Lost in the avalanche of images that has bombarded us since last week’s Capitol insurrection, was one of a small, blood-smeared, white marble bust of our 12th president, Zachary Taylor. Perhaps like many Americans, you slept through history class when the course breezed through that brief, 16-month period when Taylor served, March 1849 to July 1850.
He died in office from an attack of acute gastroenteritis brought on after gorging raw fruit and milk during 4th of July celebrations. Maybe your history teacher or professor didn’t even mention Taylor. He’s actually pretty forgettable. His brief tenure was sandwiched between the larger-than-life Andrew Jackson, whose likeness is on the $20 bill, and for whom a whole age is named, and the coming of the Civil War and the trial-by-fire leadership of our greatest American president, Abraham Lincoln. No time to deal with a minor figure like Taylor and the inconsequential mark he left on American history.
So what is it about Taylor and his blood-smeared bust that connects us to the present?
Taylor, despite his anonymity, was the second (and last) elected president of the long-forgotten Whig party. He just so happened to have presided over a party that was coming apart at its seams before completely collapsing within six years of his death in 1850. Prophetic?
Whenever the nation undergoes political paroxysms as an American historian I’m always instinctively drawn to our past to look for parallels. What happened the last time a national political party imploded? And indeed, the Whigs were the last major, national party to flame out.
A brief bit of historical context.
The Whigs sprang into existence in the mid-1830s in opposition primarily to Andrew Jackson’s unapologetically heavy-handed politics. In our early republic’s formative history, Jackson’s party, the Democrats (as they would eventually call themselves) had coalesced in the late 1790s in opposition to John Adams’s executive overreach. The party then fielded successful candidates in nine of the first 10 presidential elections of the 19th century.
The Whigs (borrowing their name from the English opposition to King George III in the 18th century) were mostly a blend of economic elites and the growing middle class in both the North and South, appealing to merchants, bankers, and entrepreneurs in the North and small-scale cotton planters in the South.
Yet in the six presidential elections they managed to field candidates, from 1836 to 1856, only once did their candidate receive a majority of the popular vote, the Indiana war hero, William Henry Harrison, in 1840. But misfortune hounded the Whigs throughout. Harrison contracted pneumonia during his inauguration and died within the month. Things never really got much better.
The party championed federally backed infrastructure, protective tariffs, and opposed the rising tide of immigrants fleeing famine-ravaged Ireland and northern Europe for the dream of a better life in America. Its northern faction grew increasingly alarmed about the nation’s aggressive expansion of potential slave-holding territory in the mid-1840s and generally opposed the war with Mexico in 1846 — a naked land grab fueled by southerners hell-bent on expanding and protecting slavery.
The party appealed to idealistic moderates and was led in Congress by some of the towering political figures of the age, including Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, names as familiar then as are McConnell and Pelosi today. The up-and-coming Abraham Lincoln cut his political teeth as a Whig when he ran and won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1846.
In 1848, the nation flush with victory over Mexico, the Whigs nominated Taylor, a general and a Mexican War hero. He had no prior political experience and was indifferent, at best, to running. He was also a southerner and he owned slaves, though personally didn’t want to see slavery spread as he feared the effect that might have on the future of the nation.
And thus the seeds of the Whig party’s demise were sewn. By the summer of 1850, the party was splitting at its seams over the issue. Not surprisingly, the non-slaveholding northern wing couldn’t support slavery’s spread into the newly acquired territory from Mexico (west Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and parts of Utah and Colorado). The southern faction, quite the opposite. It was an unsustainable balancing act.
In 1852, the party nominated yet another Mexican war general, Winfield Scott, who lost badly to a feckless Democratic opponent, Franklin Pierce. The Whigs were in a state of free fall, its northern and southern factions peeling off into third parties dedicated to nativism (the American Party), or to blocking the expansion of slavery outright (the Free Soil Party) or begrudgingly to join the Democrats. By 1856, its openly nativist candidate, Millard Fillmore, could muster a mere 21% of the popular vote. The party dissolved with barely a whimper shortly thereafter.
Back to the recent events at the Capitol. Was what we witnessed the first gasp of a national political party’s death rattle? It is challenging to divine anything from the tea leaves of events so raw and recent. But we do know this: Despite its gains in the recent House races and the fact that Donald Trump received a record number of votes for a losing candidate, the GOP is facing the stark fact that it has won the national popular presidential vote only once since 1988, and its narrow demographic base is rapidly shrinking.
Is the GOP headed the way of the Whigs? It is too early to tell. It’s also hard to remember now but out of the ashes of the Whig funeral pyre of 165 years ago rose a new, more morally focused party, one that attracted principled, visionary politicians like Abraham Lincoln, the Republican party.
Perhaps the current leaders of the GOP would do well to look back at its roots. The party dedicated itself to blocking the spread of slavery (and eventually supported emancipation of the slaves and their full political and civil empowerment) and championed the nobility of hard, honest work, and the virtue of honestly gained capital. Indeed, its first party slogan was aptly entitled “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men.” Can the party now inoculate itself from the Trumpism virus? Does it even want to? The health of the republic is at stake.
Epilogue: Within four years of the Whig’s last breath, civil war engulfed the nation.
This column was originally published in Daily Montanan. It is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Daily Montanan maintains editorial independence.