James Monroe versus Zachary Taylor: Pairing Presidents

James Monroe versus Zachary Taylor:
Pairing Presidents XX

James Monroe (1817-25) and Zachary Taylor (March 1849-July 1850) present interpretive challenges. Other than being fellow Virginians, the cerebral Monroe and the rough-and-tough military man Taylor seem ill matched. Moreover, Taylor's short time in office–just over 15 months–leads some presidential scholars to resist making judgments about him. I offer them together because historians often ponder turning points–potential pivots in which what was or wasn't done determined the course of the future.

How they are similar:

James Monroe
We have now witnessed a parade of antebellum presidents who did nothing about the vexing issue of slavery. For good or ill, James Monroe actually addressed the issue. He was no humanitarian; Monroe owned about 75 slaves on his Oak Hill plantation and many of them were very poorly treated. Monroe wasn't personally a Simon Legree—he was an absentee landowner, a status that gave overseers and managers free reign. He was, however, open to charges of hypocrisy; like Thomas Jefferson, he expressed distaste for the very institution of slavery while benefitting from chattel labor. If there is a mediating factor it's this: many of the earliest abolitionists were slaveholders. Men such as Jefferson and Monroe realized the contradiction, but simultaneously longed for a day in which new systems of labor would render slavery unnecessary. Monroe did not think blacks and whites were equal, but he did not oppose emancipation. In fact, the African colony of Liberia was established as a homeland for freed slaves; its capital to this day bears his name: Monrovia.

As president, Monroe did not have the luxury of looking to the future. The 1819 statehood petition of Missouri presented a dilemma. Slavery was a dying institution in the North and an informal demarcation known as the Mason-Dixon Line pretty much divided free from slave states. Few realize that this boundary was never meant to mark any sort of regional border—it was a late (1767) Colonial surveyors' line that settled boundary disputes between the colonies of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Custom determined that the Mason-Dixon Line divided the North from the South—until Missouri Territory sought to join the Union as a slave state, though parts of Missouri lay north of free states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois–the latter two of which had only been states since 1816 and 1818 respectively. Missouri, if admitted, would become the 23rd state and give slaveholders a 12-11 advantage. Northerners cried foul and their protest threatened to ruin national unity. The Monroe administration hammered out the Missouri Compromise of 1820 in which land was taken from Massachusetts to create the new free state of Maine, thereby creating a 12-12 balance. It also gave Missouri a one-time exception and established that slavery could not exist in future territories north of Missouri's southern border of 36º 30' of north latitude.

Zachary Taylor
The Missouri Compromise established that slavery could be discussed and negotiated, but Taylor soon discovered the limitations of quick fixes. The culprit was gold. Ever hear of the 49ers? The 1848 discovery of gold in California touched off such a wave of migration into the territory that it qualified for statehood within a single year. Problem: most of California was south of 36º 30' but the majority of Californians opposed slavery. Taylor's bright idea—which might have worked–was to grant California statehood without first organizing it as an official territory, a deft technicality that would have kept the Missouri Compromise intact. His advice was ignored and a political brouhaha ensued that led to the Compromise of 1850. It was a complex set of five separate bills that generated such animosity that scholars see it as a turning point that inflamed sectionalism and, eleven years later, led to civil war. Its most controversial provisions allowed for the possibility of popular sovereignty in future territories (which would have rendered moot the Missouri Compromise) and the passage of a strong Fugitive Slave Act. Uncle Tom's Cabin was written in direct response to the second and acts of civil disobedience in defiance proliferated in the North.

Taylor's cold solace was that he didn't live to see it; the Compromise of 1850 was led by Henry Clay and put into effect by Taylor's successor, the bumbling Millard Fillmore. Taylor is also associated with another lost moment. Although he owned slaves–and was the last elected president to do so–he opposed the expansion of slavery into existing or future territories. He was troubled by Venezuelan Narcisco López's attempt to conquer Cuba and the dreams of slaveholders of adding it to the Union. Taylor went on to denounce all such efforts (filibustering). Would Taylor have rejected the Compromise of 1850? How would history have played out if the possibility of expanding slavery were taken off the table?  

Monroe could have used more restrictions on his power and Taylor could have used fewer. Missouri was one of just two bumps in an otherwise tranquil two terms for Monroe—the other being Congressional disapproval of an internal improvements plan that Congressmen actually liked, but found too expensive. Monroe pretty much got everything else he wanted, including dispatching Gen. Andrew Jackson off to fight the Seminoles, a treaty with Spain (Adams-Onis) to acquire Florida, and several other pet projects. This is because he faced virtually no opposition in Congress. The War of 1812 was initially unpopular, but Jackson's meaningless victory in the Battle of New Orleans unleashed a wave of nationalism that neutered the Federalists and led to their ultimate collapse. Monroe and his predecessor James Madison faced so little opposition that historians routinely label the period between 1815 and 1824 the Era of Good Feelings.

Another pivot. In 1823, Monroe proclaimed the famed Monroe Doctrine, which asserted the entire Western hemisphere as an American sphere of influence and warned European powers against future meddling in Latin and South America. It was an audacious and unenforceable bit of swagger for a third-rate power such as the United States in 1823, but even a casual look at history reveals how Monroe's principles altered America's future, to say nothing of those many nations eventually drawn into what was essentially a hemispheric satellite relationship with the United States. What if Monroe had faced strong opposition that forced him to back down from his reckless proclamation? 

By contrast, Taylor, a Whig, faced Democratic opposition at every turn. He was, therefore, unable to settle a border dispute between Texas and New Mexico Territory, nor did he even dare broach the issue of Utah statehood at a time in which most Congressmen saw Mormons as only slightly less menacing than Indians. Democrats so despised Taylor that legend holds he died from a poison plot devised by Southern slaveholders. (Cholera was the likely cause and much of his Cabinet also grew gravely ill from it. Such is one of many follies associated with building the Capitol upon a malarial swamp!)

For the record, Monroe's Era of Good Feelings ended in 1824, when the Democratic-Republicans couldn't play by their own rules. Instead agreeing upon a single candidate in an election where they faced no opposition, five men declared for the presidency: Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, William Crawford, and John Quincy Adams, the latter three who had been in Monroe's Cabinet. Jackson won the popular vote, but Clay hated him and shifted his electoral votes to Adams. Date the eventual emergence of the second party system to this disputed election and the rise of the Whig Party that Taylor represented. Poor Whigs. They elected two presidents, William Henry Harrison and Taylor. Both died in office and collectively served about 16 months in the White House!

How they were different:

Call it silk versus steel. Monroe was a patrician intellectual who took part of the American Revolution. His background also included serving as governor of Virginia, as a U.S. Senator, as ambassador to both France and Great Britain, and as Secretary of State and Secretary of War. Taylor spent much of his pre-White House time in a tent. He led troops in he War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and the Mexican War. He was more comfortable around soldiers than with politicians.

As noted, Monroe enjoyed cordial relations with Congress. Taylor experienced what we today would call "gridlock."


Historians rank Monroe a respectable # 16, which seems about right, though it might be mildly inflated by what occurred in the future, not during his presidency. Those willing to rate Taylor give him low marks: #35 currently. This strikes me as off the mark. He was hardly to blame for the poor behavior of Congress, and he might have been leaning on the right side of history in recognizing that slavery and territorial expansion should be made mutually exclusive. The Compromise of 1850 proved inflammatory, but there's no proof that Taylor would have approved of it. His overall résumé was thin, but his time in office was too brief to expect more. I see Taylor as more middle of the pack; there were certainly more than seven presidents worse than he. 

Rob Weir

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