The Corner

Politics & Policy

Politico Sells Zachary Taylor Short

Gil Troy, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, has a piece in Politico drawing some fairly blunt parallels between Zachary Taylor and Donald Trump. It’s worth reading, because there are some parallels: Taylor was an apolitical figure with no ideological attachments, and abandoning their principles to nominate him was one of the factors that did in the Whig Party.

But the parallels, exaggerating Taylor’s crudeness and nationalism for effect without supporting facts, are overdrawn, and ignore as well the damage done to the Whigs not only by nominating two war hero presidents (Taylor and William Henry Harrison) who had no loyalty to the party platform, but also by their early deaths in office and replacement by Vice Presidents who had been selected recklessly without an effort to pair the celebrity generals with professional politicians of more ideological loyalty.  Taylor was unqualified and unprepared for the presidency, but he was an excellent military man, a strong leader of men much admired by Ulysses S. Grant (who served under his command and esteemed the directness and informality of “Old Rough and Ready”).  He had his weaknesses – we can’t give unqualified praise today to a man who held slaves – but he had none of the flaws of leadership that we see so often in Trump. Taylor did his best in good faith to discharge the office in difficult times (the Compromise of 1850 barely avoided a civil war that would arrive a decade later) and died with his work unfinished.

His Vice President and successor, Millard Fillmore, is a much better parallel for Trump and a man more worthy of historical criticism for selling out his own personal anti-slavery principles and eventually, in 1856, running for president on a nativist ”Know-Nothing” platform.  (Fillmore was even from Buffalo, the epicenter of Trump’s own contemporary political base).

Times change, and historical parallels are imperfect. The nomination of Zachary Taylor was, if anything, a symptom of the Whigs’ lack of underlying consensus principles.  But Taylor was a genuine military hero, humble about his lack of political background.  He deserves better.

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