Presidential review: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce
|September 1, 2011||Posted by Oliver Nott under presidential reviews, reviews|
Zachary Taylor, 1849 – 1850
VP: Millard Fillmore, First Lady: Margaret Smith
Zachary Taylor is remembered foremost as a military General, rather than the president of the United States. Known to his friends and colleagues as ‘Old Rough and Ready’, as a General through numerous wars he never lost a battle. Taylor suffered a similar, albeit extended, fate to William Henry Harrison and died only a year into his first term as president. However, while Harrison was greatly mourned over, Taylor’s death was a stroke of luck for the Union and many argue that it kept the civil war at bay for the next decade.
Zachary Taylor was born on the 24th November 1784 in Barboursville, Virginia. He had military command in his genes, with a father as a General during the Revolutionary War, and was made a Lieutenant in 1808. In the war of 1812, Taylor desperately defended Fort Harrison from a strong British assault and although Taylor was considered a bit of a slob by his contemporaries, he still wielded great respect, especially after 1832 when he received surrender from the infamous Chief Black Hawk and defeated the Seminole Indians of Florida.
Taylor’s greatest hour, however, was in 1846, when he and his 4,000 troops were skirmished by Mexican soldiers on the border of Texas. Taylor acted quickly and not only managed to see off the skirmish, but also then go on to defeat Mexican armies in Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Then, to complete this outstanding success, in the February of 1847 Taylor and his soldiers, outnumbered 3 to 1, defeated the Mexican army at Buena Vista. This not only confirmed Taylor as a true war hero, but also confirmed his nomination for presidency by the Whig Party for the 1848 election. Although some were concerned about his lack of political ability, since he’d never held a political office before, and probably didn’t even vote, Taylor ultimately won the election.
Taylor entered office just as the Gold Rush was starting, with thousands upon thousands of Americans and new immigrants travelling to the West in search of the American dream. Although Taylor was only there for a year, he pondered over the construction of a canal in Nicaragua to create better transport between the East and West coasts (something Theodore Roosevelt put into action in Panama around 50 years later). He was also landed with the responsibility of tackling the very difficult and controversial decision over the admissions of California and New Mexico to the Union, and whether they should be Slave or Free states.
Veteran politicians Henry Clay and Daniel Webster fought desperately for a compromise over California’s admission as a state, while former-vice president John C. Calhoun and representatives of nine Southern states convened a meeting in Nashville, in June 1850, to discuss possible secession from the Union. Fortunately for everybody but Taylor, who really didn’t appreciate the frailty of the situation, the whole problem was aided by Taylor’s death.
Zachary Taylor died on July 9th 1850, just over a year after he took office, leaving the presidency to the blandest of the bland, Millard Fillmore. Although Taylor never really had a chance to prove himself as either president or politician, he wasn’t exactly an inspired diplomat or genius debater and many historians now argue that his untimely death probably stayed off civil war for another decade.
Millard Fillmore, 1850 – 1853
VP: N/A, First Lady: Abigail Powers
Millard Fillmore was the most flavourless politician to assume the role of the president of the United States. An arch-insipidness and about as edgy as a light bulb, he stumbled in and out of the White House leaving many unsure of his impact. However, during Fillmore’s shortened term, he managed to hold the Union together and keep the economy in balance, which was the most a president could do during this period of history.
Fillmore was born on the 7th January 1800 in Locke, New York, to a poor family. He apprenticed as a cloth-maker until he was 14-years-old, when he bought his freedom for $30. Illiterate and academically feeble, Fillmore educated himself and in 1826, married Abigail Powers, daughter of a famous New York Baptist, which gave his social standing a much-needed boost. He swiftly moved through politics in the New York state assembly and then Congress, and became a moderate Whig doormat for the bigger beasts of Washington DC. In 1844, Fillmore ran for Governor of New York, however lost and had to settle for the role of the state’s comptroller-general instead.
Fillmore appeared to be floating around in political squalor, making small accomplishments and redefining the term ‘boring politician’. However, in 1848, ‘Old Rough and Ready’ Zachary Taylor asked Fillmore to be his running mate for the presidential election. Fillmore accepted the offer and started work on confounding his reputation for banality.
One year in as vice-president and Fillmore was still as mind-numbing as ever, which became especially worrying when Zachary Taylor unexpectedly died and Fillmore assumed the presidency. He entered the Oval Office as the California state issue was completely dominating US politics, and typically – but nonetheless astutely – stepped aside and let the Congress giants, such as Clay and Webster, find a solution. This solution became the Compromise of 1850 and stipulated that California would be admitted to the Union as a Free state, while New Mexico and Utah would only receive territorial governments. Fillmore added the abolition of the slave trade in Washington DC, and the compromise was considered a success, although in reality it was just another stop-gap measure.
Although the economy was still strong, as the Gold Rush was in full swing, the south and the north were very suspicious of each other and, according to his own party, Fillmore was not the man to settle this passive-aggressive dispute and lost the Whig nomination for president for the 1852 election. Although Fillmore ran again (and lost) in the 1856 presidential election, the end of his presidency was the end of his career in politics. After his dear Abigail died in 1853, Fillmore moved away from Washington DC, married widow Caroline McIntosh in 1858 and died almost forgotten by history on the 8th March 1874.
Although Fillmore rested his presidency on the success of others, such as Clay and Webster with the Compromise of 1850 and Commodore Perry with his trip to Japan, his time in office cannot be considered as one of the worst presidencies there ever was, because he didn’t make any major mistakes. The United States was lucky to escape another term of Fillmore, as a man who achieved little himself was not the sort of commander-in-chief the Union needed during this turbulent time in America’s history.
Franklin Pierce, 1853 – 1857
VP: William R. D. King, First Lady: Jane Means Appleton
After Fillmore’s short, but certainly not sweet, time in office, the United States was just relieved to have a change of character sitting in the White House. This change came in the form of the slightly impressive Franklin Pierce, who amicably continued the line of work left by all his predecessors, which mainly consisted of keeping the north and south as content as possible. He governed during a very prosperous time in US history and was a key figure in diplomacy between the north and south long after his presidency.
Franklin Pierce was born on the 23rd November 1804 in Hillsboro, New Hampshire, into a wealthy family. His father was a General in the Revolutionary War and an extremely successful Governor of New Hampshire. Pierce was a tremendously bright boy, demonstrating attributes of a future president from a very young age. He graduated from Bowdoin College and opened a law office in Concord, New Hampshire, which went on to become vast and successful.
In 1833, at just 29 years of age, Pierce ran for Congress, and sat a couple of terms before being elected to the US Senate at the age of 32 – one of the youngest in history. Pierce had nearly finished one term as Senator before his wife became ill with tuberculosis and he decided to resign. During the Mexican War, Pierce was a Brigadier-General and secured himself a strong political future, much to the resentment of his wife, the deeply religious Jane Means Appleton, as military background was starting to become a prerequisite of the highest offices in US politics at this point.
In 1852, after 49 ballots, Pierce was nominated on behalf of the Democratic Party for the role of the president of the United States. Pierce went on to thrash his former military commander, the Whig General Winfield Scott, however suffered a personal devastation a few months before his inauguration: his son was decapitated in a train accident, right in front of Pierce, which scarred the president for life and made his time in the Oval office emotionally miserable. His wife spiralled into a pit of depression and forever blamed Pierce’s involvement in politics for their son’s death.
Pierce was a rather inactive president for his first quarter as president, however in 1854 he exemplified his previously unappreciated skill for diplomacy when he signed a huge trade treaty with Japan, which many historians consider to be the foundation of the two nations’ now great economies. However, slavery was still plaguing domestic politics at this point and Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which let residents of these two territories decide whether to become Free or Slave states. Although Pierce thought this might please both sides, he was wrong. The north felt he was pandering to the south, while the south felt it was vice versa.
In 1856, Pierce lost his party’s nomination to Pennsylvania’s favourite son, James Buchanan, and let his former colleague attempt to see the country through the inevitable civil war, which was just around the corner. Pierce was probably relieved to lose the nomination, as his time in office was one associated with personal despair and interminable depression.
Pierce’s retirement is usually characterised by the sentiment of complete devotion to his aristocratic inbred wife who was thus constantly ill and who eventually died in 1863. However, Pierce remained an active figure in US politics and was possibly Abraham Lincoln’s biggest critic during the civil war. On the 8th December 1869, Franklin Pierce died, leaving a legacy only a one-term pre-civil war president could – keeping the Union together. His personal life was a timeline of misery and after losing three children and then his wife, Pierce probably felt less pain in death than he had for the past thirty years of his life.