Living in a time when generals were politically appointed and the Army poorly trained, Zachary Taylor proved a great tactician even though he did not inspire the love of his troops. Quarrelsome with his superiors, blunt to the point of tactlessness, he nevertheless provided solid leadership as a general.
Taylor was born on Nov. 24, 1784, at Montebello, Va., the son of a lieutenant colonel who had been on George Washington's Revolutionary War staff. The family moved to Louisville, Ky., in 1785, where Zachary's father became collector of customs and an influential man. Poorly educated by private tutoring, young Taylor was intended for an agricultural life on the family plantation, but the death of an elder brother allowed him to enter the Army. In 1808 he was appointed a lieutenant by President Thomas Jefferson and assigned to Gen. James Wilkinson's command at New Orleans.
A bout with yellow fever forced Taylor into temporary retirement, but he was promoted to captain in 1810 and assigned to the command of Governor William Henry Harrison of Indiana Territory. That same year he married Margaret M. Smith of Maryland.
During the War of 1812 Taylor won prominence in his command of Ft. Harrison. His small garrison withstood an attack by 400 Indians led by Tecumseh. During the war he was promoted to brevet major, but at the war's end he reverted to captain. This so angered him that he resigned his commission and returned to Kentucky to raise "a crop of corn."
In May 1816 President James Madison restored Taylor to the rank of major and sent him to Wisconsin Territory to command the 3d Infantry. Fifteen years of garrison duty followed in Louisiana and Minnesota. In 1832 he was promoted to colonel, and during the Black Hawk War he had charge of 400 regulars, under the command of Gen. Henry Atkinson. After receiving the surrender of the Indian chief Black Hawk, he returned to Ft. Snelling as commanding officer. There, a subordinate, Jefferson Davis, sought to wed Taylor's second daughter, Sarah, but Taylor disliked Davis and forbade his entry into the Taylor home. Davis later resigned his commission and in 1835 the couple married. Three months later, at Davis's Mississippi plantation, his wife died of a fever.
In 1837 Taylor was assigned command of the Army prosecuting the Seminole Wars in Florida. On Christmas Day he inflicted a stinging defeat on them at Lake Okeechobee, for which he was breveted a brigadier general. In May 1833 he assumed command of the department. Muscular and stocky, rarely in full uniform, he was dubbed "Old Rough and Ready" by his troops. In 1840 he returned to the Department of the Southwest as commander, and that year he purchased a house in Baton Rouge, La., which he thereafter considered home. He also purchased, in 1841, Cyprus Grove, a plantation near Rodney, Miss., thus becoming a slave owner.
In May 1845 Taylor was ordered to correspond with the government of the Republic of Texas, then negotiating annexation to the United States, and to repel any invasion of Mexicans. In July he moved his army of 4, 000 men to the site of Corpus Christi, Tex. In January 1846 he was ordered to the mouth of the Rio Grande to support the American claim to that river as the boundary of Texas. In March he constructed Ft. Brown, opposite the Mexican town of Matamoros.
When Mexican forces attacked his troops, Taylor did not wait for Congress to declare war. On May 8, 1846, at Palo Alto he defeated a Mexican army three times the size of his own force, largely through the accuracy of his artillery. The next day he won the Battle of Resaca de la Palma and then occupied Matamoros. President James K. Polk thereupon named him commander of the Army of the Rio Grande and promoted him to brevet major general. A grateful Congress voted him thanks and two gold medals.
With 6, 000 men Taylor set out in September 1846 for Monterrey, Mexico, which he captured on September 20-24, granting the Mexicans an 8-week armistice. The Polk administration criticized Taylor's leniency toward the Mexicans and would have replaced him but for his growing popularity. Because of that, and because Taylor's name was being prominently mentioned as the Whig nominee for president, the Democrat Polk reassigned half his troops to Gen. Winfield Scott, who was to invade Mexico at Veracruz. Taylor was ordered to hold at Monterrey and be on the defensive.
Taylor ignored his orders, advancing southward until he came into contact with Antonio López de Santa Ana's Mexican army of 15, 000-20, 000 men. On February 22-23 they fought the Battle of Buena Vista. Many of Taylor's men, mainly volunteers, broke and fled, but his artillery proved so effective that the Mexicans were forced to retreat. In gratitude for this victory, Congress voted him another gold medal, but Polk continued to hamper and demean his activities. Taylor remained in Mexico until November 1847, when he returned to campaign in his peculiar fashion for the presidency.
In June 1846 Taylor had written that he would decline the presidency even "if preferred and I could reach it without opposition." In August 1847 he stated, "I do not care a fig about the office." Yet by the late fall of 1847 he was becoming interested and writing his views on political issues. He said that the Bank of the United States was a dead issue, that he favored internal improvements, and that he would use the veto to protect the Constitution. His political backers, appalled at such statements, preferred that his views remain unknown.
The Whigs nominated Taylor on the fourth ballot, passing over Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Winfield Scott, even though Taylor had never even voted in a presidential election. The Democrats chose Lewis Cass. Because of a split in the Democratic party, Taylor carried New York State and thereby won the election. People voted for him in the North because he was a war hero; in the South he was admired as a slave owner.
In his inaugural address Taylor advocated military and naval effectiveness; friendly relations with foreign powers; Federal encouragement of agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing; and congressional conciliation of sectional controversy. Four of his seven Cabinet members were Southerners, and the Cabinet contained no men of real ability.
Because of Taylor's political inability, he suffered in his relations with Congress. He also contributed to the ruination of the Whig party because he thought himself above partisan politics. "I am a Whig, " he stated, "but not an ultra Whig." The result was discord and dissension within party ranks.
Although a slave owner, Taylor gradually came to support the Wilmot Proviso (mandating that there be no extension of slavery into the territory taken from Mexico at the end of the war). He encouraged Californians to seek admission as a free state, just as he did New Mexicans, despite the Texan claims to all land east of the Rio Grande. Southern Whigs thereupon turned against Taylor and the party. His steadfast opposition to the Texan claims heated the sectional controversy; yet when there was talk of secession, he stated forthrightly, "Disunion is treason." His strong stand discouraged secession and perhaps delayed the Civil War.
Taylor little understood foreign affairs and blundered badly on several occasions. His one major accomplishment in this area was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, which dealt with English-American efforts to build an Isthmian canal.
A lifelong admirer of George Washington, Taylor attended the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument on July 4, 1850, sitting for hours in the hot sun. Afterward he drank quantities of ice water and then ate cherries with iced milk. That night he suffered what the doctors described as a cholera attack; he died 5 days later. He rallied at his deathbed to make a last statement: "I have tried to discharge my duties faithfully. I regret nothing." He was buried near Louisville, Ky.
There are three satisfactory biographies of Taylor. The best is Holman Hamilton's two-volume work, Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic (1941) and Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House (1951). The others are Brainerd Dyer, Zachary Taylor (1946), and Silas B. McKinley and Silas Bent, Old Rough and Ready (1946). The standard history of the Mexican War is still Justin H. Smith, The War with Mexico (2. vols., 1919). □
12th president, 1849–1850
Born: November 24, 1784
Died: July 9, 1850
First Lady: Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor
Children: Ann, Sarah, Mary Elizabeth, Richard
Zachary Taylor was born in Virginia in 1784. After being raised on a plantation in Kentucky, he became an officer in the army, where he served for 40 years.
His troops nicknamed Taylor "Old Rough and Ready" because he always dressed informally. He had no political background, but he was respected for his honesty. During the Mexican War, Taylor and the army forces he led had a two-day battle with Mexican troops. Taylor's victory in that battle later helped his popularity as he ran for president.
Taylor's brief time in office was overshadowed by the bitter debate about whether or not slavery should be permitted in the territories that came under U.S. control after the Mexican War.
Taylor was married to Margaret Mackall Smith, and they had four children: Ann, Sarah, Mary Elizabeth, and Richard.
- Taylor's election in 1848 was the first in which all states voted on the same official presidential election day.
- Taylor's daughter, Sarah, married future Confederate president Jefferson Davis in 1835.
- Taylor did not vote until he was 62 years old, when he voted for himself for president.
- Taylor kept his cavalry horse, Whitey, on the White House lawn.
Taylor served only a year and a half as president of the United States. In 1850, he became ill after attending a ceremony at the Washington Monument, which was still under construction, and he died five days later.
When Taylor Was in Office
- Thousands of gold seekers, known as Forty-Niners, headed for California in the gold rush.
Harriet Tubman, who would later lead 300 slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, escaped from slavery.
Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman doctor in the United States.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was published and became an immediate best-seller.
A stagecoach route was established to carry mail between Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
On Taylor's Inauguration Day
When Zachary Taylor stepped to the podium on Inauguration Day, thousands of Americans were gathering in towns west of the Mississippi River, such as Independence, Missouri, to begin the six-month overland journey to the gold fields of California. The famous "forty-niners" tripled the population of the territory within a year.
Zachary Taylor's Inaugural Address
In Washington, D.C., Monday, March 5, 1849
ELECTED by the American people to the highest office known to our laws, I appear here to take the oath prescribed by the Constitution, and, in compliance with a time-honored custom, to address those who are now assembled.
The confidence and respect shown by my countrymen in calling me to be the Chief Magistrate of a Republic holding a high rank among the nations of the earth have inspired me with feelings of the most profound gratitude; but when I reflect that the acceptance of the office which their partiality has bestowed imposes the discharge of the most arduous duties and involves the weightiest obligations, I am conscious that the position which I have been called to fill, though sufficient to satisfy the loftiest ambition, is surrounded by fearful responsibilities. Happily, however, in the performance of my new duties I shall not be without able cooperation. The legislative and judicial branches of the Government present prominent examples of distinguished civil attainments and matured experience, and it shall be my endeavor to call to my assistance in the Executive Departments individuals whose talents, integrity, and purity of character will furnish ample guaranties for the faithful and honorable performance of the trusts to be committed to their charge. With such aids and an honest purpose to do whatever is right, I hope to execute diligently, impartially, and for the best interests of the country the manifold duties devolved upon me.
In the discharge of these duties my guide will be the Constitution, which I this day swear to "preserve, protect, and defend." For the interpretation of that instrument I shall look to the decisions of the judicial tribunals established by its authority and to the practice of the Government under the earlier Presidents, who had so large a share in its formation. To the example of those illustrious patriots I shall always defer with reverence, and especially to his example who was by so many titles "the Father of his Country."
To command the Army and Navy of the United States; with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties and to appoint ambassadors and other officers; to give to Congress information of the state of the Union and recommend such measures as he shall judge to be necessary; and to take care that the laws shall be faithfully executed—these are the most important functions intrusted to the President by the Constitution, and it may be expected that I shall briefly indicate the principles which will control me in their execution.
Chosen by the body of the people under the assurance that my Administration would be devoted to the welfare of the whole country, and not to the support of any particular section or merely local interest, I this day renew the declarations I have heretofore made and proclaim my fixed determination to maintain to the extent of my ability the Government in its original purity and to adopt as the basis of my public policy those great republican doctrines which constitute the strength of our national existence.
In reference to the Army and Navy, lately employed with so much distinction on active service 1, care shall be taken to the highest condition of efficiency, and in furtherance of that object the military and naval schools, sustained by the liberality of Congress, shall receive the special attention of the Executive.
As American freemen we can not but sympathize in all efforts to extend the blessings of civil and political liberty, but at the same time we are warned by the admonitions of history and the voice of our own beloved Washington to abstain from entangling alliances with foreign nations. 2 In all disputes between conflicting governments it is our interest not less than our duty to remain strictly neutral, while our geographical position, the genius of our institutions and our people, the advancing spirit of civilization, and, above all, the dictates of religion direct us to the cultivation of peaceful and friendly relations with all other powers. It is to be hoped that no international question can now arise which a government confident in its own strength and resolved to protect its own just rights may not settle by wise negotiation; and it eminently becomes a government like our own, founded on the morality and intelligence of its citizens and upheld by their affections, to exhaust every resort of honorable diplomacy before appealing to arms. In the conduct of our foreign relations I shall conform to these views, as I believe them essential to the best interests and the true honor of the country.
The appointing power vested in the President imposes delicate and onerous duties. So far as it is possible to be informed, I shall make honesty, capacity, and fidelity indispensable prerequisites to the bestowal of office, and the absence of either of these qualities shall be deemed sufficient cause for removal.
It shall be my study to recommend such constitutional measures to Congress as may be necessary and proper to secure encouragement and protection to the great interests of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, to improve our rivers and harbors, to provide for the speedy extinguishment of the public debt, to enforce a strict accountability on the part of all officers of the Government and the utmost economy in all public expenditures; but it is for the wisdom of Congress itself, in which all legislative powers are vested by the Constitution, to regulate these and other matters of domestic policy. I shall look with confidence to the enlightened patriotism of that body to adopt such measures of conciliation as may harmonize conflicting interests and tend to perpetuate that Union which should be the paramount object of our hopes and affections. In any action calculated to promote an object so near the heart of everyone who truly loves his country I will zealously unite with the coordinate branches of the Government.
In conclusion I congratulate you, my fellow-citizens, upon the high state of prosperity to which the goodness of Divine Providence has conducted our common country. Let us invoke a continuance of the same protecting care which has led us from small beginnings to the eminence we this day occupy, and let us seek to deserve that continuance by prudence and moderation in our councils, by well-directed attempts to assuage the bitterness which too often marks unavoidable differences of opinion, by the promulgation and practice of just and liberal principles, and by an enlarged patriotism, which shall acknowledge no limits but those of our own widespread Republic.
Quotes to Note
- "In reference to the Army and Navy..." Taylor is referring to the victory of American forces over Mexico in the Mexican War, which ended a year earlier.
- "As American freemen..." Taylor is referring to revolts and uprisings in Germany and France. "Entangling alliances" were words used by George Washington in his farewell address, warning America not to become involved in European affairs. Taylor, who grew up on a plantation, was probably unaware of the irony of this statement in regard to the issue of slavery—a topic of bitter debate at the time.
Zachary Taylor triumphed as a military leader in the Mexican-American War (1846–48), making him a popular hero. A Southern slave owner and a believer in a strong national government, he was one of the few politicians who appealed to both South and North during the bitterly divided years before the American Civil War (1861–65).
Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, and grew up on a large slaveholding plantation in Kentucky . He spent much of his youth tending the plantation and received only a modest education. Always interested in the military, he joined the U.S. Army in 1808. By 1810 he was promoted to the rank of captain. That same year he married and his father gave him 364 acres of land as a wedding gift. Over the years, Taylor acquired more plantations around the South and hundreds of slaves.
Taylor first won prominence during the War of 1812 (1812–15; a conflict over trade between England and the United States) when his command withstood an attack by a large force of Indians led by Shawnee leader Tecumseh (1768–1813). In 1816 Taylor began a fifteen-year tour of duty as commander of garrisons (fortified military posts) in Wisconsin Territory, Louisiana , and Minnesota . He later won battle distinction in Indian conflicts. Muscular and stocky, rarely in full uniform, he was called “Old Rough and Ready” by his troops.
War with Mexico
In 1845 the independent Republic of Texas was negotiating annexation, or becoming part of, the United States. Mexico, which still considered Texas to be Mexican territory, threatened war. Taylor and his large command were sent to the disputed border area, and soon Mexican forces attacked. Taylor did not wait for Congress to declare war. On May 8, 1846, he defeated a Mexican army three times the size of his own forces. A grateful Congress awarded him two gold medals. He went on to more battle triumphs.
A national hero, Taylor's name was soon being mentioned as the Whig Party nominee for president. President James K. Polk (1795–1849; served 1845–49), a Democrat, reassigned half Taylor's troops to General Winfield Scott (1786–1866), with orders to invade Mexico at Veracruz, leaving Taylor in the background. Ignoring orders, Taylor advanced southward until he came into contact with the Mexican army of fifteen to twenty thousand men. The two-day Battle of Buena Vista followed. Taylor's artillery (large guns and cannons) proved so effective that the Mexicans were forced to retreat. Congress voted him another gold medal.
In 1848 the Whigs nominated Taylor as their presidential candidate, even though he had little political experience and his positions differed from the party's. A split in the Democratic Party resulted in his winning the election. People in the North voted for him because he was a war hero; in the South he was admired as a slave owner. Few knew where he stood on the issues.
The President: 1849–50
From the start, Taylor's presidency was ineffective. The men he chose for his cabinet (high-ranking members of his administration) had little political skill or influence in Washington. His short time in office was overshadowed by the conflicts that arose from the acquisition of New Mexico Territory (including parts of present-day New Mexico , Arizona , Colorado , and Nevada ) and California in the Mexican War. The South was worried that the new lands would be admitted to the Union as free (non-slave holding) states and thereby disrupt the fragile balance between slaveholding states and free states in the Senate. The Union was in grave danger of splitting and the American public looked to the president to unify the divided Congress.
Taylor failed to work with Congressional leaders. Instead, the debate played itself out entirely among leaders such as senators Henry Clay (1777–1852), who fought for compromise, and John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), who fought for upholding the rights of slave owners and states' rights. The result was the Compromise of 1850 , a set of laws in which California was to be admitted to the Union as a free state and no federal laws would limit slavery in the territory of New Mexico. Part of the compromise was the controversial Fugitive Slave Law , which demanded all Americans to help slave owners recover their runaway slaves, even in the Northern states where slavery was prohibited. The Compromise pleased few but provided a temporary, uneasy peace.
Though a Southerner and slaveholder, Taylor did not sympathize with the South's threats of secession (withdrawing from the Union). As a military man, he was bound by oath to uphold the Constitution; a rupture of the Union was to him unthinkable. But many historians believe that he lacked the skills to prevent it.
apolitical leader who accomplished little during his sixteen months in office.
"Let us invoke a continuance of the same protecting care which has led us from small beginnings to the eminence we this day occupy … which shall acknowledge no limits but those of our own wide-spread Republic."
Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, in Orange County, Virginia, but moved as a child to Kentucky. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1808 and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the infantry that same year. Taylor quickly emerged as a military hero during the war of 1812 while serving under General william henry harrison. He distinguished himself during the Black Hawk War in 1832 and the Second Seminole War in Florida between 1835 and 1842. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1837 after his victory at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee.
In 1845, soon after the annexation of Texas, President james k. polk ordered Taylor and an army of four thousand men to the Rio Grande. Border hostilities with Mexico over the boundary between the two countries escalated into full battles in May of 1845. Taylor's troops defeated an invading Mexican army at the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. That same month the United States declared war on Mexico.
Taylor and his army invaded Mexico and advanced to Monterrey, capturing the city in late September. His military career was put in doubt, however, when a letter became public in which Taylor criticized President Polk and his secretary of war, William L. Marcy. An angry Polk could not relieve the popular war hero of his command, but he stripped Taylor of his best troops and ordered him to adopt a defensive posture. Taylor, who was nicknamed "Old Rough and Ready," disobeyed Polk's orders and defeated a Mexican army that outnumbered his troops by four to one at the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847. This stunning victory guaranteed Taylor the status of national hero.
The whig party nominated Taylor as its presidential candidate in 1848, even though Taylor had no interest in politics (he had never voted in an election) and was a slave owner. Taylor defeated the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, in the November general election.
Taylor's brief service as president was unremarkable. Having no political background, Taylor was unprepared for the give-and-take of Washington politics. The biggest issue facing him was statehood for California and New Mexico, which had been acquired from Mexico as a result of the war. Although he owned slaves, Taylor was opposed to the expansion of slavery into the new territories, a position that alienated Southern Whigs and Democrats in Congress. When California voted to prohibit slavery, the South opposed its admission to the Union. Attempts by Senator henry clay of Kentucky to negotiate a compromise were rebuffed by Taylor.
As this political conflict unfolded in the summer of 1850, Taylor contracted cholera. He died on July 9, 1850, in Washington, D.C.
Taylor was succeeded by Vice President millard fillmore, who quickly agreed to resolve the Mexican territories issue with the compromise of 1850. This act admitted California into the Union as a free state, gave the territories of Utah and New Mexico the right to determine the slavery issue for themselves at the time of their admission to the Union, outlawed the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and gave the federal government the right to return fugitive slaves in the fugitive slave act (9 Stat. 462).
Hamilton, Holman. 1978. The Three Kentucky Presidents—Lincoln, Taylor, Davis. Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky.
Born in Virginia, the son of a prosperous landowner, Taylor grew up in Louisville. In 1808, he gained a commission and served in the War of 1812. For the next three decades he participated in Indian wars and gained the rank of general with the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” during the Seminole Wars. As commander of the U.S. troops on the Mexican frontier with Texas, Taylor directed a series of battles near the Rio Grande. After victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma in May 1846, he pressed on into Mexico, eventually capturing Monterrey in September after a vigorous fight. In February 1847, his army barely repelled a powerful attack at Buena Vista.
A hero throughout the United States, Taylor was passed over as commander for the invasion of Mexico at Veracruz. In 1848, Taylor ran for president as a Whig and was elected, only to die early in his term.
Henry B. Montgomery , The Life of Major‐General Zachary Taylor, Twelfth President of the United States, 1847.
Edward J. Nichols , Zach Taylor's Little Army, 1963.
K. Jack Bauer , Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest, 1985.
John M. Hart