What could be less controversial than naming your estate “Buena Vista” when in fact it does have a ‘good view’? But that’s not the reason Delaware senator John M. Clayton chose to rename the ‘Homestead’ property he purchased in 1845. His political survival had something to do with it.
In 1840, Clayton joined the Whig Party and campaigned for Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. The name ‘whig’ was borrowed from a British party opposed to royal prerogatives. Clayton publicly supported the 1844 presidential candidacy of his good friend Henry Clay, ultra-Whig, in a Wilmington Town Hall meeting. Clay lost, but expected to regroup and capture the 1848 nomination.
Clayton was elected (for a second time) to the United States Senate in 1845.
Clayton was opposed, as a Whig, to the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. “I believe the war was brought on by this thing of marching the army,” he stated, “without any necessity, from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande; done, too, while Congress was in session, without one word having been communicated as to the intention of the President of the United States, either to the Senate or the House, or to any committee of either House of Congress, or, as far as i have been able to judge, to any member of either House of Congress.”
Then along came Zachary Taylor, out of left field.
In February 1847, Zachary Taylor’s force defeated Mexican troops despite being outnumbered 3 or 4 to 1 at the Battle of Buena Vista. Upon his victory at Buena Vista, “Old Rough and Ready” political clubs sprang up in support of Taylor’s candidacy for President. A career soldier who genuinely viewed himself as a nationalist and not a party operative, Taylor’s outsider status appealed to a populace that disliked professional politicians.
John M. Clayton’s new home in New Castle, DE was completed only months after Zachary Taylor’s Buena Vista victory. By then Clayton had become a high profile member of the Whig party. Some Whigs calculated that running an extremely popular war hero like Taylor would prove to voters that the Whigs were patriotic, despite their earlier anti-war stance. By naming his new home as he did, Clayton clearly signaled his support for the upstart candidate.
The political friendship between Clayton and Henry Clay severed over Clayton’s backing of Taylor.
“I wish I could slay a Mexican,” Clay grumbled, mocking celebrity soldiers, not Hispanics. “The Whig party has been overthrown by a mere personal party,” he complained in June 1848, vowing not to campaign if the party nominated this outsider.
In that fall’s presidential election, General Zachary Taylor, roughhewn career soldier who had never even voted in a presidential election, conquered the Whig Party. Taylor parlayed his outsider appeal to defeat Lewis Cass, an experienced former Cabinet secretary and senator.
Zachary Taylor was inaugurated president on March 5, 1849. He appointed John M. Clayton the plum cabinet position Secretary of State two days later, on the recommendation of Taylor’s fellow Kentuckian, Governor John J. Crittenden. John M. Clayton’s political gamble had paid off.