By William F. Hanna
Now it seems impossible to believe that Abraham Lincoln came to Taunton campaigning for a Louisiana slaveowner, a man who had once been Jefferson Davis’s father-in-law.* But that’s exactly what happened in 1848, and it reminds us that the hyper-partisanship of modern presidential contests is neither unique nor dependent upon social media. Not only was Lincoln’s candidate a slaveowner, he had also been a hero in a war that Lincoln, a loyal member of the Whig Party, had vehemently opposed.
The candidate in question was Zachary Taylor, a 64-year old Louisianan and career soldier whose generalship in the Mexican War propelled him into the national spotlight. Taylor, who had never even voted in a presidential election, was about as apolitical as a man could be, but the Whigs swallowed their scruples and nominated him anyway. First, thanks to his celebrity, they were confident he would win, and second, they viewed Lewis Cass, the Democratic Party’s candidate, as a dreadful alternative. They thought that while Taylor might be convinced to support at least some Whig programs, Cass’s election would certainly bring about the extension of slavery. The matter became complicated, however, when a faction of younger, more liberal Whigs bolted the party and nominated former president Martin Van Buren as their candidate for the White House. Calling themselves the Free Soil Party, they threatened to siphon enough votes from Taylor to give the election to Cass.
The Free Soil threat was especially dangerous in Massachusetts, where Taylor’s candidacy was deeply unpopular. This called for an all-hands-on-deck Whig campaign with speakers from both near and far talking up the virtues of Old Rough and Ready. One of them was an unknown prairie lawyer from Illinois.
In 1848, Abraham Lincoln was a 39-year old congressman representing Illinois’ Seventh District. In the middle of his only term in the U.S. House of Representatives, he was returning home on recess by way of Massachusetts. In no particular hurry, he was anxious to drum up support for Taylor’s candidacy “on this side of the mountains,” as he put it, “where everybody is learned and wise.”
Lincoln, who later claimed to have had “hayseed” in his hair, started in Worcester on September 13, just in time for the Whig state convention. Party leaders from around the Bay State were hoping to find speakers willing to appear in their towns throughout the fall campaign. After hearing the tall Illinoisan give two Western-style stump speeches on Taylor’s behalf, Lincoln had all the invitations he could handle.
We don’t have a word for word transcript of the speeches Lincoln delivered during his tour of nine eastern Massachusetts towns, but thanks to excellent newspaper coverage we have a good idea of what he said. While he argued that Taylor was a strong candidate, his underlying message was more urgent, and it was that the Free Soilers could never win. A vote for Van Buren was a wasted vote that would help put Cass in the White House.
When we look at his only visit to Massachusetts, we realize that the Lincoln of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural was nowhere to be found in 1848. The Whigs who packed the public halls generally loved him, but it was style, not substance that they cheered. His most memorable weapons were humor and biting sarcasm. Most New Englanders had never seen a talented mid-Western stump speaker, and the hilarious broadsides — Lincoln always laughed at his own jokes — that he leveled against Cass, and especially Van Buren, often brought the house down.
From Worcester, Lincoln spoke in New Bedford, Boston, Lowell, Dorchester, Chelsea, Dedham and Cambridge before arriving in Taunton on September 21. With a population of 10,000, this was a town fully committed to manufacturing. Its 200 businesses made everything from bricks to locomotives to silver, and it was also an inland river port of some prominence. Stepping off the train at shortly after noon on that Thursday, Lincoln was taken to Mechanics Hall, the headquarters of the Reed & Barton debating society. Located on the southeast corner of Hopewell and Danforth Streets, a parking lot occupies that space today. This rally may have been arranged on the spur of the moment because his address wasn’t covered in the press.
Lincoln’s main appearance was well advertised in the local Whig newspapers and scheduled for that evening. Union Hall was up above Foster & Lawton’s general store. Located at the head of Winthrop Street, between the Mill River and present-day Baptist church, this building hosted many of the town’s political meetings. Taunton Whigs didn’t like Taylor any more than their friends in other parts of the state, but there was a large crowd on hand to get a look at the prairie speaker. “Mr. Lincoln is a genuine Sucker, and is well-versed in the political tactics of the Western country,” promised the editor of the Taunton Daily Gazette. In those days the word “Sucker,” when capitalized, referred to a mid-westerner, so there were no hard feelings intended.
In the mid-19th century Taunton had four newspapers, and each was unabashedly partisan. Their coverage of Lincoln’s speech reflected the political leanings of their editors. One observer in the packed hall was Dr. William Gordon, a local Free Soiler. Writing for the Bristol County Democrat, he gave Lincoln a back-handed compliment when he wrote that it was reviving “to hear a man speak as if he believed what he was saying, and had a grain or two of feeling mixed up with it. . . .” Yet, wrote Gordon, “The speaker was far inferior as a reasoner to others who hold the same views, but then he was more unscrupulous, more facetious, and with his sneers he mixed up a good deal of humor.” The Whig audience, said Gordon, “laugh[ed] at the mere anticipation of the joke. . . .” He ended his critique by blasting Lincoln for telling a “whopper” while trying to justify Taylor’s candidacy.
One of the best descriptions of Lincoln on the stump appeared in the Old Colony Republican, a paper supporting Taylor. The unidentified Taunton correspondent wrote:
“It was an altogether new show for us — a western stump speaker. . . . His manners, and the way he advanced upon his hearers and cultivated their acquaintance until he became perfectly familiar with them, can any man think of [it] without being tickled?”
“Leaning himself up against the wall, as he commenced, and talking in the plainest manner, and in the most indifferent tone, yet gradually fixing his footing, and getting command of his limbs, loosening his tongue, and firing up his thoughts, until he had got entire possession of himself and of his audience, were done in a style that will be long remembered.”
The writer then hit the ceiling of frantic hyperbole and finished with a flourish: “Argument and anecdote, wit and wisdom, hymns and prophecies, platforms and syllogisms, came flying before the audience like wild game before the fierce hunter of the prairie.”
It was quite a time, and since there was no late train back to Boston, Lincoln spent the night in Taunton. He stayed at the home of Samuel L. Crocker, president of the local Taylor Club and a former congressman. Crocker lived in a beautiful mansion on Taunton Green, on a site now occupied by the post office. The next day Lincoln took the morning train for Boston.
Zachary Taylor carried Massachusetts that November and won the election. He took office in March 1849 and died seventeen months later. His run for the White House is all but forgotten now, and so is the small part that a future president played in the campaign. No one who was crammed into Union Hall that evening in 1848 could have foreseen what the future would bring to them or to that curious stump speaker. Over time, however, the memory of Lincoln’s appearance here would become dear to them, a recollection to be passed down to the grandchildren and beyond.
(Editor’s Note: Zachary Taylor’s daughter Sarah married Jefferson Davis in June 1835. She died of malaria three months later.)