Back when I wrote about the election of 1848, I referred to Zachary Taylor as a blank slate. He promised not to veto anything Congress sent him about slavery in the territories. Southerners read into that Old Rough and Ready’s opposition to the Wilmot Proviso. Northerners read into it the opposite. I left hanging then the question of which section read correctly.
His plantation and hundreds of slaves aside, Taylor spent forty years of his life in the army. He served in the War of 1812 and in Indian wars before becoming a national hero in the Mexican War. For him the military provided a cure to Southern insularity. Taylor’s service took him north to Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as south into Mexico. He regarded himself something closer to an American first and a Southern planter second. By the time he took office, Taylor befriended and took advice from no less an antislavery politician than New York’s Whig senator, William Seward.
Worse still for the South, Taylor wanted to mend the divisions within the Whig party by winning over the lately-defected Free Soilers. The Whigs needed the votes as Taylor’s coattails proved too slender to carry a Whig majority in either house of Congress. Instead the 30th Congress gathered in December of 1849 with a Democratic majority in the Senate and in the House 112 Democrats, 105 Whigs, and 12 Free Soilers who came from largely Whig districts. The Whigs may have done better, but their Southern wing paid a price for Taylor’s moderate antislavery politics in the off-year elections. (In the nineteenth century many states ran their elections in odd-numbered years.)
The House convened and no candidate could command a majority for the Speakership. Democrats put forward Howell Cobb of Georgia. Several Democrats refused to support him. The Whigs nominated Robert Winthrop, Cotton Whig and Speaker of the previous House. Conscience Whigs turned Free Soilers refused to support Winthrop despite his approval of the Wilmot Proviso. Six southern Whigs, led by Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs (of Cobb’s native Georgia) declined to support Winthrop on identical grounds but for the opposite reason: Once upon a time Winthrop had supported the hated Proviso.
Three weeks and sixty-two ballots produced no Speaker but did produce many threats of disunion and fistfights between Northern and Southern Congressmen. The more dignified, deliberative Senate joined in. Jefferson Davis challenged an opponent to a duel. His fellow Mississippian Henry Foote drew a loaded revolver during debate. (Talk about uncivil and polarized politics!) The House finally adopted a special rule to elect a Speaker with a plurality instead of a majority and Howell Cobb assumed his place on the sixty-third ballot, but more rancorous debate remained ahead. The Congress that elected Cobb Speaker had nearly a month left before Henry Clay rose to present his resolutions.