Zachary Taylor

1784 - 1850

Zachary Taylor, 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.

Taylor was 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.

Early Life

Taylor's 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 Louisville.

Despite the 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.

Taylor's first 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 service.


In 1810, 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.

Early Career

Taylor rose 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.

Southern Planter

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.

Taylor's army 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.

Battle of Monterrey

In September 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 Vista


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.

Election of 1848

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.

Taylor's 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.

President of the United States

Taylor was 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 Slavery

The expansion 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.

President 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 York.

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.

Foreign Affairs

Taylor's only 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.