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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 18: Renewing the Sectional Struggle, 1848 - 1854

Zachary Taylor (1784 - 1850)

Taylor was the military hero of the Mexican War and the Whig president whose political ineptitude nearly blocked the Compromise of 1850.

He came from a slaveholding Kentucky family and fought in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Seminole wars before his performance in the Mexican War made him a national hero.

Using daring and risky troop movements, Taylor defeated Santa Annas much larger army at Buena Vista. Polk was jealous of Taylors appeal but failed to stop the public and journalistic celebration of Old Rough and Ready.

While Taylor had long supported the Whigs, he was so politically ignorant that he nearly ruined his 1848 candidacy by writing blunt letters. At the time of his death, Whig politicians were despairing of Taylors incompetence and trying to persuade prominent figures to enter the cabinet and keep him under control.

Quote: I am a Whig, but not an ultra Whig. If elected I would not be the mere President of a party. I would endeavor to act independent of party domination. I should feel bound to administer the government untrammeled by party schemes. (1848)

REFERENCE: K. Jack Bauer, Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (1985).

Harriet Tubman (1821 - 1913)

Tubman was a fugitive slave and black abolitionist who led many slaves out of the South.

She was born a slave in Maryland, and, as a child, suffered a severe head injury that affected her throughout her life. She worked as a field hand, displaying tremendous physical stamina.

In 1844 her master forced her to marry another slave against her wishes. Five years later she escaped across the Pennsylvania border, traveling only by night.

She began making raids back into the South and eventually led out an estimated three hundred slaves, including her elderly parents. Between trips she worked as a cook and used much of her income to help the fugitives get a start or move to Canada.

Tubman was illiterate but learned to speak before abolitionist groups. During the Civil War she went south with the Union army and worked as a cook, laundress, nurse, and spy.

Quote: Jes so long as he [God] wanted to use me, he would take keer of me, an when he didnt want me no longer, I was ready to go. I always tole him, Im gwine to hole stiddy on you, an youve got to see me trou. (Comment, 1868)

REFERENCE: Sarah Bradford, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (1974).

Stephen A. Douglas (1813 - 1861)

Douglas was the Democratic senator whose Kansas-Nebraska Act helped bring on the Civil War that ruined his party and dashed his once-high presidential hopes.

Born in Vermont, he made his way to frontier Illinois, where he taught school and learned law. Although only briefly a judge on the state supreme court, he was always called Judge Douglas. Douglas was first elected to the Illinois legislature in 1836, along with young Abraham Lincoln.

Douglass first wife inherited a southern plantation with many slaves, and this became a political liability for Douglas. His second wife was related to Dolley Madison and was well connected in Washington high society, where the Douglases were very prominent in the late 1850s.

Once Douglas realized he had no hope of winning the 1860 election, he concentrated on rallying Democratic support for the Union and against secession. Although he and Lincoln had been longtime political rivals, he held Lincolns hat at his inaugural and publicly defended him in the secession crisis. Douglas died of typhoid fever in 1861.

Quote: I hold that under the Constitution of the United States each state of this Union has a right to do as it pleases on the subject of slavery. In Illinois we have exercised that right by abolishing slavery.It is none of our business whether slavery exist in Missouri. Hence I do not choose to occupy the time allotted to me in discussing a question that we have no right to act upon. (Lincoln-Douglas debates, 1858)

REFERENCE: Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (1973).

William Walker (1824 - 1860)

Walker was the American filibusterer and adventurer who attempted to add a Central American slave empire to the American commonwealth before the Civil War.

A graduate of the University of Nashville, Walker earned a medical degree, practiced law, and edited a New Orleans newspaper, but his boredom with ordinary pursuits constantly drove him into exotic and dangerous schemes. He first attempted to set up a republic with himself as president in Lower California (part of Mexico) in 1853, but was arrested and acquitted of violating neutrality laws.

His briefly successful dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1855 began to collapse when he attempted to seize control of overland transit in the country from Cornelius Vanderbilts company. An angry Vanderbilt helped turn other Central American countries and U.S. authorities against Walker, and his southern friends in the American navy proved unable to save him from capture and execution.

Quote: That which you ignorantly call filibustering is not the offspring of hasty passion or ill-regulated desire. It is the fruit of the supreme instincts that act in accord with fixed laws as old as creation. (Autobiography, 1860)

REFERENCE: Laurence Greene, The Filibuster: The Career of William Walker (1937).

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