Whig ever elected president may have been...

SO THE LAST

June 19, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

SO THE LAST Whig ever elected president may have been murdered? We'll know soon, when an arsenic test is performed on the remains of Zachary Taylor.

If he was slain, the question becomes, "who done it?" The obvious answer is the person who benefited most. That was Millard Fillmore. He was Taylor's vice president and moved up upon ZT's death in 1850.

Some people might say a little arsenic in ZT's milk turned out to be justifiable homicide, historically speaking. Here is a 90-second history lesson. Taylor's Whig Party was split down the middle on the question of slavery. He opposed slavery in the western territories. Most Southern Whigs favored it. Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the era's leading Whig, drafted a proposal that among other things allowed some slavery in the West but not too much.

This was the famous Compromise of 1850. (I'm sick and tired of hearing that American students don't learn history any more! I recently asked a group of high school seniors when the Compromise of 1850 occurred, and a majority got the right answer!)

Fillmore signed the compromise. Taylor had sworn to veto it. Had he lived and done so, the Civil War would have come 10 years earlier, and the Union probably would have lost. It barely won with so great a leader as Abraham Lincoln, and, as Senator Clay once put it, "I knew Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was a friend of mine. And, Zachary, you're no Abe Lincoln."

What Zach was was a dolt. "He doesn't know himself from a side of sole leather in the way of statesmanship," said editor Horace Greeley. (A nice, 19th century way of saying someone doesn't know a certain part of his anatomy from his elbow.) "He really is a most simple-minded old man," said educator Horace Mann. "Few men have ever had more contempt for learning," said Gen. Winfield Scott. Taylor only got elected president because former Democratic President Martin Van Buren ran as a third party candidate in 1848 and split the Democratic vote.

Anyway, Taylor died after two years in office. Fillmore was so unpopular that he lost the nomination in 1852 to General Scott, who lost the election to Democrat Franklin Pierce. That was the end of the Whigs. Fillmore ran for president in 1856 as the nominee of the Whig-American Party, also known as the Know Nothing Party, a collection of kooks. He carried only one state. Maryland.

That year saw the first Republican Party nominee. Its nominee came in second, ahead of the Know Nothings, behind the Democrats. The Republicans won the presidency in the next election -- and indeed in the next six. The Whigs were gone, never to be heard from again, as dead as if someone had fed

every last one of them (873,053 in the 1856 election) arsenic.

Speaking of dead parties, the Democrats held an important meeting in Wisconsin last weekend. I'll comment on that in my next piece.

Saturday: The Populists.

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