The President Who Was the 19th Century Version of Donald Trump

April 5, 2017

If you think 2016 was the only year a political party has nominated a seemingly inexperienced, wealthy candidate with somewhat iffy ties to the party he was running under, you’d be wrong. Add to that a man who liked to say it like it is, and the fact that the candidate was also considered a major celebrity at the time, and you have Donald Trump, right?

You’d be wrong though. Those Trump-esque qualities also perfectly describe our president of the week: Zachary Taylor. The year was 1849. And he was all of the above and then some.

Zachary Taylor

His nickname “Old Rough and Ready” seems totally fitting, doesn’t it?

The Facts

Zachary Taylor was president from 1849-1850. He probably never guessed he’d be president. Neither did anyone else.

If I’ve learned anything from researching the past 11 presidents, it’s that history repeats itself. We like to think that in our modern era, everything is so new and unprecedented, but that’s simply not true.

Most people just don’t know the history. You’re about to learn though.

In the case of Zachary Taylor, his presidential candidacy sounds eerily similar to this past election. I’ll lay it out for you . . . the Whig Party was going through a rough patch and had a hard time narrowing down the field to a single candidate. Of all the completely qualified candidates they had who were interested in the presidential nomination, they ultimately settled on a seemingly inexperienced, super wealthy and outspoken candidate who they never knew what he was going to say or do.

Party extremists were furious that this man was their nominee. So furious, in fact, that ultimately, it led to the end of the Whig party.

So how did such a man get elected? Well, as a war hero, he won the votes of the north. As a slaveholder, he won the votes of the south, which is why the Whigs nominated him in the first place.

But, what was really key was that the other main party (the democrats) nominated someone the party was just “meh” about. That candidate was Lewis Cass (governor of the Michigan territory and Secretary of War for Andrew Jackson). Since no one was too gung-ho about him either, a lot of votes ended up going to the third party candidate who, ironically, was former president Martin Van Buren, who was still mad he hadn’t been re-elected to a second term and wanted to redeem himself. He didn’t get enough votes to be taken seriously but steered enough votes away from Cass to ultimately give Zachary Taylor the presidency.

That’s the story in a nutshell anyway. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Lincoln with President Taylor

My youngest with the President Taylor statue in downtown Rapid City.

Zachary Taylor’s presidential story isn’t a long one. He died after only a year in office. We’ll get more into that later.

The issue that defines his presidency ultimately came down to the new land that was acquired by James Polk. The North wanted the new land set up according to principles they agreed with (i.e. free/no slaves) and the South wanted the same thing (i.e slaves). So much so, that they were threatening to leave over it.

America was at a major crossroads and to guarantee a successful future, it needed an extraordinary leader. Most historians will agree that Zachary Taylor was not that man.

Though when Taylor entered office, he had promised to never use his veto power, he went back on that promise later when he threatened to veto a bill Congress was considering that attempted to compromise with the south on whether California would be a slave-state or not. Not only did Taylor say he’d veto the bill, but he also said he’d hang anyone who left the union over it. Needless to say, after that, the South wasn’t a big fan of Taylor.

Which is why, on July 4th of 1850, when Taylor unexpectedly fell ill after attending a ceremony at the newly dedicated grounds for the Washington Monument (he laid the cornerstone for it), some were suspicious. It’s said that it was scorching outside and that Taylor drank milk and a bowl full of cherries to cool off. Hours later, he was bedridden with extreme stomach cramps, and all the awful stuff that comes with it, and five days later he was dead.

His death was declared due to a bacterial infection in his small intestine. However, more than a century later, the question of whether he was poisoned was on the minds of many historians since his symptoms matched those of arsenic poisoning. So in 1991, with the permission of his ancestors, Taylor’s body was exhumed and analyzed for evidence of arsenic poisoning.

The verdict?

If he died of poisoning, it wasn’t detectable. The results were that it was more likely that he died from either cholera (super common at the time) or gastroenteritis. Since bacteria was present all over the place in those days, often from inadequate sewage systems in the hot and humid city of Washington, it was most likely just an unfortunate result of the bacteria being present in what he ate that day.

Would our country be different had Zachary Taylor lived? Many historians think so, but whether it would have been worse or better off, we’ll never know.

The high point of his presidency was the signing of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with Great Britain. The treaty established joint control of any canal built across Central America, essentially paving the way for the Panama Canal 50 years later.

Political Party

Whig (kind of). Since he was a military career man, he didn’t really belong to any political party, but the Whigs claimed him as their own to win the election.

First LadyThe First Lady

Margaret “Peggy” Mackall Smith Taylor. She left most of the “hostess” duties to her daughter Betty Taylor and was rarely seen in public. This created rumors that she was a recluse and mentally ill, but the other reasoning for her staying out of sight could have been that President Taylor had promised her after he’d returned from the Mexican War that she’d never have to “go out” into society again. However, she was willing to greet certain guests in her upstairs bedroom, presided at family dinners in the dining room, and attended church regularly with her husband.

Vice President

Millard Fillmore (we’ll learn about him next)

Why Zachary Taylor is Cool

Zachary Taylor

This fact definitely makes him unique: “Old Rough and Ready,” as he was known to many (partly named after his fighting style, partly after his disheveled appearance) had never voted. Whether he had even voted in his own election is the subject of debate, but most historians claim that he wasn’t even registered to vote. Seriously! How’d he get away with this? He claimed he hadn’t wanted to vote against a potential commander in chief.

Not only had he not voted, but many historians claim him as the first president with absolutely no knowledge beforehand of the political process. Although he had no political experience, he definitely had political ties. His second cousin, James Madison had been the one to secure his spot in the Army. His son-in-law was Jefferson Davis (who later went on to be the head of the Confederacy) and Robert E. Lee was also a distant cousin.

Also, he was a huge celebrity in his time. He was a major war hero who led men like Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S. Grant. Abraham Lincoln even served under him at one time. People were in awe of him. In fact, it’s said that a portion of his wealth came from major gifts given to him by so many people.

Also, although he was a slave-owner, he was adamantly against the expansion of slavery, never wavering in his stance that California should be a free-state.

For Kids

Point out the similarities in Zachary Taylor’s presidency to today’s politics. He was viewed as a celebrity and had little political experience. Things today aren’t as different as the past.

Sources: I have this really awesome book I love that I bought in the Mount Rushmore gift shop. It’s a small, easy to read book aptly titled The Presidents of the United States of America. Find it here. It probably has the most thorough, in-depth summary of each president all neatly packaged into a single page for each. I love it!

Also, like I’ve mentioned before, the History Channel has an amazing documentary on the lives of each of our presidents. I’ve been watching it every single week. It is seriously fascinating. You can find it here. It’s a great watch for younger kids and especially any older kids who are learning about our American history. They also have a more condensed and less expensive version that you can find here. Both versions are great because they both have different information about each president.

Other sources are referenced throughout.

 

Author: Brittany

Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.

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6 Comments

  • Reply lindsay April 5, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Woah! Crazy times, he was the end of the Whigs? You guys rock. Loving the history. Thank you!

    • Reply Brittany April 5, 2017 at 10:42 pm

      Technically, Millard Fillmore was the last Whig president (since he took over for Taylor when he died). But Taylor was the last straw for the party and it basically fizzled out afterward.

  • Reply Darren April 5, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    Great post and well written

  • Reply Ashley Burton April 5, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    This is so good! I had no idea he placed the cornerstone for the Washington Monument! Thanks for the info!

    • Reply Brittany April 5, 2017 at 10:40 pm

      Thanks so much for reading, Ashley and Darren!

  • Reply Kevin Sherlock July 3, 2017 at 11:57 am

    From my upcoming book “How to be Your Own Detective:”

    Holding public office in America should be an honor and a trust.

    For example, the American people elected Kentucky’s Zachary Taylor as president in 1848. They chose him
    not because he was a skillful politician, but because they appreciated his lifetime of service to the nation as
    a military officer who made good decisions and shared the dangers and deprivations of his men on the frontier
    and in battle.

    Taylor was one of the nation’s best military officers in the half-century before the Civil War.
    Taylor himself was a kind and honest man who was accused of being an American Indian lover because he
    was much more fair to them than the average officer. During the Seminole War, Taylor and his men captured
    a number of blacks who lived with the Seminoles and he allowed them to go to Oklahoma with the Seminoles
    according to their wishes instead of selling them into slavery, like many speculators and slaveholders wanted
    him to do. Taylor punished men in his command who raped or robbed or wrongfully shot Mexican civilians
    during the Mexican War. He paid for the treatment of severely wounded Mexican soldiers out of his own
    pocket because he told his men they were from a fellow Christian land, even if they were Catholics instead
    of Protestants like he and most of his men were. And he stood up to the wrongful conduct of his superiors in
    the Polk Administration. All of the above marked “Old Rough and Ready” as a truly great man.

    Taylor’s wife Peggy, instead of sipping juleps on the porch of their plantation, served on the frontier with him.
    She lived in rude housing, raised their children, sewed uniforms, nursed the sick, and wrote letters home for
    illiterate soldiers. She turned down the honor of being the First Lady (a term her husband coined) because
    she made a vow to God to turn down the honors of society if only He would let her Zack come home safe from
    the Mexican War. (Their charming daughter Betty served in her stead as “Hostess of the White House.”) No
    woman of Peggy’s wealth would do these things today. She was a noble woman in the best sense of the word.

    Taylor, despite being a slaveholder, saw slavery was tearing the country apart. So he decided to limit slavery
    with an eye toward ending it. Senator William Seward evidently got him to consider using federal money to
    buy the slaves their liberty and set them up as sharecroppers or pioneers in the West. The Democrats, the
    party of slavery, opposed Taylor. Taylor’s own Whigs, like the GOP today, were led by establishment
    politicians who were spineless. Taylor defied them all. He maneuvered to get gold rushing California and
    mostly Spanish and Catholic New Mexico into the Union as free states to break the slavery deadlock in the
    Senate. He threatened secessionist politicians to their faces with hanging if he was to catch them in rebellion.
    He sent troops to New Mexico to keep Texans from seizing the land. And he believed the Mormons were
    degenerate polygamists, so he rejected their claims to Nevada, and large parts of Colorado, Arizona, Idaho,
    and California, and kept them in limbo.

    Key senators like Whigs Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and Democrat Stephen Douglas wanted to put a
    fugitive slave act on the books, which would allow white trash to crisscross the free states grabbing blacks
    and enslaving them. Taylor opposed this as well. Taylor said slaves ran away because they were being
    mistreated. Even though he was outnumbered in votes in the Senate and House, Taylor could veto legislation,
    order the Army to protect the people of New Mexico from invasion by Texans, and order the Navy to block a
    slaveholder attempt to invade Cuba and make it a slave state. “Old Rough and Ready” did all three.

    Taylor blocked the Democrats and his own party’s senators’ attempt to sell out on the expansion of slavery.
    Taylor also blocked the demands of speculators to use federal money to cover bonds Texas had issued
    because it wasn’t the public’s duty to bail out greedy speculators. Taylor, on the verge of victory over the
    enemies of the Republic, sickened suddenly on the 4th of July, 1850, and died five days later. He served only
    16 months as President, all of which were filled with tumult. After his death, a series of punk presidents
    (Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan) and cowardly congresses made the Civil War inevitable. It remained for Taylor’s
    followers Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant to deal with this horrible disaster.

    Some speculated Taylor was poisoned to make it possible for Millard Fillmore and Congress to roll over for
    the slaveholding interests and those who held Texas bonds who wanted big money. The coroner of Jefferson
    County, Kentucky, at the request of more than 100 descendants of Zachary Taylor, exhumed Taylor in 1991.
    The only poison forensic scientists could check for was arsenic; Taylor had a level of arsenic in him average
    for men of his era. However, they could not rule out poisoning by some other method (a variety of poisonous
    mushroom causes symptoms like Taylor suffered as he lay dying), so Taylor’s death remains an unsolved
    mystery.

    Taylor looked for adult solutions to a terrible problem. He would use force to preserve the Union, and evidently
    leaned toward using federal money to pay slaveholders for the liberty of their slaves. Had he lived, the Civil
    War would have not occurred, or only a few states would have broken with the Union. if Taylor was still alive,
    most of the generals who would later lead the Confederacy would have listened to his counsel and would not
    have broken with the Union, because they served under him and admired him.

    Taylor, by his service for the nation, and by his courage, honesty, and common sense, won the public’s trust,
    and proved himself worthy of it in the final mission of his life. He dared to confront the slavery issue which
    threatened the nation’s life, and died while doing so. His death was a national calamity every bit as big as the
    murder of his legendary supporter (and subordinate in the Black Hawk War) Abraham Lincoln.

    Sadly, honorable men like Zachary Taylor or Abraham Lincoln or George Washington or Grover Cleveland
    or Theodore Roosevelt or Al Smith or Ronald Reagan are virtually nonexistent in the public offices of today.

    The average politician is not someone who has lived a life of greatness in his or her chosen field and has
    stepped into public life out of a sense of duty, like Zachary Taylor. The average politician views holding public
    office as a plum that comes with a salary and perks, and a chance to advance …. while telling people what
    to do and maybe not having to do a lot himself or herself except to tell most people what they want to hear.
    In short, it’s not public service, but the public trough and a career of not having to do honest labor to become
    well-to-do that these politicians seek. It’s an advancement from being a teacher or a union steward or a low-grade
    lawyer or a government clerk for these pushy but not-so-talented people.

    Politicians (and IRS agents) normally only perform artificial respiration on people who can’t breathe so they
    can suck the gold and silver from victims’ teeth. Many politicians routinely violate the Ten Commandments
    with selfishness so blatant and spirit so mean they are a key reason there deserves to be a Hell.

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