It happened today - July 9, 2015

Zachary TaylorOn this day in history, back in 1850, President Zachary Taylor died of cholera. Sic transit lack of gloria mundi, you may say. Or just “Who?!?” But think for a moment what might have happened otherwise.

Taylor himself was, well, an undistinguished politician. But he was a distinguished military man, both in the War of 1812 and, admittedly against less than overwhelmingly odds, in the lopsided Mexican-American war. And he was a reasonable if cynical choice for the Whig Party in their second real shot at the White House.

Two elections prior, in 1840, they had successfully elected William Henry Harrison, an even more elderly distinguished military man of equally vague political beliefs, only to have him die of pneumonia a month after delivering an endless windy inaugural address on a cold windy day, bringing his ticket-balancing-Democrat vice-president John Tyler into the White House. And when Taylor died, it brought undistinguished vice-president Millard Fillmore into the White House where he served out his term without distinction or effect.

The poor Whigs. They never had another chance. The Democrats, who had pounced in 1844 and elected the mediocre James Polk, pounced in 1852 and elected the mediocre Franklin Pierce, then in 1856 the superficially distinguished but ineffective James Buchanan. Then came the Republicans, Lincoln and Civil War.

Now the sad thing here is that the Whigs were meant to be the moderate alternative on the issue everyone knew mattered most, and threatened to tear the Republic asunder, slavery. Taylor himself was a Southerner and a slave-owner. But he was no fire-eater. Rather than pushing for the unlimited expansion of slavery he sought a reasonable compromise to contain it. And he vocally deplored secession.

Was any such compromise possible? Probably not. Was Taylor the man to make it happen? Again, probably not. The Compromise of 1850, well-meaning and ultimately disastrous, had the support of genuine statesmen like Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. And when I say “compromise” I do not mean some arrangement that could have kept slavery in existence indefinitely. I mean some quiet way of winding it down.

The reason it matters is that, while we cannot know what might have happened under a strong Whig administration in the late antebellum period, we can and do know that the actual course of events was a disaster. It not only subjected the United States to a bloody civil war but, in the aftermath of that conflict, imposed a punitive Reconstruction on the South that was more about punishing Rebels than protecting blacks and sewed bitterness and resentment that helped keep bigotry and segregation strong for another century.

I am sympathetic to the gathering radical forces within the Republican Party who feared that any compromise on slavery meant accepting it in perpetuity and hope if I had been alive then I would have joined them. I am glad they prevailed. But I do wish they could have prevailed without war, for the sake of all concerned but most particularly of American blacks.

To say all that is not to say that cholera, any more than assassination, could alter the course of history. There were “forces” at work here, from economics to culture to a hardening of political hearts, that would probably have overcome even a much more forceful politician than Taylor. But presidential leadership on slavery was shockingly lacking in the 1840s and especially the 1850s. And it is a shame that the two presidents the Whigs did manage to elect both died early, leaving the Democrats essentially in control of the White House without interruption for the pivotal three decades leading up to the firing on Fort Sumter.

Just maybe, it might have been different had Taylor survived his sudden attack of cholera in the summer of 1850.