Cavalcade of America: Season 1, Episode 9

What Might Have Been (21 Jan. 1953)

TV Episode  -   -  Drama
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Robert Barrat
Ross Ford ...
Nancy Hale ...
Sarah Taylor
Dayton Lummis
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Drama

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21 January 1953 (USA)  »

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I Really Wonder If This Would Have Changed Anything
5 November 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

First and only President of the Confederate States of America: Mr. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

First and only First Lady of the Confederate States of America: Mrs. Varina Davis of Mississippi.

Then who is Sarah Taylor?

Answer: Why she was Mrs. Jefferson Davis!

Jefferson Davis, as a young man, went to West Point Military Academy, and subsequently was appointed an aide to General Zachary Taylor. He would serve under Taylor (with great distinction, by the way) in the Mexican War. But while serving with Taylor, he met Taylor's daughter Sarah, and they fell in love. Jefferson Davis married Sarah...but she died. Subsequently he would marry Varina.

Davis did not always agree with his old Commander in Chief. Taylor was originally from Virginia, but (when he became President) was in Louisiana (to this day he is the only President whose home is in Louisiana). Taylor was a Whig (at least he was nominated by them - he probably never really considered his political label as sacred). Davis was a Democrat.

When Taylor became President in 1849 the California Gold Rush was underway, and that territory was able (by 1850) to request statehood. This led to the sectional conflict that would engulf Benton and Webster (see their "Profiles In Courage" episodes). The South hated the admission of only one new state to the Union, which would unbalance the even split of Free and Slave States in the U.S. Senate. John C. Calhoun threatened to lead a secession movement unless some reasonable compromise was reached about the impasse. So Henry Clay and Webster and Stephen Douglas worked out the Compromise of 1850, complete with the abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C., the Fugitive Slave Act (for the Southerners), and the admission of California (with John Fremont as senior, but four year Senator, and of William Gwinn as junior, but six year Senator - Fremont was an abolitionist, Gwinn a supporter of slavery).

But it was a long and difficult trip reaching that Compromise. Calhoun was dying when it was brought about, and he never lived to see what it ended as. This actually helped (Calhoun would have felt the South was shortchanged by some window dressing legislation). But worse there was President Taylor. Taylor, unlike any of the Presidents between Jackson and Lincoln (including the Machiavellian but successful Polk), was feisty. He did not like to hear threats about secession be they from Calhoun or by leading abolitionists like William Seward of New York. He told everyone that he would veto any compromise (which he felt was blackmail), and would personally lead an army into any state that tried to secede. Strong words, and Taylor was just the sort to do it.

Unfortunately, the old soldier took ill after attending the laying of the cornerstone for the Washington Monument in July 1850, and would die of cholera on July 9, 1850.* His Vice President, Millard Fillmore of New York, was willing to sign the Compromise. And so the Civil War was averted by ten years!

(*Please note - if you ever are shown an "amazing but true" item that is passed around that every twenty years the President is elected in a year ending in zero, and dies in office, keep in mind that before Ronald Reagan ended this particular nonsense, it was false because of Taylor, who died in 1850, nine years after William Harrison, and fifteen years before Lincoln.)

This episode probably suggested that Taylor's feisty nationalism and patriotism would have changed Davis' point of view...but I have serious reservations about that. My reason deals with a person who is known to Civil War aficionados, but not to the general public - despite a first rate record as a military commander and a literary reputation.

Zachary Taylor had a son named Richard, who was (through the marriage to Sarah) the brother-in-law (albeit temporary) of Jefferson Davis. In 1861 the war came...and Richard joined up. He got a commission in the Confederate Army.

The which?

You see, Zachary and Richard Taylor were Louisiana planters, and that meant they used slave labor. When war came, Richard Taylor joined the side his economic interests were tied to. He would serve in the Trans-Mississippi area, and distinguish himself (he rose to the rank of Lieutenant General) as one of the few commanders for the CSA who won battles there. He was responsible for defeating the one serious incursion into Texas in the war, the Red River Valley Campaign. He and his co-commander, General Edmund Kirby - Smith, won (yes - the South won) the last official battle of the war at Palamito Hill, Texas in May 1865. Reality dictated their surrender to General Edward Canby a few days later. Richard returned to his home, and would publish a fine book of war reminiscences before his death in 1879.

Zachary Taylor, in the most important event of his short Presidency (our third shortest) showed a spirit worthy of Jackson in the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33. He probably would have led his army into any state that threatened secession, and one wonders if this might have avoided our bloodiest war or actually triggered it a decade earlier. But being a nationalist did not mean he would have remained one when his interests were at stake. The actions of his son suggest "Old Rough and Ready" might have changed his mind. And if he had, he might have fully supported his former son-in-law's newly formed government (like Richard did).

By the way, although Jefferson Davis is not a United States President, but only the President of a country made of some of the states, he is, to the present day, the only U.S. statesman who became a President, whose father-in-law was also a President!


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