1784 - 1850
12th president of the United States (1849-1850). He was a career army officer
who was elected on the strength of the victories he won in the Mexican War
(1846-1848). As a soldier he was a courageous and inspired leader who could
always be found where the fighting was thickest. He never lost a battle. His men
admired him and called him Old Rough and Ready. He was disdainful of military
pomp and formal dress and was known for his plainness of manner and appearance.
president for little more than a year. Although he lacked political experience,
he resolutely faced up to the principal issue of the day, the expansion of
slavery into the western territories. Although he was a Southern slaveholder, he
was first and foremost a supporter of the Union, upholding the national interest
over sectional interests. Like President Andrew Jackson, Taylor refused to
compromise his principles to appease the South. His death paved the way for a
succession of issue-straddling presidents whose attempts to mollify both sides
at best delayed, and did not prevent, sectional conflict.
ancestors settled in Virginia about 1640 and were prominent in the affairs of
that state. His father was Richard Taylor, who had served as an officer in the
American Revolution. His mother was Sarah Dabney Strother. Zachary was the third
of nine children.
As an officer
in the American army, Richard Taylor received a war bonus of 2400 hectares (6000
acres) of land from the state of Kentucky. Shortly after Zachary was born, the
Taylor family moved from Virginia to a plantation on the Muddy Fork of Beargrass
Creek, near the present-day city of Louisville. Richard Taylor soon became an
influential citizen in Kentucky. In 1792 he was a delegate to the territorial
constitutional convention, and he later served in the state legislature.
President George Washington appointed him collector of customs for the Port of
family wealth and position, Zachary had little formal education. For a brief
period he had a private tutor, but his education consisted primarily of the
practical knowledge gained from living on a frontier plantation. As a boy,
Zachary helped his father run the plantation, but he did not decide on farming
as a career.
experience with military discipline came in 1806, when he joined the militia to
defend Kentucky when President Thomas Jefferson sent out an alert about the
so-called Burr conspiracy. Former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr had assembled a
small private army, apparently to seize land somewhere in the West. However,
Burr's army was dispersed and Taylor's unit was disbanded. In 1808, Secretary of
State James Madison, a second cousin of Taylor's, secured for him an appointment
as lieutenant in the Seventh Infantry. Taylor spent the next 40 years in the
Zachary Taylor married Margaret Mackall Smith, the daughter of a Maryland
planter. The Taylors had five daughters and a son. Two of the girls died in
infancy. The eldest daughter, Sarah, married Jefferson Davis, an officer in
Taylor's command, but died three months after her marriage. In the American
Civil War (1861-1865), Davis joined the Southern side and became president of
the rebel Confederate States of America. Taylor's son Richard also joined the
South and became a Confederate general. Mary Elizabeth, Taylor's favorite
daughter, married Colonel William W. S. Bliss, Taylor's private secretary during
the Mexican War and during his presidency. Mary Elizabeth served as hostess in
the White House in place of her mother, who was a semi-invalid and shunned
public appearances. Although Mrs. Taylor was a devout Episcopalian, Taylor
himself never joined a church.
slowly through the ranks and, until the Mexican War, held a succession of minor
commands, mostly on the frontier. In the War of 1812, between the United States
and Great Britain, he successfully defended Fort Harrison in the Indiana
Territory with only 50 men against an attack of 400 Native Americans led by
Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. For this feat he received widespread publicity and was
made a major. For most of the years between the War of 1812 and 1831, Taylor
served at military posts in Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Minnesota. In 1832 he was
promoted to colonel and sent to Fort Crawford (now Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin),
where he commanded a detachment of 400 men in the Black Hawk War, a conflict
with the Sauk (or Sac) and Fox alliance of Native Americans.
In 1837 Taylor
was sent to Florida to pacify the Seminole people. With a force of almost 1100
soldiers he pursued the Seminole from Fort Gardner into the Everglades. He
finally caught up with them near Lake Okeechobee and defeated them in battle on
December 25, 1837. He was then made a brigadier general and given command of the
entire Florida district. It was during his service in Florida that his men
nicknamed him Old Rough and Ready.
In 1840 Taylor
was sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to command the Southwest Department. This
position enabled him to purchase plantation land in Mississippi. Taylor had been
a planter and slaveholder since his marriage, but his Cypress Grove plantation,
an 810-hectare (2000-acre) tract on the Mississippi River above Natchez, then
became his main interest. As the master of more than 100 slaves, Taylor was
among the South's most prominent slaveholders. However, his attitude toward
slaves and slavery was not typical. He believed that slavery was an economic
necessity within the cotton-growing region, but he opposed its expansion to
areas where cotton could not be cultivated. Moreover, unlike other large
planters of his day, he made no claims that slavery and the plantation system
represented a superior way of life.
The Mexican War
In March 1845
the Congress of the United States passed a resolution to annex the Republic of
Texas, which had seceded from Mexico, and James K. Polk became president. Both
Texas and Mexico claimed the land between the Río Grande and the Nueces River.
Polk's territorial ambitions exceeded this small disputed area; he also wanted
the part of Mexico that is now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and
California. When Mexico refused to sell the land, Polk prepared to win the
territory by force.
In August 1845,
Taylor was ordered to assume command of U.S. troops assembled at Fort Jesup,
Louisiana, and to take them by sea to Corpus Christi, Texas, just south of the
Nueces River in the disputed territory. Early in 1846, Taylor was ordered to
advance to the Río Grande and to fight if attacked. Mexico considered Taylor's
deployment on the Río Grande an act of invasion, and in May a 6000-man force
under General Mariano Arista began crossing the Río Grande to drive him back.
The Mexican War had begun.
consisted of 4000 men, both regular soldiers and militia. On May 8, 1846,
Taylor's army met Arista's in the Battle of Palo Alto. Making brilliant use of
his artillery, Taylor won a decisive victory. The next day the U.S. forces won
another engagement, the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. Suffering heavy losses,
the Mexican army fled back across the Río Grande into Mexico. When Polk got
word of the victories, he promoted Taylor to major general. Congress awarded him
two gold medals.
1846, Taylor began an invasion of northern Mexico. His army of 6000 consisted of
regulars and volunteers. On September 21 he attacked the fortified city of
Monterrey, which was defended by more than 7000 Mexicans under General Pedro de
Ampudia. Taylor divided his army, giving Brigadier General William J. Worth the
major assignment of attacking the city from the rear while Taylor diverted
attention to the city's eastern gates. The strategy was successful, and on
September 24 the Mexicans surrendered. Taylor's lenient terms enraged President
Polk, but the activities of Whig Party politicians enraged him even more. They
began maneuvering to make Taylor, who was nominally a Whig, the next president.
Their task was not difficult. Taylor's victories made him a hero throughout the
nation, and Rough and Ready clubs were springing up everywhere.
Battle of Buena
As a member of
the Democratic Party, President Polk did not want to contribute to Taylor's
growing popularity. Consequently, in 1847 he detached most of the regulars from
Taylor's command and gave them to General Winfield Scott, who had orders to
attack the Mexican coast at Veracruz and march inland to capture Mexico City.
This act left
Taylor stranded in northern Mexico with only 5000 men. Learning of Taylor's
weakness, the Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna decided to lead his
army of 15,000 to 20,000 against Taylor. He hoped that by defeating Taylor and
advancing to the Río Grande, he would force Scott to abandon his invasion of
Mexico. On February 23, 1847, Santa Anna's and Taylor's armies met at a hacienda
called Buena Vista, just south of Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. The Americans were
outnumbered four to one, but Taylor was one step ahead of the enemy. By
constantly shifting his troops to meet each Mexican thrust, Taylor turned defeat
into a resounding victory. His losses were 267 killed, 456 wounded, and 23
missing. Santa Anna lost an estimated 2000 soldiers. The Battle of Buena Vista
ended the war in northern Mexico. When Taylor returned to the United States in
November 1847, he was the leading presidential candidate.
Taylor was a
reluctant candidate. He had never voted in his life, and it was only after Whig
politicians had created a popular groundswell of support for him that he
demonstrated enthusiasm for the race.
opponents for the Whig presidential nomination included U.S. Senator Henry Clay
of Kentucky and General Scott. Clay was the most respected Whig leader, but he
was old and had previously been defeated three times for the presidency. Scott's
candidacy, despite his efforts, never got off the ground. Nevertheless, Taylor
faced two obstacles. Northern Whigs opposed him because of his Southern and
slaveholding background. Professional politicians opposed him because he had
made statements implying that he considered himself above the party.
Nevertheless, Taylor's great popularity with the people overcame all obstacles
and he was nominated on the fourth ballot at the Whig national convention.
Millard Fillmore, comptroller of New York, was chosen as his running mate.
As was the
tradition at the time, Taylor did not campaign on his own, although he wrote
many letters to friends and politicians. His platform was that he would be
president of all the people, regardless of political party. His opponents were
Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, the Democratic candidate, and former president
Martin Van Buren of New York, who represented the antislavery Free-Soil Party.
In the election, Taylor won eight Southern states and seven Northern states,
giving him 163 electoral votes to Cass's 127. Taylor did not win a majority of
the popular votes. He had 1,360,099, compared to 1,220,544 for Cass and 291,263
for Van Buren. However, because Van Buren took Democratic votes away from Cass
in New York, all of that state's 36 electoral votes went to Taylor, who thereby
won the election.
the United States
sworn in as president on March 5, 1849. A huge crowd swarmed to Washington,
D.C., to witness the inauguration. Many of them were office seekers hoping to be
appointed to an office under the first Whig administration since 1841. Taylor
had at first intended to be a nonpartisan president, but under pressure from his
advisers he adopted the spoils system, awarding offices to party loyalists. As a
result, much of his time and many of his problems concerned the demands of
unemployed Whig politicians. His administration was marked, however, by his
personal honesty and courage, especially in the handling of the delicate
question of slavery.
Great Debate on
of slavery in the new territories gained in the Mexican War had been the major
concern of Congress since the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso, which would
have banned slavery there, in 1846. The demands of two such territories,
California and New Mexico, for statehood brought the issue to a head because
both territories wanted to be admitted to the federal Union as free states.
Taylor's position on this issue surprised both his supporters and his opponents.
He considered the solution simple. Because California wanted statehood, it
should be granted promptly. The president also felt that if the people of
California wanted to prohibit slavery, they and not Congress had the right to
make that decision. Therefore, compromises and concessions were unnecessary.
Taylor's stand drew the support of the Free Soilers and the antislavery or
"conscience" Whigs, who were led by Senator William H. Seward of New
On the other
extreme was a small but vocal faction of Southerners who would accept no changes
to the arrangements of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, in which Congress had
drawn a line at 36°30' north latitude as the northern limit of slave territory.
This line bisected California and would have put Los Angeles and San Diego in
slave territory. These so-called diehards, led by Senator John C. Calhoun of
South Carolina, talked of seceding from the Union if Taylor's plan was followed.
Taylor responded with tough talk of his own. He personally, he said, would lead
an army against any state that attempted secession.
In the middle
was a group of moderate Whigs and Democrats who were trying to find a
compromise. Its leaders were Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Henry
Clay, who had brokered the Missouri Compromise 30 years earlier. As long as
Taylor was alive, the moderates' cause was hopeless. However, when Vice
President Fillmore succeeded to the presidency in 1850, the moderates got his
support for compromise.
other major concern during his brief presidency was with foreign relations. In
this area he was advised by his secretary of state, John M. Clayton. Taylor's
policy was to uphold U.S. neutrality. He was opposed to expansionism, which at
that time was manifested by the Young America movement. Young America advocated
a southward expansion of the United States into the Latin American countries.
Cuba especially had long been viewed as a possible additional state. In 1849
Narciso Lopez, a former Cuban provincial governor, attempted to raise an army to
invade Cuba and wrest it from Spain. His base was New Orleans, and he was backed
by prominent Southerners. After Taylor issued a proclamation forbidding
Americans to participate in expeditions like Lopez's, the venture collapsed.
The landmark of
Taylor's foreign policy was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which he signed just
before his death. This treaty with Great Britain guaranteed the neutrality of
Central America and paved the way for the construction of a canal through
Nicaragua. Plans for the canal were later abandoned in favor of the Panama
Canal, but the treaty was effective in cementing relations between the United
States and Great Britain.
Taylor was 64
years old when he assumed the presidency. Years of service on the frontier had
taken their toll of his health, and he came close to death when he fell ill
during a trip through Pennsylvania in September 1849. The duties of his office
also wore him out. He was especially depressed when three members of his Cabinet
were charged with corruption, leaving him open to vicious attacks from Congress
that were all the more venomous because of his stand on slavery.
On July 4,
1850, Taylor stood in the hot sun at the foot of the Washington Monument in
Washington, D.C., listening to patriotic speeches celebrating Independence Day.
That night he had an attack of cholera morbus, or acute indigestion, and he died
five days later. His last words were, “I regret nothing, but I am sorry to
leave my friends.”
Vice President Fillmore took the oath of office as president and soon delivered a message to Congress indicating that he was willing to compromise on California. Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state but allowed slaveholders to settle in all the other former Mexican territories. Another concession to the South was a new, stronger Fugitive Slave Law.