TAYLOR, Zachary. Autograph letter signed ("Z. Taylor") as Major General, TO JEFFERSON DAVIS, "Camp near Monterey Mexico," 16 August 1847. 6½ pages, 4to (10 x 7 7/8 in.), professionally restored and silked, minor loss to last page affecting one letter of signature and a few letters of text.
TAYLOR PREDICTS THAT IN THE BATTLES OVER SLAVERY "THE UNION WILL BE BLOWN TO ATOMS, OR WILL NO LONGER BE WORTH PRESERVING," AND WEIGHS HIS CHANCES FOR THE PRESIDENCY
Unarguably one of the most important letters of Zachary Taylor in private hands, discussing the likelihood of winning nomination for President, the mounting dangers of the slavery issue and his conception of executive power. Still in Mexico, six months after winning the Battle of Buena Vista, Taylor had been besieged with Democratic and Whig solicitations to run for President on their tickets. Here, writing to future Confederate President Jefferson Davis (who had recently returned home after being wounded in the war), Taylor discusses his thoughts about his "reaching the first office in the gift of a great & free people." Taylor, who had not voted in forty years, expresses wonderment at his sudden political power, predicting "if the election was to take place immediately or even next November, I would in all probability be elected to that important office." Davis and Taylor had been comrades in arms, and "owing to the intimate relations known to exist between you & myself," Taylor anticipates that Davis may be importuned by people seeking "my views on various matters which have divided the two great parties." Referring to party conflicts, he notes: "many of them may for the most part be considered as settled," yet "many rabid politicians on both sides hold on to the whole of them with great tenacity," "as if the existance of the union depended on their doing so."
Taylor offers a candid and very revealing statement on how he would act, as President, in regard to the controversy over slavery: "While I would on the question of slavery respect the opinions & feeling of the non slaveholding states...& be careful not to...interfere with legal rights as regards the same, I would be equally careful that no encroachments were made on the rights of the citizens of the slave holding states..." Claiming impartiality, he vows, to "let justice be done to & in every part of the country...in accordance to the provisions of the Constitution, which seems to me to be the proper & only course to pursue by the Chief Magistrate, Congress & the Judiciary as the best & only one[s] to preserve the Union." During his Presidency, Taylor's refusal to support the Compromise plan of Henry Clay in 1850 nearly resulted in the rupture of the Union that he hoped to prevent.
Then, in a striking passage, Taylor reveals his own trepidations over the political impact of slavery and rampant sectionalism: "I look on the question of slavery as the most important one now or that has ever been before the country, since the organization of the government, as regards the perpetuity of the union, for such appears to be the feelings of the people in the two portions of our country whose institutions differ alone in that respect, brought about by the intemperate zeal of the fanatics of the north, & the intemperate zeal of a few politicians of the south, that the subject will no longer admit of a proper & calm discussion, neither in the pulpit, in Congress, in the newspapers, or in primary assemblies of the people, the moment anything of this kind is attempted, men appear not only to lose their temper as well as their reason...only adding fuel to the flames & to widen instead of healing the breach between the parties concerned."
A southerner by inclination, Taylor expresses deep concerns over growing northern anti-slavery factions, and prophetically vows that "the moment they go beyond that point where resistance becomes right & proper, let the South act promptly, boldly & decisively with arms in their hands if necessary, as the union in that case will be blown to atoms, or will be no longer worth preserving. But I pray to god this state of things will not occur in my day or in your, or that of our children...."
Returning to the possibility of his nomination, Taylor notes that he has no party affiliation, but if he had voted in the last election, "it would have been for Mr. Clay." Candidly, he expresses doubts about his ability to hold an office "filled & adorned by a Washington, a Jefferson & several others of the purist, wisest & most disciplined statesmen & patriots of this or any other age or country." The General confesses that he "trembles at the thoughts of the undertaking," but will serve if elected, "strictly in conformity to the provisions of the Constitution...as it was construed and acted on by our first presidents, two of whom...acted so conspicuous a part not only in framing that instrument, completing it, as well as putting it in operation." Finally, he affirms the belief that a President should use the power of the veto, in the case of laws which violate the Constitution, but adds that "we are considering the office of Chief Magistrate...of too much importance, & instead of it being what it was intended to be, a co-ordinate branch of the government...it is rapidly swallowing up the other two."
In the election of 1850 Taylor studiously avoided strong sectional positions, but the mere fact that he was a slaveowner guaranteed him strong support in the South. Taylor handily defeated both Lewis Cass, the Democratic nominee, and Martin Van Buren, running on a "free-soil" ticket, but his term of office would prove a brief one.