Comments on Lincoln’s Eulogy of Zachary Taylor

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Yesterday I ran a post containing Abraham Lincoln’s eulogy on Zachary Taylor.  Go here to read it.  It is an interesting eulogy and deserves some comment.  It should be noted that Lincoln was disappointed that the Taylor administration did not offer him a post that he had been seeking.  As one of the leaders of the Whig party in Illinois, he felt that this was a slight not only to him but to Illinois Whigs.  Outwardly he remained supportive of the Taylor administration, but privately he regarded Taylor as a weak leader and an immense disappointment.  Thus his eulogy was delivered more out of duty than out of any fondness for a man who turned out to be the last Whig elected president.  On to the eulogy.

  1.  It is striking how the vast majority of the eulogy was taken up by Lincoln’s account of Taylor’s military accomplishments.  Well, but for his success as a general, no one would have considered Taylor for the White House.  Lincoln had to lavish attention and praise on that aspect of his life that made Taylor a national figure.
  2. Some political calculation may have played into Lincoln’s reciting the martial accomplishments of Taylor.  Lincoln had opposed the Mexican War while in Congress, an unpopular stance in Illinois.  Celebrating a victorious general of that war was perhaps Lincoln’s way of running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds.
  3. For a non-military man Lincoln showed some insight into his assessment of Taylor.  “Gen. Taylor’s battles were not distinguished for brilliant military manoeuvers; but in all, he seems rather to have conquered by the exercise of a sober and steady judgment, coupled with a dogged incapacity to understand that defeat was possible. His rarest military trait, was a combination of negatives—absence of excitement and absence of fear. He could not be flurried, and he could not be scared.”  It is striking that a similar assessment could have been made later about Ulysses S. Grant, the General chosen by Lincoln to win the  Civil War.  Perhaps Lincoln was reminded of Taylor in picking Grant, Grant of course vastly admiring Taylor, down to Taylor’s informality in military dress, a trait Grant copied.
  4. Lincoln’s eulogy comes to a sudden halt after Taylor was elected president.  For a eulogy of a president this seems odd, until one recalls that for most Whigs the Taylor administration was a vast let down.  Taylor had been resolutely non-political throughout his life, never casting a ballot until 1848.  He announced prior to his nomination by the Whigs, that is unspoken political beliefs had been those of the Whig throughout most of his adult life, but that he in some sense remained a Jeffersonian Democrat-Republican.  After he was elected, Taylor was completely indifferent to the economic policies supported by the Whigs.  He regarded it as a waste of time to revive a National Bank, he thought the tariff should be for revenue rather than to protect native industries, and he would not fight for federal funds for state internal improvements.  Economics were always the binding force of the Whig party, and once Taylor turned his back on these policies, Whigs had nothing to acclaim about the administration.
  5. In light of his future career it is stunning that Lincoln said nothing about Taylor’s, a slave holder, opposition to extending slavery into southwestern lands seized from Mexico and his willingness to use military force against secession, and his threat to hang every secessionist he could get his hands on.  Of course Lincoln’s hero, Henry Clay was busily now patching together the Compromise of 1850 that Taylor could no longer oppose,and Lincoln was in favor of these efforts.
  6. Lincoln turns the eulogy into a meditation on death at the end.  A commonplace theme for a eulogy for his time of course, but also reflective of the melancholy that was never far from Lincoln.  Lincoln ends the eulogy with a poem written by William Knox, who died at age 36, a gloomy, turgid poem that Lincoln was so fond of reciting that some students of Lincoln mistakenly thought he had written it, although it has not a scintilla of Lincoln’s style.

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One Comment

  1. I think it was Herndon who pointed out that Lincoln was not meant to be a eulogist–at least not as the 19th Century expected it.

    His heart was definitely in the one he delivered for Henry Clay, but it still comes across as stilted.

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