Recently Politico began a stream of thought that the Republicans could be the Whigs because Trump is like Zachary Taylor. Sadly, it is an article that understands little of history and in fact are just making stuff up.
The Whig Party did dissolve not long after winning the Presidency, but it was not Zachary Taylor’s fault. In fact, the Politico article skims past the actual reasons. Taylor was close to the perfect Whig candidate, a candidate who stood for next to nothing. The problem with the Whig party was that it was always a party that simply opposed Andrew Jackson and his principles. They were not united by any real set of beliefs. Thus, the quotes calling the nomination of Taylor a betrayal of Whig principles are laughable because there were no Whig principles. Even the article notes it was a “strained” coalition of Northern and Southerners who were against Jackson. The quotes from abolitionists like Greeley are not universal for the Whigs because they had a large group of Southerners. Taylor was chosen because he could stop the party from splitting by not having a real position on slavery. This was always the Whig way. Clay stands as the perfect example. He owned slaves, but was not really for slavery, but not really an abolitionist either. Clay is the picture of the Whig Party, and it slowly became an impossible place to be. That is hardly Taylor’s fault.
It is also not exactly fair to claim Taylor an outsider. Yes, he had never held office, but he was a general, and that had always been a path to the Presidency. Washington, Jackson, and Harrison had all be war heroes. And every one of them had been opposed by people for not having the right background to be President. Yet, we can see from the way James K. Polk managed that war that he very much understood the war hero who comes out of the Mexican American war will be a candidate for President. And in fact, both major generals, Scott and Taylor, stood for nomination. Being a general during war was at this time in American history, an acceptable path to the Presidency.
In fact, the election of Taylor and his resulting Presidency (and that of Fillmore who followed after Taylor’s death) was probably the high point of the Whig movement. It is during this time that the Whig party controls congress as well as the Presidency. It is during this time that Clay pushes through the Compromise of 1850, with the help of Stephen Douglas. This adds California to the rolls as a free state. No minor feat. It kept America together during that struggle, and that is exactly what the Whig platform had always been. Together. This led to them ignoring and compromising over and over. Their greatest member, Henry Clay, is known as the Great Compromiser. Their death came when the public no longer wanted compromise, but a more permanent solution. The Whigs failed to see this and died.
In the end the Whig Party died not because of the lack of success that Taylor had as President. In fact, he did not even make it out of his first term before dying. Taylor had little impact on the Whig Party’s ultimate doom. The election of Taylor does show the seeds of the ultimate doom of the Whig’s but not because of Taylor, but because of the presence and success on the ballot of Martin Van Buren. Van Buren the former Democrat President ran as a Free Soil candidate and garnered lots of votes. Not enough to win anything, but enough that he changed the election. And it was enough that people should have seen that this issue was too important to ignore. But both parties did just that. They ignored it. Thus, by 1852 the party has been badly wounded by a refusal to take sides on the slavery issue as evidenced by the Compromise of 1850. And it is at that convention, when Southerners prevent Millard Fillmore from running for another term, and get General Winfield Scott as the nominee, that the first meetings of what would become the Republican Party emerge. Scott is a beautiful example of the Whig Party. Scott himself was anti-slavery, but ran on the platform that accepted the Fugitive Slave Law. His personal stance killed him in the South, and the party’s stance killed him in the North. He was crushed in the election. And by 1856, the Republicans have fielded a candidate of their own. And by1858 the Republican Party dominated the North. Republicans had a clear message and stance. “Free soil, free silver, and free men”. This addressed the issue of the day decisively. Southern Whigs turned to the Know Nothing Party, and even the Democrat Party as they feared the rise of anti-slavery parties, like the Republican and Free Soil parties, in the north. Although one can argue the 1860 Constitution Union Party was what was left of the Whig Party. Again, its main platform. Together. Unity. Avoid the issues.
If there is a lesson for the Republican Party it is that taking a stand is important as is keeping up with what is important to the people. I do not believe Trump will be the death of the Republican Party. Without a third party to siphon off voters, there will be no death for the GOP. If the Libertarians gain a massive increase, then maybe, it is the beginning of the end. But the Libertarians do not run candidates well for other offices.
Sadly, this comparing Trump to Taylor is very unfair to Taylor, misses the real message of the Whigs, and is just bad history. I know people want to think this is the end, but it is probably not. And that message is the one that really ought to scare us.