The Might-Have-Beens

By Frum, David | Newsweek, February 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Might-Have-Beens


Frum, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Frum

A Presidents' Day toast to three commanders in chief whose time ran out too soon.

Presidents' Day honors the two greatest presidents in U.S. history: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes Americans use the occasion to extend attention to other important presidents, too, like Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower.

But what about the other other guys: the presidents who showed potential, but never got their chance? This Presidents' Day, let's bring out of the shadows the might-have-beens of presidential history, and three of them in particular: Zachary Taylor, James Garfield, and--yes--Gerald Ford.

Taylor last made news in 1991, when his body was exhumed to test the theory that his death after 16 months in office could be attributed to arsenic poisoning. (Answer: no.) Otherwise, Taylor seems nowadays to exist mainly to test the memory of AP history students, who must recall whether he came before or after Benjamin Harrison.

But what if he'd lived longer?

Taylor, a Louisiana plantation owner, was the last American president to own slaves. In fact, his slaveholding was one of his major qualifications for office: it assured Southerners that this Whig could be trusted not to go abolitionist on them.

His leading qualification, of course, was his generalship in the war against Mexico, culminating in the victory at Buena Vista, where he defeated a Mexican Army that outnumbered the U.S. forces more than 3 to 1. And once elected, Taylor revealed himself as willing to subordinate his views on slavery to his nationalism. To allay Northern fears that the victory over Mexico would shift the national political balance in favor of slaveholding, he accepted the Wilmot Proviso, which would have barred slavery from all the territories taken in the Mexican war--and which sadly failed to emerge from Congress. He also endorsed admitting California and New Mexico as free states.

Taylor's premature death removed from national politics the commander who would most have frightened Southerners contemplating rebellion. (He had threatened to hang rebels against the Union less reluctantly than he'd hanged Mexican spies.)

Well, maybe the Civil War could not have been prevented, not even by Old Rough and Ready, as Taylor was nicknamed. But once the war had ended, the country faced another question: what (if anything) should the federal government do on behalf of the freed slaves? The first three postwar presidents--Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, and Rutherford Hayes--offered little or nothing. …

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