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Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation: Zachary Taylor



The last president to own slaves while in office was the twelfth, Zachary Taylor. A military hero, Taylor was the compromise Whig candidate who served only 16 months of his presidency due to cholera contracted from a bowl of cherries and chilled milk.

Taylor became president at the end of the 1840s, often characterized as the actualization of Manifest Destiny. While he did not believe in extension of slavery to the new territories, Taylor firmly supported the right of each state to determine their own future.

1847: “I too have been all my life industrious and frugal, and that the fruits thereof are mainly invested in slaves, of whom I own three hundred.”

1847: “The moment (the abolitionists) go beyond the point where resistance becomes right and proper, let the South act promptly, boldly and decisively with arms in their hands, if necessary, as the Union in that case will be blown to atoms, or will be no longer worth preserving.”

1847: “So far as slavery is concerned, we of the south must throw ourselves on the constitution and defend our rights under it to the last, and when arguments will no longer suffice, we will appeal to the sword, if necessary.”

Texas, having become a republic, was claiming vast areas of the West. The Gold Rush was on. The Mormons were developing the state of Deseret. It was not a quiet time

Taylor viewed the West as an inappropriate place to cultivate sugar and cotton, thus not lending itself to a plantation economy. He encouraged New Mexico and California to apply for statehood, bypassing a territorial phase, believing these states would not adopt slavery, despite the fact that there was a “southern movement” in Southern California.

Taylor’s unexpected death enabled legislators Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas and others to negotiate, finesse and legislate the Compromise of 1850.

Skillfully breaking many of the controversies of the day into five separate bills, the final September outcome set the stage for the next decade:

– California admitted as an undivided “free” state thwarting Southern expansion to the Pacific

– Texas surrendered claims to New Mexico and lands north of Missouri Compromise Line, transferred its crushing public debt to federal government and kept the Panhandle

– New Mexico and Deseret denied statehood, becoming territories with slavery left to popular sovereignty

– Avoidance of secession/civil war over the issue of what to do with lands acquired during the Mexican American War

– South avoided adoption of Wilmot Proviso

– South gained a stronger Fugitive Slave Act, and preservation of slavery in the national capital.

– Slave trade was banned in Washington D.C.

– Land that was to become Nevada was formally under the jurisdiction of the United States.

For the years 2012-2013, Our Story, Inc. will be be celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Project and its legacy in Nevada. This article is part of a series to be published during that time. The first part of the series covers the presidencies leading up to Lincoln in order to review national policy and experience leading to Emancipation. Please feel free to circulate and share (credited), comment or submit your own articles.

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