Updated: Dec 26, 2020
The fourth edition of "Cherrypicking" uncovers a new letter which may hold a key to deciphering Zachary Taylor's true political beliefs on the eve of his election to the Presidency. Special thanks to Thomas Carter (Historians Trove, @historicalletters on Instagram) for bringing this piece of American history to my attention.
A few Fridays ago, my train of scattered thought was interrupted by the jittering of my phone on the desk in front of me. Sitting on the chair in my dad’s office (which I have had a knack to take over for at-home schoolwork purposes these past few months), I had been ruminating for a half-hour over how to start my second “Cherrypicking” blogpost. The task of finding the wittiest aquatic phrase proved pretty taxing to this land-dependent creature, so it was relieving to finally break my jumbled stream of consciousness.
The notification brought me to my ZTP Instagram, where an account by the name of Historians Trove (@historicalletters) just sent me a slew of messages. I began to read. With every word my cluttered mind emptied of all its troubles, and I quickly became enamored with the content of what I was reading. Moments before this Trove was unknown to me. Now, I couldn’t help but want to know more about this newfound buried treasure.
The face behind the account was Thomas Carter, a 21-year-old collector of letters dealing with the momentous events and characters in American history. In his most recent travels, he unearthed what he (reasonably) regarded as “probably the most significant Taylor letter outside of the Library of Congress.”
Quite the letter, it is. Mr. Carter purchased the prized piece of Zachary Taylor history at an auction from the papers of Colonel Edward G. W. Butler, a man who corresponded regularly with other prominent Antebellum figures like Sam Houston, James Buchanan, and Andrew Jackson (who Colonel Butler was a ward of, according to Mr. Carter).
On September 25, 1848, General Taylor paused to write Colonel Butler from his “Spanish Cottage” in Baton Rouge, responding to a letter the Colonel sent nine days earlier. In it, Taylor cheerfully reacts to Butler’s return home, expressing joy in the Colonel’s finding “your excellent Lady in the enjoyment of good health.”
But, my friends, let me assert that this is no ordinary letter.
I would be lying if I told you today that I’ve read everything there is to read about Zachary Taylor - truthfully, I have only analyzed a few letters of his own hand, even though many are available online. I’ve read Taylor's biographies, though, and I think that this letter may hold a key to unlocking how historians judge President Taylor and his administration for years to come.
Colonel Butler must have been a very close friend of General Taylor. Evident was the matter-of-fact charm and considerate nature that so defined Taylor’s pen. But many of the sentences drawn up in the three-page letter disclose certain political beliefs and details that have evaded the eye of virtually all his professional biographers for the last 170 years.
With this post, I’m going to highlight some excerpts from the letter and explain their significance in telling the story of a humble man destined to become his country’s Commander-in-Chief.
First, a minor addition to the timeline. When I first read Holman Hamilton’s biography near the end of eighth grade, the mention of a town named East Pascagoula caught my attention. Taylor’s foremost biographer recounted that it was in this Mississippi town situated on the Gulf where the Whig nominee for President wrote and signed the “Second Allison Letter,” a publication which helped him secure victory in the election a couple months later. Holman Hamilton had little else to report about General Taylor’s experience in East Pascagoula except that he was toasted at “receptions in the hero’s honor” and that “most of the time Taylor stayed at his small cottage on the water front” (Hamilton 121). The passage piqued my interest because I realized this “small cottage” was akin to something of a Summer Home, or what my friends would colloquially call beach houses. Perhaps it was the warming temperatures luring me to the Jersey shore, but East Pascagoula has left an imprint on my findings, making the old General a little more three-dimensional, a little more relatable.
One thing I could never pin down was how long the Taylors visited the Mississippi coast that September. Holman Hamilton concurred that he and his family may have stayed there only three weeks during that month, while another biographer K. Jack Bauer asserted that General Taylor had been in East Pascagoula in August as well. Seems trivial, but it is of great interest where one of the most popular and central figures in America spent his time before his election to the highest office in the hemisphere.
So it was delightful to have my question answered directly by General Taylor himself right off the bat:
“[I made] my return to this place [Baton Rouge] a day or two since from East Pascagoula Mississippi where I had gone some fix or six weeks since to attend to some matters connected with my official duties, & to afford my family for a short time the benefit of salt air & sea bathing”
According to this letter’s contents, Taylor and his loved ones were living it up at their beach house from the middle of August to either September 23 or 24, 1848, soaking in the sun and splish-splashing around in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. General Taylor went principally to deal with military affairs, which gives a little more color to his Army duties after the War as the commander of the Western Division. But I’m sure he didn’t mind looking out over the ocean those late summer nights.
Moving on from this little foray in East Pascagoula, the next line that stood out to me was rooted in the timeless bonds that hold soldiers together. This year in my AP Literature class, we have read many war stories, detailing the point of view of soldiers in intense conflicts like Vietnam. Texts like Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” exposed the deep feelings of camaraderie experienced by men tasked with facing extreme bouts of trauma together, compromising their religion, their morals, their livelihoods. Horrors like these were no less powerful in the 19th century, and Zachary Taylor, a general compassionate among his troops, knew all too well about the intense emotional turmoil which bonded brothers in arms. He stated as such to Colonel Butler, who had just parted ways with the men under his command:
“The duties which devolved on you at St. Louis of disbanding your Regt., a portion of whom had been associated with you for some time, in a way which attaches men most strongly to each other than any other pursuit in life that of arms, must have been attended with many unpleasant if not with painful reflections”
Colonel Butler attended West Point and during the Mexican War first served as a Major General in the Louisiana Militia before being assigned to the 3rd Dragoon Regiment in September 1847. Like Taylor, Butler gave up many years of his life in the service of his country, and the two valued the friendships and relationships they made during those most trying times.
Even still, soldiers played a more valuable role at home in 1848 than one might imagine. Americans had a hunger to expand their boundaries long before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and the only surefire way of suppressing bloody conflicts between white pioneers and irritated Natives was stationing a garrison of American army officers around new settlements out west. Zachary Taylor’s career was defined by these peacekeeping efforts, and he knew through experience that competent leaders and men were needed to protect the newly adjusted American frontier from lawlessness.
“It would have been desirable & advantageous to the country [Taylor wrote], if a portion if not the whole of your regt. at any rate those who wished to remain, had been continued in the service, to have aided in protecting our exposed citizens & keeping every thing quiet on our greatly extended frontier.”
In the aftermath of wars, Taylor thought it imprudent for the government to reduce funding and resources vital to the Army’s capacity to do its work. After the War of 1812, Taylor himself suffered under one of these reductions, resigning after he was demoted from major to captain due to reorganization and the lowering of officers’ salaries. Now, General Taylor feared that the struggles ahead in the new territories would be dealt with poorly and inefficiently in a time where quality and efficiency were at a premium. “The army must be increased,” Taylor wrote, “& at no distant day.”
Here, however, are the lines so critical to Taylor’s ongoing legacy.
As a candidate and later as president, Zachary Taylor longed to say little about the issues of the day; pointing to Whig principles, he didn’t think it was proper for the President to dictate what laws or policies should be enacted. Voters went to cast their ballot with very little knowledge about General Taylor’s true governing philosophies.
But to Colonel Butler, Taylor was more candid than in any letter I’ve yet seen from his hand. This paragraph exposes Zachary Taylor’s true political leanings on the eve of his election.
“The course pursued by the majority in Congress touching the organization of the Oregon Territory was such as I expected, & predicted before I left Mexico, & I now foresee the same course will be pursued in regard to all new territories which may be organized for the time to come; the fact is, the Democrats of the North or the free states, in the management of the Mexican War & results growing out of it, have overreached their brethren of the slave holding states, & all questions of a political character in the country will be merged into that of free soil in less than twelve months.”
Under President Polk, negotiations over the Oregon Territory and the spoils of victory in the Mexican War brought roughly 1.2 million acres of new land into the United States. What divided the country, and what further opened the door to civil war just over a decade later, was the question of expanding slavery into these new lands.
President Taylor’s sixteen months in office would be marked by debates surrounding this extension issue. He sought to lead the country with a national vision, unwilling to bend to the interests of neither North nor South. Nevertheless, this letter shows that even a unionist like Taylor couldn’t resist the complexities of the growing chasm widening in the Republic.
Does this passage change how historians should evaluate Taylor?
In some ways it does - but much of it is still up to interpretation. Two camps have diverged in evaluating Taylor’s presidential legacy. One, espoused by Taylor’s premier biographer Holman Hamilton and others, is that Taylor became a champion of Northern and Free Soil ideals during his administration, and would stand against the final draft of the Compromise of 1850. However, a newer point of view from another biographer Elbert B. Smith assures that Taylor was a man that actually sought compromise, and worked to appeal on a purely national level.
This letter appears to give Smith’s ideology more weight; Taylor believed the North was overstepping their authority, not the other way around. Unlike Hamilton’s surmisings, Taylor in this 1848 letter to Colonel Butler is a man uninterested in building sectional coalitions for his own political gain, and more focused on finding balance, on finding compromise.
And yet, there is still a way that Hamilton could claim victory here. He may have read the sections about the Oregon Territory’s “organization” by Congress as Taylor’s dismay at an inorganic attempt to deny Oregonians the right to vouch for statehood. He could have written off Taylor’s frustration at the Democrats as a stroke of partisan annoyance. Altogether, Hamilton might throw this letter into the nonessential pile under the guise of his theory regarding Taylor’s growing usage of executive power during the course of his presidency. Both camps (small in number but confident in base) could continue to tear apart this paragraph for decades to come.
Mr. Carter’s treasured piece of Taylorana adds another dimension to how historians and Zachary Taylor scrutinize America’s twelfth president, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I come back to this letter when writing my own book.
I probably did myself a disservice by heaping praise upon this letter. To have the letter would make me the proudest Zachary Taylor nerd in the universe, but I hope I didn’t bump up Mr. Carter’s asking price too high. The prospective Zachary Taylor National Historic Site would be a great home for this letter, but without a job and college debts around the corner, I don’t know when I’ll be able to get my hands on this fascinating piece of history. Some day.
Thank you to Thomas Carter (@historicalletters) for reaching out and giving me more food for thought. No doubt it also motivates me to figure out this whole museum situation sooner rather than later.
For those of you who made it down here, thanks for sticking with me. As a little treat, here is the full text of the letter, transcribed my Mr. Carter. You can decide for yourself what camp you fall in.
Zachary Taylor ALS, September, 1848:
Baton Rouge Septr. 25th, 1848
My dear Col,
On my return to this place a day or two since from East Pascagoula Mississippi where I had gone some five or six weeks since to attend to some matters connected with my official duties, & to afford my family for a short time the benefit of salt air & sea bathing, I found your acceptable & interesting letter of the 16th ulto., & I can truly say it afforded me much real pleasure to hear of your return to your home with the young gentlemen all well, & that you found your excellent Lady in the enjoyment of good health, which you have all continued to enjoy.
The duties which devolved on you at St. Louis of disbanding your Regt., a portion of whom had been associated with you for some time, in a way which attaches men most strongly to each other than any other pursuit in life that of arms, must have been attended with many unpleasant if not with painful reflections; I agree with you that it would have been desirable & advantageous to the country, if a portion if not the whole of your regt. at any rate those who wished to remain, had been continued in the service, to have aided in protecting our exposed citizens & keeping every thing quiet on our greatly extended frontier. The army must be increased & at no distant day, & I hazard nothing in saying a more intelligent, gallant, & zealous set of officers will not be again brought together in any corps in the Service.
The course pursued by the majority in Congress touching the organization of the Oregon Territory was such as I expected, & predicted before I left Mexico, & I now foresee the same course will be pursued in regard to all new territories which may be organized for the time to come; the fact is, the Democrats of the North or the free states, in the management of the Mexican War & results growing out of it, have overreached their brethren of the slave holding states, & all questions of a political character in the country will be merged into that of free soil in less than twelve months.
But I am heartily tired of Politics & everything connected with them, & envy those who are clear of such matters; & would greatly prefer quiet & retirement in a cabin or cottage than all the pomp & circumstance connected with the White House; the contest is now at hand & I will rejoice heartily when it is at an end, let it result as it may; & if I am defeated I shall not complain; on the contrary if it is my lot to reach the presidential office I shall enter on the important duties with the same, with greater apprehensions & anxiety than gratification or pride at reaching it.
We are delighted to learn you, your good lady, & the Young Gentlemen have concluded to pay us a visit, & we will be happy to have you with us at our cottage any day after the first of October which is Sunday next, where you will receive the most hearty & cordial welcome.
Mrs. Taylor joins me in kindest regards to your brother self & the Young Gentlemen & accept our best wishes for the continued health & prosperity of you & yours through a long life.
Hamilton, H. Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic. Easton Press, 1989.