President Zachery Taylor - Assassinated?
There is very little one can say about Zachary Taylor as President. Except that he spawned a Presidential assassination theory that started over a hundred years after his death.
Taylor joined the United States Army at age 24 in 1808. He saw action in the War of 1812 and the Seminole war of 1837. Taylor earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” for his willingness to get dirty alongside his men. In 1846 President Polk sent General Taylor to the disputed boundary between Texas and Mexico. The Mexican army ambushed an American patrol north of the Rio Grande allowing the United States to declare war.
Taylor’s forces invaded Northern Mexico taking Monterrey. Against President Polk’s wishes, Taylor granted the Mexican army an eight-week truce. General Winfield Scott was given the assignment to take Mexico City. Taylor’s experienced troops were transferred to Scott, leaving Taylor with inexperienced soldiers. Taylor took a risk and moved south to Buena Vista where he narrowly avoided defeat at the hands of a larger Mexican force.
The Whig Party nominated Taylor in 1848 because they thought a successful general would win. His political opinions were unknown, and apparently not important to the Whigs. He expressed little interest in politics for most of his life; he never even voted in a Presidential election. Ironically, his popularity was based on the Mexican-American war, a war which the Whigs had generally opposed. Taylor won in a close election against the Democratic nominee Senator Lewis Cass and third-party candidate Martin Van Buren. Van Buren’s campaign on an anti-slavery platform ran strong in several states. Van Buren may have won enough votes to swing the election from Cass to Taylor.
The Whig Party existed for about twenty years, from the mid 1830’s to the mid 1850’s. During that time, they won two Presidential elections: 1840 and 1848. Both times they nominated a general, Harrison in 1840, Taylor 1848. Both times the President died in office, Harrison after 30 days, Taylor after 16 months.
Once Taylor was elected, the main issue facing the country was the status of slavery in the new territories obtained from Mexico. These territories included modern day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and parts of Utah. Taylor was a slaveholder but did not support expansion of slavery into the new states. Southerners wanted additional slave states, Northerners wanted slavery to stay only in states where it already existed, and some even favored abolition. When some Southerners threatened succession over this issue, Taylor is reputed to have said that “if it becomes necessary I’ll take command of the army myself and if you are in rebellion against the Union, I will hang you with less reluctance than I hanged deserters and spies in Mexico”.
Legislators were in the process of working out an agreement on slavery in what eventually became known as the ‘Compromise of 1850’. However, after sixteen months in office, Taylor died before those laws could be passed. It is unclear whether he would have supported them.
On July 4th, 1850 Taylor attended a ceremony at the unfinished Washington Monument. It was hot, and he reportedly ate cherries and milk. He took ill with violent stomach cramps and died on July 9 of what was diagnosed as acute gastroenteritis.
Over 120 years later, in the 1980’s, a humanities professor, Clara Rising, became interested in his death. She argued that pro-slavery factions were against Taylor, a Southerner who opposed the extension of slavery into new states. She believes that Taylor would likely have vetoed the Compromise of 1850 and accompanying Fugitive Slave Act. This would have been a motive to murder by some disgruntled Southerners.
Enough publicity was created that descendants of Taylor approved exhuming his remains to test for arsenic and other poisons. In 1991, his remains were exhumed and samples tested by the Jefferson County (Kentucky) Coroner’s office. The official conclusion was that he was not poisoned by arsenic, although trace amounts were found. They found other drugs in his body including opium. It is possible that his doctors killed him through drugs and bleeding therapy. Some conspiracy theorists dispute the accuracy of the testing that was performed. They also question the presence of any arsenic since Taylor’s wife did not allow him to be embalmed and at the time embalming fluid contained arsenic. Taylor was re-buried, and the official explanation is that he died from something he eat and drank. Commenters noted that Washington was filthy during that time and may have been exposed to contaminated food or drink.
What if Taylor had lived and vetoed the Compromise of 1850? The compromise included admitting California as a free state, allowing other states to decide whether to permit slavery, and a more stringent fugitive slave law. Would the Civil War have occurred sooner, later, or not at all if the Compromise of 1850 had been vetoed? We don’t know. But it seems likely that by this time the Civil War was inevitable.
There is a monument to Taylor in Louisville. Kentucky where he is buried. But no museum or library. Perhaps his Presidency was like throwing a rock into a pond – it sinks out of sight and after a time all the ripples disappear and you never knew there was a rock in the first place.