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Zachary Taylor: Twelfth President of the United States

Updated on November 21, 2019
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Doug West is a retired engineer, retired small business owner, and an experienced non-fiction writer.

Zachary Taylor.
Zachary Taylor.

Introduction

Zachary Taylor, born into a prosperous Virginia family, didn’t want to be a farmer like his father and set his own course by joining the US army. Taylor gradually rose to prominence in the army, reaching the rank of major in the War of 1812, but it was his crushing victories as a major general in the Mexican-American War that transformed him into a national hero. Although he never harbored political ambitions, nor showed a real interest in seeking office, he became a favorite of the Whig Party, which put him on track for the White House. Taylor easily won the election to become the twelfth president of the United States, serving in the White House from March 1849 until this death in July 1850. Taylor’s main concern during his presidency was to ease the tensions between pro and anti-slavery factions that plagued Congress, which threatened to dissolve the Union. Although he was a Southern planter and slave owner, Taylor did not support the expansion of slavery. Unfortunately, his presidency ended prematurely due to his unexpected death from a severe stomach ailment.

Early Life

Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, in Orange County, Virginia, not far from Montpelier, the home of his second cousin, future president James Madison. Zachary’s father, Richard, had served in the Continental army as a lieutenant colonel under George Washington in the American Revolutionary War. For his service, he was compensated with 6,000 acres of land on the Ohio River, in an area which would later become Louisville, Kentucky. While Zachary was still an infant, the family moved to Kentucky. In this rapidly growing region, the family found great prosperity. Richard Taylor became a prominent planter, owning thousands of acres and many slaves.

Although Kentucky was developing steadily during Taylor’s childhood, the education system in the area was still lacking. With little access to formal education, Taylor learned to read and write from his mother, Sarah, and at a local school. His lack of formal education would hinder him the rest of his life, with his handwriting later described as “that of a near illiterate.”

Military Career

Zachary Taylor’s first commission in the US army was as first lieutenant in the infantry. By November 1810, he had received his first promotion and became captain. This new position left him with time on his hands, so he turned his attentions to more profitable ventures. Over the next couple of years, he purchased thousands of acres of land and hundreds of slaves. In the background of his military career, he found time to focus on farming and land speculation. Many declared that he was, in fact, more interested in discussing agriculture than military affairs. In June 1810, Taylor married Margaret Mackall Smith, a resident of Louisville and daughter of a prominent planter, Major Walter Smith, who had served in the Revolutionary War. Margaret would follow her husband from post to post with their six children in tow.

One of the most successful chapters of Zachary Taylor’s military career unfolded during the War of 1812 when he protected Fort Harrison against Indian and British forces led by the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. This marked the beginning of the war for the US army and due to his role, Taylor was widely celebrated and promoted to major. He later joined other important expeditions and became a notable military leader. As well as being straightforward and unpretentious, he knew how to show his soldiers that he cared about them. Short-tempered and confident, he attracted respect from the men who served under him. Taylor was a very practical man and cared little about this outward appearance. He was known to patch his clothes and wear them until there was nothing to sew the next patch onto. One of his solders said, “He always wears an old cap, dusty green coat, a frightful pair of trousers, and on horseback he looks like a toad.”

After the war, Taylor became the commander of Fort Howard, a new bastion under construction in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Fort Howard, located on the far western edge of civilization, was a far cry from his life in Kentucky, but the fort did boast paved streets and some elements of civilization. After nearly two uneventful years in charge of the fort, he was granted a furlough and returned home to Louisville, Kentucky. Due to his diligence in accomplishing his missions, he was again promoted, becoming lieutenant colonel in April 1819. Slowly, he became immersed in the world of politics, befriending influential figures like Andrew Jackson.

For the next couple of years, Taylor was responsible for army recruitment. At the end of 1826, he traveled to the White House to take part in an army committee tasked with improving military organization. In May 1828, he entered the battlefield again when hostilities with the Indians became more frequent on the Mississippi River. He spent a year as commander of Fort Snelling in Michigan Territory and then spent another year at Fort Crawford. In 1832, he was promoted to colonel of the 1st Infantry Regiment and fought in the Black Hawk War against Indian forces.

Taylor was called into action again during the Second Seminole War in 1837. Right on Christmas Day, he fought the Seminole Indians at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee, gaining an outstanding victory and, with it, another promotion to brigadier general. His influence within the US army continued to grow steadily and in May 1838, he became commander of the army division in Florida. It was during the Florida years that he was given the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” by his troops. In 1841, he was stationed in Arkansas and appointed the commander of the Second Department of the army’s Western Division, which covered a large territory on the Mississippi River. The next couple of years were tranquil, and Taylor spent most of his time focused on his profitable land speculation business.

Soldiers, I intend to stay here, not only as long as a man remains, but as long as a piece of a man is left.

— Zachary Taylor

Family Life

During the course of their long marriage, the Taylors would have six children, four of whom would live into adulthood. While stationed in Louisiana in 1820, tragedy struck the family; his four small daughters and wife caught malaria. Two of the daughters died from the disease, and Sarah became a semi-invalid for the remainder of her life. Though death on the frontier was not uncommon and Taylor was no stranger to it, the effect of losing two daughters had a devastating effect on him and his family. Malaria would again take its toll on the family when in 1835 his daughter died just three months after her marriage to Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederate States of America. Taylor disapproved of Davis and the two remained alienated until the Mexican-American War. The men eventually reconciled their differences and Davis became an unofficial member of the Taylor family.

Map of the Mexican American War.
Map of the Mexican American War.

The Mexican-American War

By 1844, Taylor had risen to the rank of commanding officer of the US army First Department at Fort Jessup, Louisiana. After several uneventful years in his military career, he was once again at the heart of a rising conflict. Following the annexation of Texas, Mexican forces were trying to retrieve the lost territory, and Taylor was assigned to protect the border area. Although there were more experienced generals able to undertake this important mission, Taylor had won the trust of the Democratic President James K. Polk, who gave him the assignment. Although unaffiliated politically, Taylor had developed close relationships with important politicians.

In January 1846, Taylor and his army set up camp on the east bank of Rio del Norte, with instructions to not show any hostility but to respond with force if Mexican forces attacked them. Two months later, Taylor informed Washington that Mexicans were showing signs of aggression. Because Mexico was refusing to sell California, President Polk was looking eagerly at settling things on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Mexico interpreted the actions of the American army as an invasion and Mexican General Mariano Arista received orders to attack. Taylor and his men advanced to Rio Grande and violence broke out. With Polk’s approval on May 13, Congress declared war with Mexico by an overwhelming majority.

The Mexican and American forces clashed at the Battle of Palo Alto, followed by the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. Although outnumbered, the American army had serious advantages over the Mexicans, who struggled with a shortage of weapons and bad gunpowder. General Arista and his men were forced to retreat, and Taylor gained control of lower Rio Grande Valley. This victory brought Zachary Taylor praise not just for his courage, but also for the fair and kind treatment he showed to the wounded Mexican soldiers before the prisoner exchange with General Arista.

In September, Taylor returned to the battlefield, crossing Rio Grande and fighting the Mexicans at the Battle of Monterrey in northern Mexico. Due to its position right at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains, the citadel of Monterrey was considered impossible to conquer. However, Taylor and his men captured the city in only three days, leaving the Mexicans with heavy casualties. Despite the success of the campaign, Taylor decided to sign a short-term armistice instead of pressuring Mexicans to fully surrender. He wanted to allow his men a short respite and hoped that the differences would be settled at the negotiating table by the president and Mexican officials. This caused dismay in Washington, leaving President Polk bitter as he hoped for a different outcome.

With the relationship between Taylor and the president severely damaged, he received orders to move most of his unit under the command of General Winfield Scott, thus losing his most experienced soldiers. Meanwhile, Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna intercepted a letter from General Scott that detailed Taylor’s situation and decided to either attack him or force him to surrender. Santa Anna warned Taylor that he had 20,000 men under his command and that a battle would end catastrophically for the small American force. When learning about the danger he was in, Taylor rejected the idea of surrendering or retreating. In February 1847, General Santa Anna and his impressive army attacked Taylor and his soldiers at the Battle of Buena Vista. Due to Taylor establishing a strong defensive base, the American forces won another outstanding victory while the Mexicans were forced to retreat. Although he couldn’t pursue the enemy, Taylor secured control of northern Mexico. After the Battle of Buena Vista, Taylor would never again be called into action. His active military career ended with this important triumph.

President Polk wanted to minimize Taylor’s heroism as he feared him as a political rival, but as the news broke of the Battle of Buena Vista, Whig Party leaders began to court Taylor as a presidential candidate. His impressive victories against the Mexicans transformed Zachary Taylor into a popular hero, elevating his status across the entire nation. Both the public and the press saw Taylor as one of the bravest military men in the country and a figure as heroic as George Washington or Andrew Jackson. As both men had become presidents as a result of their illustrious military careers, many believed Taylor would follow suit.

Battle of Buena Vista February 23, 1847. Based on a sketch from major Eaton, Aide-de-camp of General Taylor.
Battle of Buena Vista February 23, 1847. Based on a sketch from major Eaton, Aide-de-camp of General Taylor.

Presidential Election of 1848

Welcomed home as a hero, Zachary Taylor realized that many had new expectations of him. While in the US army, he had never taken a stance on political matters. He considered himself an independent and a fierce nationalist but had never expressed any firm political views. Now the Whig Party, made of factions of the former Democratic-Republican Party, was proposing him as a presidential candidate.

Even before his major victory at Buena Vista, Taylor had amassed strong support from various political groups which considered him a valid candidate for the presidential office. Surprisingly, he was popular among Democrats, Whigs, and both Northerners and Southerners. However, he repeatedly denied any interest in running for office and considered such an idea preposterous. Over time, Taylor seemed more accepting of the idea of running for president, and it became evident that his views were more aligned with the Whig platform. Support for his candidacy grew even stronger, even though many were confused about his true intentions. Southerners were convinced that he, as a Southerner himself, supported the expansion of slavery in the newly conquered territories from Mexico, but that wasn’t true. At the same time, abolitionists felt they couldn’t support Taylor because he was a slave-owner. Meanwhile, Taylor still felt reluctant to identify himself as a Whig, and it took some convincing from various influential politicians before he agreed to declare his allegiance to the Whig Party, and only with the caveat that he was a moderate Whig who, if elected president, would act independently of any political affiliation. Taylor declared, “If elected, I would not be the mere president of a party–I would endeavor to act independent of party domination and should feel bound to administer the government untrammeled by party schemes.” On the other hand, the leaders of the Whig party believed that nominating a war hero was an infallible tactic to win the office.

Zachary Taylor’s nomination for the presidential election was officially declared at the 1848 Whig National Convention. To balance the ticket, the Whig’s chose former New York Congressman Millard Fillmore as the vice presidential nominee. During the campaign, Taylor continued to show reluctance regarding his role and didn’t take an active part in promoting himself. He didn’t meet with voters directly and again avoided expressing concrete political views. Although he didn’t even vote for himself, Taylor defeated former Democratic President Martin Van Buren and Democratic nominee Lewis Cass by a large margin. Taylor was inaugurated as the twelfth president of the United States on March 5, 1849.

Zachary Taylor | 60-Second Presidents | PBS

Twelfth President of the United States

Taylor entered the White House with the nation in crisis over the vast new territories added in the Mexican-American War. The decision as to whether these new Western states would enter the Union as slave holding or free states was a significant issue as the balance of power between pro and anti-slave factions was precarious. Though Taylor was a slave owner, he did not support the extension of slavery into the new territories.

After arriving in Washington, Taylor spent the first weeks of his presidency meeting up with political leaders, including Polk, who strongly believed that Taylor was unqualified for the office due to his blatant lack of political experience. Taylor’s modest appearance and his unassuming demeanor left an unfavorable impression with the other political leaders in Washington. Besides meeting with the political elite, Taylor spent significant time interacting with ordinary citizens who sought him out.

The Issue of Slavery

Immediately after Taylor took office, the issue of slavery in the new territories became a domestic crisis in Congress. California and New Mexico, the territories that the US had acquired from Mexico after the war, had to be brought under federal administration. While Southerners wanted to expand slavery in the new territories, Taylor didn’t agree. For him, it was of utmost importance to maintain peace and preserve the Union. Gradually, he found himself siding with the anti-slavery Northerners because he believed that the stubbornness of the Southerners was a clue of their desire for secession. Allying with the Northerners was thus important for saving the Union. He also supported California and New Mexico’s applications for independent statehood, which Southern legislators were heavily against because they considered that as free states, the new territories would pose threats to their own supremacy.

In an attempt to reach a compromise between the pro and anti-slavery forces within Congress, the elder statesman Henry Clay offered a compromise bill. Clay proposed to have California admitted as a free state but would establish territorial governments in New Mexico and Utah, leaving the issue of slavery to be established in each territory. To placate the southern forces, he introduced a harsh Fugitive Slave Law that would give slave owners federal assistance in capturing runaway slaves. The body of legislation became known as the Compromise of 1850 and would not be enacted until after Taylor’s death.

Despite winning the office with the help of the Whig party, Taylor showed himself indifferent to the Whigs’ major concerns. To avoid conflicts, however, he often preferred to remain vague regarding his views on contentious issues such as slavery, tariffs, or banking. Privately, he admitted to not truly believing in the Whigs’ platform. This stopped him from building good relations with other Whigs in Congress and ultimately affected his ability to become a truly influential force as president. His lack of experience in politics showed throughout his term, and his belief that he could remain independent and achieve his goals without relying on a party proved naïve.

The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty

A definite accomplishment of the Taylor administration was signing the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, which proposed the construction of a canal through Central America. While it took a long time for the canal to be built, the treaty was important for bringing the US and Britain to the negotiating table, since Britain had control over an important coastal area in Nicaragua. The two nations agreed to guarantee the autonomy and security of any canal that might be built in the region. Signing this treaty was the last major action Taylor achieved as president.

Zachary Taylor on his deathbed.
Zachary Taylor on his deathbed.

Death and Legacy

The big event in Washington, D.C., for July 4, 1850, was the laying of a cornerstone on the site of the future Washington Monument. President Taylor, along with many dignitaries and officials, attended the event and spent many hours in the hot sun listening to patriotic speeches. During the festivities, he ate large quantities of green apples and cherries, washing them down with iced milk. That night the sixty-five-year old president became severely ill. The attending physicians diagnosed his condition as acute indigestion. After several days of high fever, he died on July 9, 1850, surrounded by his family. His last words were, “I regret nothing, but am sorry I am about to leave my friends.” His illness became the subject of speculation with many arguing that he may have been poisoned. An autopsy of Taylor conducted in 1991 by a coroner and forensic anthropologist ruled out the possibility of poison. His office at the White House was taken over by Vice President Fillmore.

Due to the shortness of his term, President Taylor wasn’t able to exert a strong influence on American politics. Taylor didn’t leave behind a lasting legacy as an effective president; rather, he is remembered as a man of principle and plain speech. He is widely recognized for his military merits, his fervent nationalism, and his commitment to a strong Union.

References

Zachary Taylor. A Continent Divided: The US-Mexico War, Center for Greater Southwestern Studies. University of Texas at Arlington. Accessed September 6, 2019.

Zachary Taylor: Facts at a Glance. American President: A Reference Resource. Miller Center, University of Virginia. Accessed September 5, 2019.

White House biography. Accessed September 6, 2019.

Eisenhower, John S.D. Zachary Taylor. Time Books. 2008.

Matuz, Roger. The Presidents Fact Book: The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President from George Washington to Barack Obama. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2009.

Hamilton, Neil A. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary, 3rd Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.

Smith, Carter. Presidents Every Question Answered: Everything You Could Possibly Want to Know About the Nation’s Chief Executives. Hylas Publishing. 2005.

West, Doug. James K. Polk: A Short Biography: Eleventh President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2019.

Comments

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    • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Doug West 

      2 months ago from Missouri

      Tim:

      I thought the relationship between Jefferson Davis and Taylor was interesting too. That would have been a strange historical quirk if Jeff Davis became the president of the Confederate States while he was married to a daughter of a retired US president.

    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 

      2 months ago from U.S.A.

      I knew very little about President Taylor, Doug. This was certainly intriguing. Imagine what would have happened if the friendship with Jefferson Davis would have continued? I can only guess how much loosing his daughters to malaria hurt his heart, but he was a strong man, winning victories when America needed them. Superb and informative, as always. Thank you.

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