The obscene carnival of digging up an American hero who died 141 years ago has come to an end. No arsenic was found in Zachary Taylor’s remains, proving that he was not poisoned, which any competent and sensible historian could have told you without this grotesque and impious exercise. (Even if significant traces of arsenic had been found, it would, in fact, have meant nothing. Arsenic was an ingredient in many medicines and embalming fluids in common use in 1850, and its presence would not have proved conspiracy and poisoning.)
We did not learn anything about American history before the Civil War from this business. There was never the slightest possibility that we would do so. The affair tells us a lot, however, that will never be acknowledged, about our intellectually and ethically degraded present; more specifically, it reveals that what passes for the official view of earlier American history is not only ignorant but warped. No society has ever devoted more resources to historical study than modern America, and no society has ever so wantonly cut itself off not only from understanding but from identification with its own past.
This foolish exercise should never have been permitted by Taylor’s descendants. There used to be better standards. It is little known, but in the early 19th century there was an effort to remove George Washington’s remains from Mount Vernon to the Capitol. It was quietly but firmly refused by the family, backed by overwhelming Virginia public opinion. It would have been an unseemly and unrepublican spectacle, an invasion of privacy that would have made Washington’s tomb hostage to whatever band of politicians happened to get control.
It was alleged that President Taylor’s symptoms at the time of death suggested poisoning, doubtless by proslavery advocates. Any historian familiar with the period knows the imprecision of medical data and records from that era, and would be extremely cautious in drawing any conclusions from them, especially one so drastic as a presidential assassination. But what gave a fraudulent plausibility to the story was something that is in the air: the belief, or rather faith, on the part of vast hordes of petty intellectuals that any and all evils and enormities, real and imagined, must be traced back to Southerners, and particularly to Southern slaveholders.
The issues that were current in 1850 were quite complicated. It would take several pages to explain them fully, and even then it would be beyond the intellectual capacity of a television news anchor or congressman to understand. But, broadly speaking, they did not involve being for or against slavery, contrary to what the media have repeated ad nauseum, for in fact almost no one respectable was against slavery, except in mild and marginal ways. The differences involved the political and economic balance of power between the North and South in regard to the future of the new territory acquired in the Mexican War, further complicated by the efforts of two political parties to maneuver for advantage while muddling and compromising the issues, as American politicians always do.
There was a wide variety of viewpoints. Though a Southerner and a slaveholder, Taylor was a conservative Whig who took a moderately Northern stand on the issues, as indeed did many Southern Whigs. The differences involved were quite heated, but hardly clearcut enough to provoke assassination. An assassination theory is only given plausibility by anti-Southern paranoia: the belief that Southerners killed people who disagreed with them. The Old South produced some tough’ and violent customers, including Old Rough and Ready himself, but they were not the kind that went around poisoning people. It would have been totally out of character. The abolitionists, not the slaveholders, produced the John Browns and Edwin Stantons. Congressman Brooks of South Carolina publicly thrashed Charles Sumner, who had unquestionably slandered his state and his family, because he knew Sumner was too cowardly to accept a challenge. Brooks would have scorned a clandestine assault.
Taylor himself, a genuine and heroic soldier though a naive politician, would have repudiated the hysteria of a “slave power conspiracy.” Anyone with any sense of context can see the absurdity of the assassination business. Would Taylor’s family have had no suspicions? Within a little over a decade Zach Taylor’s son-in-law was president of the Confederate States and his son one of its best generals, yet his death is used to slander Southerners. And an ideological phantasm becomes not only a historical interpretation but the cause of legal and scientific actions.
This incident fits a very familiar pattern. Whenever economic, social, and psychic tensions grow in “mainstream” America, there is a clamor of anti-Southern hysteria. It has happened over and over again. As racial hatred and social pathologies intensify in northern cities, it is utteriy predictable that establishment intellectuals will escalate their war against Southerners and Southern history.
This is illustrated to perfection by William Freehling’s recent book, The Road to Disunion, Vol. 1, which purports to be a new history of the coming of the Civil War, and which is a sort of background cover for the nasty Taylor business. This book was hyped for twenty years while in preparation, something that is almost unprecedented in academic circles. Its publication immediately catapulted the author from an already prestigious position at Johns Hopkins to an endowed chair at SUNY-Buffalo.
While the book is well researched and even slightly original in marginal ways, and not without a certain cleverness, it is, substantially, as a work of history, an absurd cartoon. It literally reeks and drips with poisonous and near-paranoiac hatred not of slavery but of Southern whites, and, indeed, of almost all of American history.
Even the academic historians have kept some distance and not been entirely persuaded by the book’s pretension to be major and classic history. This so-called narrative is full of 1960’s slang. The portraits of antebellum American statesmen are at best quarter-truths, but even what truth there is in them has been said a thousand times before by a thousand different writers. The book tells us exactly less than nothing about its subject, in the sense that a quarter-truth is worse than nothing at all.
The success of this book and the Taylor autopsy, which are both based upon a common and false interpretation of history, do tell us that the liberal intellectuals are under terrific pressure. Faced with a moral and social wasteland in modern America, what could be more convenient than to blame the old Southern slaveholding class for all our ills? It gives one such a nice and safe feeling of superiority and freedom from the necessity of any real thought or decision. Whatever the evils of past states of society, which are always easy to find, it is a fact that the Southern planter class of the 18th and 19th centuries provided the preponderance of the most able and honorable Founders and nourishers of the American Republic, and that American society has gone downhill in every way except material wealth since they were destroyed.
If, as the Kerner Commission has made a convention, the Old Southern system of slavery is the cause of all the ills of modern American society, why is it that the further away we get from the plantation, in time and space, the worse the pathologies grow? Or, to put it another way, why, a century and a quarter after the end of the Civil War, is racial hatred, not to mention crime, illegitimacy, and drugs, worse in Chicago than in South Carolina?
In the meantime, we Southerners need an anti-defamation league, though that is not our style. We have learned the hard way the value of patience and a half loaf, and the danger of pushing points of honor too hard, and we have a primitive loyalty to this country, under the foolish delusion that it is still ours.
A vastly disproportionate share of the reservists called up for the late Arabian adventure were from the Southeastern States. Everyone wants representation on the Supreme Court. Southerners, the people who more than any other founded the country and wrote the Constitution, have a representation on the Supreme Court of zero, even though we make up a third or more of the people. Yet, still, we Southerners allow a smirking Yalie to gull us out of our votes by a pretense of fellowship with Baptist ministers and country singers. It speaks well of our hearts but not of our heads.