The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

By Michael F. Holt | Go to book overview

Chapter 15
"The Long Agony Is Over"

"THE SUDDEN, & until yesterday, the unexpected death of the President shocks beyond anything I have witnessed," a shaken Senator Willie P. Mangum wrote his wife on July 10. The diarrhea and painful indigestion that afflicted Zachary Taylor on the night of July 4 had been diagnosed by his doctors as "cholera morbus," and they had prescribed doses of quinine and calomel, a compound of mercury and chloride. Taylor probably suffered instead from acute gastroenteritis, an infection of the stomach wall and intestines, and the primitive treatment did him more harm than good. The sixty-five-year-old president managed to conduct business for two days and then began to decline rapidly. By the afternoon of July 9, word spread around Washington that his end was near. At 10:35 that night the "Hero of Buena Vista" died. 1

As soon as the doleful news spread, stunned Whigs began to speculate about "the effect of Gen. Taylor's death upon the Country" and upon their party. Millard Fillmore's unanticipated ascension to power suddenly created the possibility of change in men and measures. Whigs unhappy with Taylor's cabinet, his as yet unconfirmed appointees, and his territorial policy took heart at this prospect. Among administration supporters, it spawned dread. Thus anguished uncertainty mingled with the gloom that immediately shrouded Whig ranks. 2

Whig divisions over current affairs alone sufficed to create anxious foreboding about Fillmore's course. But behind Whigs' apprehension lay the traumatic specter of John Tyler, whose accidental presidency had so devastated the party. Inevitably, therefore, almost the first thought that crossed the minds of shocked Whigs, including Fillmore's, was the necessity of preventing a recurrence of that previous nightmare. They sharply disagreed, however, about how best to avert it.

As a Northerner and an orthodox Whig regular, Millard Fillmore was no John Tyler, but ultimately his presidency had almost as deleterious consequences for the Whig party as did the proslavery Virginian's. Whipsawed by conflicting advice, he would shift the stance of the White House toward policy and personnel, and, as most historians have long agreed, that shift facilitated passage of the Compromise of 1850. 3 However beneficial to the nation, that achievement failed to reverse the downward course of the Whig party since 1848. Where Tyler had united Whigs against him, Fillmore's actions deepened Whig divisions and ignited

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