The Whig Party and Zachary Taylor, 1848

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Zachary Taylor was lionized by Americans of all political stripes after his success as a general in the Mexican-American War. This hat, adorned with a portrait of Taylor, was worn by a member of the Taylor Hose Company, a volunteer fire company in Philadelphia that had named itself in honor of the hero general. It was this celebrity-like status that led the Whig Party to court Taylor as their presidential candidate. Courtesy of National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, via Smithsonian Institution.

In the election of 1848, the Whig Party, which had emerged in the 1830s in opposition to the Democratic Party, turned to a politically inexperienced military hero as their candidate for president. Zachary Taylor, like Jackson, served in the War of 1812 and Seminole War, but had risen to national hero status as General "Old Rough and Ready" during the Mexican-American War (1845-1847).  

Taylor, a slaveowner, had no political affiliation prior to his candidacy for president and, on some issues, blatantly conflicted with established Whig principles like their adamant anti-Mexican War stance and opposition to the expansion of slavery. The Whigs gambled that Taylor’s celebrity and broad public appeal would outweigh his lack of strong political conviction and help them compete against the Democratic party’s Lewis Cass and Martin Van Buren of the Free Soil Party. Ultimately, the Whigs won that bet, but lost party unity in the long run.  

Taylor won the election by a small margin but, in the process, sharply divided the Whig Party between those who seized the opportunity for a celebrity candidate and those who remained true to political principle. The Whig Party never again succeeded in electing a candidate to the presidency and in the succeeding years dissolved amidst internal tensions over slavery. Over the following decade, the Republican Party emerged, replacing the Whigs as the second major party in opposition to the Democrats. The 1848 win was even less gratifying when Taylor died after less than a year and a half in office.