As a history major one of my pet peeves is when they mangle history to make it fit an ideological or partisan purpose.
How an Outsider President Killed a Party
The Whigs chose power over principles when they nominated Zachary Taylor in 1848. The party never recovered.
It was summer, and a major U.S. political party had just chosen an inexperienced, unqualified, loutish, wealthy outsider with ambiguous party loyalties to be its presidential nominee. Some party luminaries thought he would help them win the general election. But many of the faithful were furious and mystified: How could their party compromise its ideals to such a degree?
Sound like 2016? This happened a century and a half ago.
Many have called Donald Trump’s unexpected takeover of a major political party unprecedented; but it’s not. A similar scenario unfolded in 1848, when General Zachary Taylor, a roughhewn career soldier who had never even voted in a presidential election, conquered the Whig Party.
A look back at what happened that year is eye-opening—and offers warnings for those on both sides of the aisle. Democrats quick to dismiss Trump should beware: Taylor parlayed his outsider appeal to defeat Lewis Cass, an experienced former Cabinet secretary and senator. But Republicans should beware, too: Taylor is often ranked as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history—and, more seriously, the Whig Party never recovered from his victory. In fact, just a few years after Taylor was elected under the Whig banner, the party dissolved—undermined by the divisions that caused Taylor’s nomination in the first place, and also by the loss of faith that followed it.
Blessed by an even more unpopular Democratic opponent whose party suffered more from the antislavery defections than the Whigs did, Taylor won—barely. He attracted only 47 percent of the popular vote, merely 60,000 more popular votes than Clay had in 1844, despite a population increase of 2 million. Turnout dropped from 78.9 percent in 1844 to 72.7 percent in 1848, reflecting public disgust with both candidates. Cass won 43 percent of the vote, and Van Buren won 10 percent. Taylor’s Electoral College margin of 36 was the slimmest in more than two decades. As hacks said the results “vindicated the wisdom of General Taylor’s nomination,” purists mourned the triumph of Taylor but not “our principles.” Greeley said losing in 1844 with a statesman like Clay strengthened Whig convictions: The 1848 election “demoralized” Whigs and undermined “the masses’” faith in the party. Greeley mourned this Pyrrhic victory: Whigs were “at once triumphant and undone.”
Greeley turned out to be right. Taylor was the last Whig president. His nomination had attempted to paper over the sectional tensions that would kill the party, but ultimately exacerbated them. Running a war hero mocked the Whig’s anti-war stand just as running a slaveholder failed to calm the divisive slavery issue. And, as a nonpartisan outsider, Taylor proved particularly unsuited to manage these internal party battles once elected.
Most dispiriting, Taylor, who made no pledges and had no principles, gave rank-and-file Whig voters nothing to champion, while alienating many of the most committed loyalists. In The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, the historian Michael Holt notes that Taylor’s victory triggered an “internal struggle for the soul of the Whig party”: was it more committed to seizing power or upholding principle? Underlying that debate was also a deeper question, still pressing today, about the role of fame, popularity, celebrity, in presidential campaigning—and American political leadership.
Unfortunately for the wobbling Whigs, Southerners then felt betrayed when Taylor took a nationalist approach brokering what became the Compromise of 1850. As a result, Holt writes, “Within a year of Taylor’s victory, hopes raised by Whigs’ performance in 1848 would be dashed. Within four years, they would be routed by” the Democrats. “Within eight, the Whig party would totally disappear as a functioning political organization.”
Neither destiny nor sorcery, history offers warning signs to avoid and points of light for inspiration. America’s modern two-party system is remarkably resilient. Republicans have recently enjoyed a surge in gubernatorial, congressional and state legislative wins. Still, Trump and the Republicans might want to study 1848 to see the damage even a winning insurgent can both signal and cause. And many Republicans might want to consider what is worse: the institutional problems mass defections by “Conscience Republicans” could bring about—or the moral ruin that could come from the ones who stay behind, choosing to pursue party power over principles.
You can read more about “Old Rough and Ready” here, and there is more about the Whigs here. I’m not gonna give you a long, boring history lesson, I just want to point out a few things that demonstrate that as usual, the truth is a lot more complicated than the narrative.
The Whigs were only around for 20 years, but they succeeded in electing two presidents. Both of them died in office. William Henry (Tippecanoe) Harrison was another former general and a war hero. He died in April 1841 after only one month in office.
Harrison was succeeded by John “His Accidency” Tyler, who was expelled from the Whig party in September 1841 after less than 6 months in office. He remained in office until 1845 when he was succeeded by Democrat James K. Polk.
Zach Taylor was a popular war hero, and both parties tried to recruit him, kinda like Ike a century later. His nomination took place on the 4th ballot at the 1848 party convention, and it was not a victory of the grassroots over the party elite. He was chosen by party insiders.
One thing that the article never mentions is that Zach died in office after only 16 months. He was replaced by Millard Fillmore who was the last Whig president. Fillmore lost the 1852 Whig nomination to General Winfield Scott on the 53rd ballot. Democrat Franklin Pierce won the election.
In the 24 years between Andrew and Abraham Lincoln we had 8 different presidents. None of them served more than a single full term. The White House changed hands between the parties 4 times, or 5 if you count the expulsion of Tyler.
That was a tumultuous time in our history. There was the issue of slavery, as well as the rapid growth and westward expansion of the country. We fought a war with Mexico and annexed what is now the southwest United States. The gold rush happened.
As you can see it is very simplistic to blame the demise of the Whig party on Zach Taylor. But so what if we did? The demise of the Whigs led to the birth of the Republican party and the election of Abraham Lincoln. The Grand Old Party has been around for 150 years now.
And if the GOP goes away because of Donald Trump, well then good riddance.
I’m sure something will come along and replace it.