Home > 1828-1852 Campaigns, 1848 Campaign > By Michael Steudeman–Explicit Character, Implicit Pledges: Zachary Taylor’s Platform-Less Campaign

By Michael Steudeman–Explicit Character, Implicit Pledges: Zachary Taylor’s Platform-Less Campaign

Governments, Michael Calvin McGee asserted, are made up of men, not measures.[1] Defenders of this proposition avoid the cynical disparagement of “image politics,” recognizing the fundamental role that character serves in defining qualities of leadership. In campaigns, issue and image implicate one another: certain character traits correspond with particular policy positions.[2] A wartime leader cannot be a wimp. An economic leader should be a no-nonsense businessman. The current president—who transcended differences in partisanship and race to secure his election—credibly articulated this appeal as a man with a family lineage born of two continents. Whether or not politics should be this way is inconsequential. The point here is simply that politics are this way, and that the positions candidates take cannot be severed entirely from the types of leadership they expound.

What I hope to highlight here, however, is the other side of the coin. Image politics work precisely because they provide a proxy for the types of decisions candidates might make once elected to the presidency. For this reason, image—by itself—cannot provide a full account for electoral politics, either. When images are asserted by candidates without attention to their corresponding policy implications, the results can be surprising, erratic, and altogether problematic.

Taylor from 1848Zachary Taylor’s 1848 presidential campaign provides a revealing case study of the implicit issues that belie even the vaguest candidate images. Controversially, Taylor did not adopt any party platform for his campaign. As a war hero without clear political positions, he could well have been chosen as a candidate by either the Whigs or Democrats.

The movement to draft Taylor as a presidential candidate began during his leadership as a general in the Mexican-American War. Famous for his resilient victory in the Battle of Buena Vista over the forces of Santa Anna, talk began immediately of his potential presidential bid. As Abraham Lincoln noted in his eulogy for Taylor, even “Rough and Ready” himself may have been surprised by the attention:

So soon as the news of the battles of the eighth and ninth of May, 1846, had fairly reached the United States, General Taylor began to be named for the next Presidency, by letter writers, newspapers, public meetings and conventions in various parts of the country. These nominations were generally put forth as being of a no-party character. Up to this time I think it highly probable—nay, almost certain—that General Taylor had never thought of the Presidency in connection with himself. And there is reason for believing that the first intelligence of these nominations rather amused than seriously interested him.[3]

Taylor’s prospective presidential bid began to generate talk during a moment of intense controversy in the United States Congress. Battles over the admittance of newly-acquired lands in the West became a source of bitter sectional dispute. As historian David M. Potter writes, the nominations of Taylor, Democrat Lewis Cass, and Free Soiler Martin Van Buren as presidential candidates emerged during a year when pro- and anti-slavery forces wrangled in a deadlocked House and Senate.[4]

Taylor became a compelling candidate because he lacked a clear stake in the debate over slavery in the territories. The Whigs, in nominating him over their leader Henry Clay, implied this rationale throughout their campaign literature. Due to the virtues of leadership Taylor exuded as a war hero, Whigs felt assured that he would uphold their party values. And, due to his background as a Louisiana slaveholder, Southerners of both Whig and Democratic stripes confidently assumed that he would support slavery in the newly-acquired Western territories. To this end, the Whigs strategically nominated the candidate without requiring him to state his positions. As the American Whig Review wrote in July of 1848 following the General’s nomination:

We seek no further proof and shall not agitate the question; we hold it certain that the affections and prejudices of the nominee incline him to the side which we advocate. We do not ask of him an immediate declaration on every point of Whig policy. As he is honest and prudent, he cannot speak without deliberation: his mind has been occupied with military affairs; in these he is well versed; but as the genius of the great commander differs but little, perhaps not at all in its kind, from that of the civil chief, we may be sure his government will be devoid neither of energy, wisdom, nor economy.[5]

Because Taylor emerged as a candidate on the heels of a military campaign, the argument went, he should not be held accountable to clearly articulate his stance on the issues. Character alone—“Prudence, firmness, justice; invincible resolution, contempt of opinion, of danger and of accident, [and] an elevated spirit”—would lead Taylor to wisely lead the nation through its controversies.[6] Similarly, the Whig Party Platform in 1848 justified the position-less candidate by pointing to his character. Though Taylor had never voted, he assured Whigs that he would have voted Whig in the 1844 election. Citing a “soldier’s word of honor” as reason enough to trust Taylor’s political sentiments, the party felt that no more than “assurance… is needed from a consistent and truth-speaking man.”[7]

One anonymous conservative Whig made the case for supporting the General—a “Whig in principle”—by discounting the import of party pledges in campaigns. “These partisan pledges, these promises of the office-seekers, what are they worth? In nine cases out of ten they are made only to be broken. Pledges! Who that made has ever kept them? Will the lessons of experience never impart wisdom?” Running through the unfulfilled campaign promises of Jackson, van Buren, Tyler, and Polk, he concluded by asserting that the Whigs need not demand any pledges of policy from Taylor to accept his nomination:

What, then, are pledges, what their necessity? when any Administration, rightly conducted, must be guided after all by the progress of human affairs and the exigencies of the moment. Pledges! There can be no pledges but a clear head, an honest heart, and an upright will.[8]

Taylor would thus be run as an entirely character-based candidate. There was no need for him to articulate his positions, the reasoning went, because ultimately his conduct as president would derive from decisions rooted in his virtuous soul and expression of strong character on the battlefield.

In the absence of a clear statement of position, however, Northerners and Southerners alike examined other details of Taylor’s personal narrative to draw assumptions about his policy stances. A critical pamphlet distributed by John Calvin Adams, an anti-slavery Whig from the North, captures the assumptions of both sides of the North-South divide. The lack of a platform, the author asserted, would not fool him or his Northern brethren into believing that Taylor represented a cause other than slave power:

This man is held up by the slave holders of the South as a master for the North during the next presidential term… We are slightingly informed that Gen. Taylor has no opinions on any subject; or does not choose to express them, On the great questions of slavery and the Wilmot Proviso—which more than any others excite the public mind—Gen. Taylor, when respectably solicited to give an opinion, is dumb. He is a Slave owner—a Slave breeder—and the candidate and warrior of the promoters of the Extension of Slavery.[9]

As this sentiment illustrates, the interplay of image and issue—one grafting atop the other—is hard to avoid, even amid a candidate’s silence on the issues. As a slaveholder and a General in a war many Northerners regarded as an effort to expand slavery, Taylor was ascribed an assumed set of policy positions on slavery in the campaign whether he sought them or not. Ultimately, in both the Whig Party Convention and the general election, this assumption of his support for slaveholders took hold. Taylor won the election largely on the basis of his support in the South.

Steudeman Blog Post PicIronically, Taylor instead deeply offended pro-slavery Southerners. Within a year after his election, Potter writes, the newly elected president committed several fairly bold antislavery maneuvers in the territories. He encouraged California to skip territory status to immediately become a state, thus increasingly the likelihood that its government would ban slavery. Then, in an act that offended Southerners, he explicitly declared he would not veto a Congressional passage of the anti-slavery Wilmot Proviso.[10] By May of 1850, he further agitated the Southern faction of the Whig and Democratic Parties when he encouraged the incorporation of a disputed Texas territory into the state of New Mexico. If not for his death in July 1850, Potter muses, he “might well have started a war” with divisive implications for the North and South.[11]

“I ask no favors, and shun no responsibilities.” Taylor’s campaign slogan epitomized the supreme elevation of image over issue in the 1848 campaign. The slogan sought to sever him from party connections or associations, stressing only his moral compass as a virtuous general willing to take on necessary challenges as they emerge. In execution, however, the ambiguity about his positions ultimately proved a source of supreme confusion for his supporters. In the absence of a clear statement of pledges, the public invented one; and, as it turned out, invented it incorrectly, failing to anticipate the antislavery policies Taylor would pursue as president. Taylor’s case illustrates the ways in which the identity propositions of a campaign about the virtues or background of a candidate almost inevitably provoke corresponding assumptions about policy positions. Whether candidates try to make an election entirely about issues or, in Taylor’s case, about image, the two concepts imply one another. Despite their infinite violability, then, campaign “pledges” provide an important role for candidates by allowing them to assert—and thus better control—the relationship between their identities and the policies they may pursue.

Notes

[1] Michael Calvin McGee, “‘Not Men, but Measures’: The Origins and Import of an Ideological Principle,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 64 (1978): 141-154.

[2] Trevor Parry-Giles, “Resisting a ‘Treacherous Piety’: Issues, Images, and Public Policy Deliberation in Presidential Campaigns,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 13 (2010): 37-64.

[3] Abraham Lincoln, The Life and Public Services of General Zachary Taylor: An Address (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922). Ebook.

[4] David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: HarperCollins, 1976), 63-89.

[5] “The Nomination.—General Taylor,” The American Review: Devoted to Politics and Literature 2 (1848): 4.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Whig Party Platform of 1848,” June 7, 1848, The American Presidency Project, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25855.

[8] A conservative Whig, “Considerations in Favor of the Nomination of Zachary Taylor by the Whig National Convention,” Washington, April 4, 1848, online by The Library of Congress, 8.

[9] John Calvin Adams, “A Northern No! Addressed to the Delegates from the Free States to the Whig National Convention,”Philadelphia, 1848, online by The Library of Congress, 8.

[10] Potter, The Impending Crisis, 87.

[11] Ibid, 107.

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