Zachary Taylor Denies Commenting on the Wilmot Proviso and Says Stories Alleging His Intemperance “are too frivolous and absurd to be noticed”
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Letter Signed to Mr. Edward W. Lincoln. August 26, 1848. 1 p. 8¾ x 10¾ in. With original envelope addressed to “Mr Edward W. Lincoln / Worcester / Mass.”
(private) East Pascagoula, Miss.
August 26th 1848
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your friendly communication of the 10th instant, and of the accompanying newspaper slips.
In reply, I have to inform you that it is true that I was visited during the last winter by a Committee of gentlemen requesting me in behalf of the Legislature of Mississippi to visit that body during its session; but I have to add, that I have no recollection of having made any such remarks to them touching the Wilmot proviso, as those attributed to me in the Massachusetts Spy. In regard to its statements about my intemperance, &c &c, I have simply to say that they are too frivolous and absurd to be noticed, and that I hope that my friends will not regard them
With my best wishes for yr prosperity through life I remain very respectfully, sir;
Yr obt servt
Mr E.W. Lincoln
Democratic Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot first introduced the Wilmot Proviso in August 1846, two months before the outbreak of war with Mexico. Written as an amendment to a military appropriation bill, it sought to reassure Northerners by prohibiting slavery as a condition of any territorial acquisition. It passed in the House in 1846 and 1847, but was defeated in the Senate. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, was ratified by the Senate in March. In return for $15,000,000, Mexico ceded what became the states of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. The possibility that slavery would expand into the Southwest provoked heated debate; much like that of a generation earlier over the Louisiana Purchase. Southern Congressmen of both major parties defeated the proviso, with sectional interests trumping prior party lines.
In an October 19, 1847, letter to his son-in-law Dr. Robert Crooke Wood, Taylor anticipated that victory in the Mexican War “will produce great strife in the Senate, whenever such a treaty is laid before that body for their action; the Wilmot proviso will shake that body to its center, & how it is all to end, time must determine; but I hope some compromise will be entered into between the two parties slavery & anti slavery which will have the effect of allaying violent passions on both sides, which will have the effect of perpetuating, instead of wrecking or shortening the Union…” (The Gilder Lehrman Collection on Deposit at the New-York Historical Society, GLC00529.05)
In June 1848, the Whig Party National Convention rejected Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Winfield Scott as presidential nominees, choosing instead to put up General Taylor. His ownership of a Baton Rouge plantation and one hundred slaves lured southern voters, while his long military record appealed to northern voters. The Whigs nominated him to run against the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, who favored letting the residents of territories decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery. Despite critics’ attempts to accuse Taylor of intemperance, he rarely if ever drank alcohol.
Opposed to both Taylor, the slaveholder, and Cass, the advocate of “squatter sovereignty,” anti-slavery formed the Free Soil Party and nominated former President Martin Van Buren. In a close election and though Taylor had no previous political experience, the Free Soilers pulled enough votes away from Cass to elect Taylor. He was the last president who owned slaves, but he had not committed himself on the troublesome issue.
Although Taylor had subscribed to Whig principles of legislative leadership, as President, he did not defer to Whig leaders in Congress, acting at times as though he were above parties and politics. To end the dispute over slavery in new areas, Taylor urged settlers in New Mexico and California to draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing the territorial stage. Southerners were furious because neither of the state constitutions was likely to permit slavery, and members of Congress felt the President was usurping their policy-making prerogatives. His solution also ignored related sectional issues such as northern dislike of the District of Columbia slave market and southern demands for a more stringent fugitive slave law.
Zachary Taylor (1784-1850). Born in Virginia, Taylor did not defend slavery or Southern sectionalism; forty years in the Army made him a strong nationalist. He spent a quarter of a century policing the frontiers against Indians. During the Mexican War, he led the army to major victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista. Elected the 12th President of the United States in 1848, Taylor opposed all talk of secession and attempted to suppress sectionalism. However, he was in office for only sixteen months. After ceremonies at the Washington Monument on a blistering July 4, 1850, Taylor fell ill and died five days later.
(Biographical information: https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/zacharytaylor)