In this episode of 12 O’Clock High, a podcast on business leadership, Richard Lummis and myself consider what lessons might be learned from the presidency of Zachary Taylor the 12th President. Taylor only served 18 months, from 1849-185. He died in office from overeating and drinking on the July 4th celebration of 1850. In a prior episode, we considered Taylor’s military leadership in the Mexican-American War of 1848. In this episode, we focus on his short presidency.
Taylor had a long career in the U.S. Army prior to his election, during which time he successfully operated cotton plantations in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi. He was elected as a Whig, this despite refusing to commit himself to the party platform. He was the first President not to hold elective office. While Taylor is usually ranked in the bottom percentile of presidents, he is most generally described as more a forgettable president than a failed one. However, his biographer, John S. Eisenhower argued he was the one man who could have hammered out a compromise on slavery that would have averted the civil war contemporaries. Finally in the political realm, both Democrats and Whigs alike generally viewed his premature death as a national calamity.
Take a Stand
One of the leadership lessons came from an inaction by Taylor. It began before he was even elected President, did not embrace the Whig political platform or even declare himself a Whig until February of 1848 with the election only seven months away. This seems odd but it led to certain other consistent actions in his presidency. For leaders, however, the clear import is that sometimes you have to take a public stand and if you want to be president of United States in a two-party system, you have to declare for one of those parties.
This failure to take stands was reflected in his Presidential leadership style, where he attempted to stand above the fray. The reality was that he did not lead either the Whig party or the Congress directly. He thought the president should stand above party politics. Yet his lack of taking a public stand even declare himself as a Whig. Yet for a leadership, the clear message is that sometimes you do have to take a stand.
You Must Be Engaged
As a business leader, you must be engaged. Taylor’s military training influenced this thinking but that training and those instincts did not serve him as President. He needed to lead both the country and the Whig party. Obviously, this was a critical time in American politics with a horrific war only 10 years away. Further, in a time where politics was driven largely by patronage, Taylor failed to grasp this principle and it was one of the contributing factors to the demise of the Whigs Party in only four more years. A philosophy of trying to be above the fray just does not always work. As a CEO, as a senior executive, as a board of director, you must be engaged in your business. It does not mean you have to get into the weeds of tactical decision making but you must set the proper tone and then oversee it going forward.
We have observed several times in this series with U.S. Presidents, the failure to plan for succession. In this case, we have that failure from a president who died in office, some 18 months into his presidency. Taylor and Fillmore did not even meet in person until only a week or two before the inauguration, so there was no time to build any sort of personal relationship.
Taylor had not brought his vice president, Millard Fillmore into any discussions around critical legislation. Indeed, the vice president was even a part of the cabinet. This lack of engagement with Fillmore, if not to consult, at least air out his thoughts and let him know which way he was thinking about issues, was a critical failure.
This was most critical around the most important piece of legislation at the time, the Compromise of 1850, which was designed to allow California to come into the U.S. as a free state, created territory status for New Mexico and Utah; all in exchange for strengthening the laws around fugitive slaves and protecting the rights of slave ownership. Taylor seemed to indicate that he would veto any such law, while Fillmore, as his vice president had said he would vote for the bill if it came before his role as president of the Senate and his vote was required to break a tie vote from the chamber.
Conflicts of Interest
As a leader, you must be attuned to conflicts of interest by your senior management and stop them. There was never any allegation that Taylor was personally corrupt. However, during the later days of the Taylor Administration, was the Galphin affair. Before joining the Taylor cabinet, the Secretary of War had served as a lawyer and had been involved in a 15-year lawsuit. This lawsuit, he had represented the descendants of a colonial trader who worked for Great Britain but not been repaid at the time of the American Revolution. In the Treaty ending the first war with Britain, the British debt to Galphin was to be assumed by the US government, but over the years, Galphin’s heirs only received payment on the debt’s principal. Even after years of litigation, they had never received any interest payments. Taylor’s Treasury Secretary supported by the Attorney General Johnson, agreed to payment of this interest in April 1850. To Taylor’s great embarrassment, this payment included a compensation of nearly $100,000 to President’s Secretary of War for his fee as counsel. The terms of the settlement meant that two Cabinet members had effectively offered a huge amount from the US treasury to a third member of the Cabinet. The House of Representatives expressed disapproval of his accepting the payment and it complicated the end of Taylor’s term in office.
Clearly, we had a conflict of interest by one of the decision makers in the decision to approve the repayment. Obviously, there was no segregation of duties involved in this decision. This was a huge scandal at the time. I would once again emphasize that Taylor was not ever a part of the discussions of any of the scandal and he was even moving towards a reorganizing his cabinet at the time of the scandal. Yet the damage was done or as Andre Agassi says, “Image is everything” and perception is reality. If you are perceived to have a scandalous cabinet, that is what people will believe. Taylor allowed this to happen, literally at his feet. The amount of $100,000 in 1850 translates into about $10,000,000 now. It was a very large chunk of money then and an equally huge scandal.
A word on Taylor’s death. It seems that during the 1850 4th of July celebrations, Taylor consumed a large number of cherries, ice cream and milk. He subsequently came down with a severe stomach ache, which turned into something called cholera morbus. There is still a considerable debate over whether the doctors actually killed him with their treatment or whether he died from the intestinal ailment. Oddly enough, many of his cabinet members came down with very similar symptoms, so it seems most likely it was due to the sanitation in Washington D.C. at the time.