominating an unpopular candidate of their own.  Lewis Cass had been a senator and member of the Cabinet as Secretary of War.  He also had foreign policy experience as Ambassador to France. Four years earlier, he had been the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, but had lost after a dark horse candidate named James Polk came out of nowhere to win.  This time, Cass won the nomination.  Still he was not overwhelmingly popular, even in his own Party.  He tended to take calculated and moderate positions on issues when voters wanted a more decisive leader.

The major issue of the day was the expansion of slavery into the west.  Newly acquired territory from Mexico in the American southwest was ripe for settlement.  Southerners wanted to bring slaves into the territories while northerners wanted to keep them free.  Both candidates generally dodged the issue, saying that the people who settled in those territories should be able to vote on the issue and decide for themselves.

Voters were clearly unhappy with both major party choices.  A third party sprang up to field candidates. The Liberty Party, later morphing into the Free Soil Party, nominated its own candidate. Voter turnout was much lower than in previous elections despite the close outcome.  Both candidates won 15 States, though Taylor won a few of the larger ones, defeating Cass with about 47% to 42% with a third party winning just over 10%.

The big issue of Taylor's Presidency was what to do with the Mexican Session, the land from Texas to the Pacific coast that had been ceded during the Mexican War.  Taylor basically let the politicians in Congress work out a compromise.  The Compromise of 1850 turned out to be an utter disaster.  Under the terms of the Compromise:
  • The US admitted California as a Free State.
  • It set the western border of Texas, forcing it to give up claims to the New Mexico territory in exchange for the government taking over the State debt.
  • The settlers in the Utah and New Mexico territories would be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery.
  • It place a ban on the sale of slaves (but not slave ownership) in the District of Columbia
  • The Fugitive Slave Act required people in free States to assist with the return of escaped slaves.
Both sides seemed unhappy with the result.  Southerners realized that slaves states were destined to become a minority within the Union and that at some point they would be unable to protect the institution unless they got more aggressive in protecting slave rights now.  The idea of "popular sovereignty," that is letting new States vote on slavery, led to brutal violence in new territories.  Both sides used intimidation and murder to keep the other side out of territories prior to any vote.  The DC slave ban caused Virginia to take back its portion of DC so that slave auctions could continue in Alexandria.  The Fugitive Slave Act galvanized the abolition movement in the north.  Northerners could not longer ignore slavery in far off States.  Men in the north could now actually be forced into posses to help capture slaves and return them to servitude.

Taylor did not actually live long enough to see all of this.  He died suddenly in 1850, after just over a year in office.  His Vice President, Millard Fillmore signed the Compromise into law.  But the damage was done. In 1852, the Whig Party refused even to nominate their incumbent President for another term. Instead they nominated Gen. Winfield Scott, who went on to lose to Franklin Pierce. The Party broke up completely a few years later and did not even field a candidate in 1856.  The Whig party in America was dead.

The result of the Compromise of 1850 was increased violence and sectional tension throughout the 1850's, eventually leading to the outbreak of the US Civil war in 1861.  This would become by far the bloodiest war in US history and the closest the US has even come to a break up of the Union.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

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