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Gen. Zachariah Taylor Man on a White Horse By Sid Moody In J a n u a r y , 1848. a carpenter from New Jersey named James . Marshall went to inspect a millrace newly cut for his sawmill on the south fork of the American River outside of Sacramento, Calif. "My eye was caught by something shining in the bottom of the ditch," he later recalled. Gold. Marshall's discovery brought tens of thousands stampeding towards California. And it helped bring his nation u n c o m f o r t a b l y close to war. California in 1849 was newly "liberated" from Mexico and under the quasi-military administration of Brig. Gen. Richard B. Mason. Mason had only two companies of sol. diers to patrol the entire territory which he reported was in a condition of "near anarchy." And the gold rush would bring the population to 95,000 by the end of the year. In June, at Monterey, Californians overwhelmingly approved a constitution to be admitted to the Union as a state. The constitution banned slavery. That made California's admission a national issue. Did this mean that the newly annexed Mexican territories, which had increased the area of the United States by more than a t h i r d , would be closed to the extension of slavery? Did it mean that the North, whose population was inc r e a s i n g t w i c e a s f a s t a s t h e South's, would become even more predominant? Fearful--and angry--Southeners looked to the White House where sat one of their own, a Virginia- born, Kentucky-reared man who was one of the 1.800 largest slav- eowners in the nation. Zachariah Taylor. Taylor, who shared a great- grandfather with James Madison, actually was born in a log cabin, but only because a domicile more fitting to his patrician origins was not at hand. His family was on its way to Kentucky, a frontier still so crude that when a settler in rustic Louisville put in glass windows, a boy came crying home: "Oh, Ma! There is a house down here with specs on!" Young Zachary chose the military as a career, f i g h t i n g -- a n d ably-in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War in Illinois, and the Seminole War in Florida in the 1830's and serving in various f r o n t i e r posts in between. The blunt, non- drinking but tobacco-chewing general--he spat his quid with deadly, or at least s a n i t a r y , accuracy- reached his apotheosis in the war with Mexico where his victories made him a national hero. Astride his horse. Old Whitey, Taylor looked anything but. Comrades estimated his "uniform" during the State Magazine: Jim? 20. 1976 Â·: Â· Gen. Taylor, "Old Rough and Ready," as he appeared at the battle of Palo A llo. (From a sketch by a lieutenant of artillery.) war cost him no more than $7.50; U.S. Grant remembered seeing his commander in full dress but twice, and another soldier said Taylor "looks more like an old f a r m e r going to market with eggs to sell than anything I can think of." But a winning general has never 'lacked an audience in A m e r i c a n politics. Even though he had never held office or even voted in his life, Taylor finally decided tc leave the door ajar lest a convention draft blow in. It did, despite one foe who said Old Rough and Ready's only qualifications for the presidency were "sleeping 40 years in the woods and cultivating moss on the calves of his legs." Taylor opted for the Whigs, a badly fractured party of antis, re- gionalists and rich bankers and planters, North and South. The military hero outgunned Henry Clay, the Whigs' "Great Rejected" who had lost three tries for the presidency, and won a minority victory over Lewis Cass. Southerners, noting Taylor owned more than 100 slaves on his plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana, counted on his favor. Taylor gave one of the shortest inaugural speeches on record in which he never mentioned slavery and then attended a ball among the sponsors of which were Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln. And along came California. What had been overlooked was that Old Rough and Ready had been a Westerner before becoming a . Southerner and a soldier before becoming a cotton planter. He had seen blood shed for the Union. In Congress, party distinctions were gradually reshaping themselves into fatal phalanxes, North vs. South. In 1849, election of a House speaker took three weeks and 63 ballots as party cohesion broke down over slavery extension into the new territories. There were even 14 ballots for House doorkeeper. Into the confusion stepped the Great Compromiser, Clay, who proposed settlement of the impasse by accepting the California constitution, territorial status for New Mexico and Utah and a more stringent fugitive slave law.Taylor also favored nonslavery statehood for California, but preferred that events rather than Congress govern admission of New Mexico and Utah to avoid pouring more coals in an already overheated debate. But debate there was, one of the most brilliant in the history of the U.S. Senate. There was Clay asking forbearance from a "numerically more powerful" North against the South, holding a piece from Washington's coffin as he implored for preservation of the Union. John Calhoun, "the incarnation of the Wrath of God," had his speech read as he stared piercingly through his dying eagle eyes. Daniel Webster scoffed at a secession that any thought could be peaceable. "What stales are to secede? What is to remain American? What am I to be--an American no longer?" Then, in June 1850, New Mexican voters approved their own statehood constitution. It, too, prohibited slavery. Reaction in neighboring, proslavery Texas, which had been insisting that large sections of New Mexico were properly Texan, was immediate and intense. Governor Peter Bell of Texas had already threatened to send a military force to Santa Fe "sufficient to enable . . . civil authorities (to execute Texan laws) without regard to the m i l i t a r y power o f t h e U n i t e d States." Taylor, who had earlier vowed to "to preserve the Union at all hazards," v/anted the boundary dispute deferred until New Mexico's status was decided and then to be submitted to the Supreme Court. Reports came in, however, that Texas planned to send 2,500 troops to the New Mexican capital. Taylor was confronted with possible war. He angrily told associates that if Texans attacked the Stars and Stripes, he would personally lead federal troops into battle. It never came to that. Old Rough and Ready was suddenly stricken by a gastric attack and died July 9, Â· 1850. His successor, Vice President Millard Fillmore, was more amenable to the Compromise of 1850, as it came to be known, and it was passed after Taylor's death. California was in the Union. New Mexico was a territory and the border dispute settled. But there remains an unanswerable if. What if Taylor, a political primitive but a fighter who knew how and when to fight and valued the Union above all else, had drawn blood to suppress a war between two states? Would his response have been a stark enough lesson to have suppressed a war between all of them? No one can ever know. Next: James Buchanan CHARLESTON. W.V/t. 5m .