President Zachary Taylor’s death on July 9, 1850 shocked a nation that was in a heated debate about issues that eventually led to the Civil War. But his sudden passing also sidestepped two constitutional crises.
The details about how and why President Taylor died are still in dispute today. The president attended a ceremony at the site of the Washington Monument on July 4th on a reportedly hot summer day.
He fell ill soon after with a stomach ailment after drinking iced drinks and eating a bowl of cherries. His doctors gave him relief medication that included opium and later bled the president. Taylor died five days later at the age of 65.
Officially, he died from cholera morbus, and today, the prevalent theory is that Taylor suffered from gastroenteritis, an illness exacerbated by poor sanitary conditions in Washington.
There are other theories, including one where Taylor was poisoned by people who supported the South’s pro-slavery position. (In recent years, Taylor’s body was exhumed and a small, non-lethal amount of arsenic was found in samples taken from his corpse.)
It was Taylor’s unexpected opposition to the expansion of slavery (he was from the South and was the last president to own slaves) that had caused an immediate crisis in 1850.
Taylor ran as a Whig candidate in 1848 and he wasn’t a professional politician. Taylor was a career military man and a hero in the war with Mexico. Once he took office in March 1849, it became clear that Taylor, the military man, was more interested in preserving the Union than the art of politics.
Taylor decided to press for statehood for the newly acquitted territories of California and New Mexico, and to let the regions hold their own constitutional conventions. This guaranteed that California and New Mexico would join the Union as anti-slavery states, tipping the balance in the Senate to the North.
Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Senate Majority Leader Henry Clay pressed for a compromise that only admitted California as an anti-slavery state. Siding with Taylor was the Whig leader William Seward, who later played a prominent role in the Lincoln administration. Taylor also supported New Mexico in a border dispute with Texas.
In February 1850, Taylor told southern leaders who threatened to secede that, “taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang ... with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.”
The secession crisis was still in full swing when Taylor died in July 1850. His little-known vice president, Millard Fillmore of New York state, was thrust into office.
Fillmore’s path to the White House was paved in 1841 after the death of President William Henry Harrison. The Constitution was very unclear about the concept of presidential succession and Harrison’s vice president, John Tyler, made the bold move of declaring himself as Harrison’s successor by taking the presidential oath. The “Tyler Precedent” was used for presidential secession until the 25th amendment was passed in 1967.
There was little argument about Fillmore’s right to assume the presidency, and the Northerner soon sided with Clay and supported the Compromise of 1850. The compromise did reduce the threat of Southern secession for several years, but it included the controversial Fugitive Slave Act and blocked New Mexico from joining the Union as an anti-slavery state.
Had the Tyler Precedent not been in effect, the legitimacy of Fillmore’s presidency would have been an issue.
And there are several other hypothetical issues that would have been prominent if Taylor had survived, or if his predecessor had opted to run for re-election.
Taylor was a committed nationalist as a military leader and wanted to keep the Union together. What would have happened if Taylor didn’t agree to the compromise brokered by Clay?
And President James K. Polk, a Democrat, decided to keep a campaign promise and not run for a second term in 1848. What would have happened if Polk, and not Taylor, was in the White House, in 1850? We would never know, since Polk died just three months after leaving office in 1849, apparently from cholera at the age of 54.
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