Pre-service occupations: general, plantation owner
Key events during his administration: California gold rush begins (1849), Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850), Compromise of 1850 (completed just after his death), cornerstone laid for Washington Monument (1850), his death
Presidential rating: Neither successful nor unsuccessful (e.g., right down the middle), and somewhat popular
Old Rough ‘n’ Ready, Zachary Taylor, governed just like his moniker: rough, but ready. Taylor was not a politician, nor was he a highly educated man. His schooling, as it were, came from almost 50 years of fighting Indians and Mexicans—and winning friends with both. A slave owner, Taylor bought a cotton plantation that became his home, but he was no die-hard defender of slavery.
If any man was less prepared for the office of the presidency than Zachary Taylor, I am unaware of who it was. Essentially, the man was a cult of personality: a war hero sought out by the Whigs to be a presidential candidate for no other reason than he was a Whig and a war hero—and an extremely popular one at that. The two previous war heroes elevated to the presidency had some government experience. Taylor had absolutely none.
But as the more popular of the two Whig generals who won the recent unpopular war with Mexico—unpopular to Whigs, that is—Taylor’s fame, appearance and character seemed the perfect antidote to the dour, suspicious and cranky Democrat president, James K. Polk.
Taylor is another one of the “forgotten” presidents between Jackson and Lincoln. Being the second president to die in office has contributed to Taylor’s forgotten status—people remember firsts, but not seconds. His abbreviated term was largely undistinguished, but it wasn’t terrible, either. In fact, Taylor threatened one action that gives further credence to what Lincoln would actually do one decade later.
He wasn’t a brilliant man or a deep thinker; but he was practical, a top-notch general, and his actions in Texas and northern Mexico helped win that war. Much of his life revolved around his career in the military, punctuated by periods as a gentleman farmer (e.g., plantation owner).
So, why in the world did the Whigs choose him to be their standard-bearer in 1848? And better yet, why did he win—and how good were his 16 months in office?
Zachary Taylor came of age in Kentucky, and he called Louisville home early in life. He entered the army as an officer before the War of 1812, thanks to his father’s connections. He was actually in William Henry Harrison’s command, but missed the Tippecanoe campaign because he had been called east to testify on some matter.
During the war, Captain Taylor was kept busy with recruiting and manning forts. He saw action on a few occasions against Indian tribes allied with the British. On one occasion, Taylor was in charge of Fort Harrison up the Wabash River, which he successfully defended against superior numbers. Later in the war, he was tasked with an expedition up the Mississippi to establish an outpost at Rock Island, but fierce Indian opposition turned him back.
He was called east to join a new regiment, but the war ended before it was formed. Congress immediately reduced the size of the army, and Taylor, miffed that other officers were promoted over him, resigned and went home to farm—only to be invited back to the Army in 1816 as a major.
Later Taylor would bounce between Louisiana and the upper Mississippi, serving in the Black Hawk War—a sad, misunderstood affair that for want of a translator might have ended peacefully. Rising to colonel, Taylor revealed a certain fussiness in his character, as well as roughness. It’s an odd combination, really. He fussed over his rank—a frequent pastime in the small antebellum army—but actually managed to steer clear of the army politics that bedeviled other officers. Wherever he went, he tried to bring his family. They lived well, but in the field, Taylor would live as roughly as his men.
During this period, Taylor developed a serious disdain for militia and volunteers, considering them worthless as soldiers. Taylor also developed a perchance of disobeying—or, more delicately, ignoring—orders with which he disagreed. For example, when ordered to rejoin his command in Wisconsin while he was in Louisiana on other duties, Taylor took his sweet time, using the excuse of ice on the Mississippi. He never faced disciplinary action for his fudging and hawing, but when it mattered most in Mexico, it almost cost him everything.
His long, dull army career would be punctuated by his service during the Seminole war in Florida, where Taylor would fight—and win—the conflict’s only pitched battle. His actions in Florida actually had a real chance to bring the Seminole war to a conclusion, but the commander-in-chief of the Army came to Florida and literally messed things up. Taylor got so disgusted he demanded a transfer out.
To sum up his army career prior to 1845: he served. It was largely solid, and he earned his rank and respect. He also developed an almost unique skill of detachment when dealing with the various Indian tribes, a skill that served him well as president. Taylor had the ability to deal with Indians as equals, contemporaries, instead of enemies; he could see things from their point of view, and turn potentially bloody situations into peaceful encounters. His diplomatic skills with the tribes averted two different Indian wars when he was president.
But Taylor was in the right place at the right time when in 1845, President Tyler sent him to command the Army of Observation in Louisiana in case of hostilities over the annexation of Texas.
Family and plantation master
Other than gaining senior rank, with its good pay and benefits, Taylor found another bonus from his army life: he set down roots the rich farmland in upper Louisiana. He purchased a plantation and had it managed in absentia.
Taylor was truly interested in the plantation, but unlike other slave owner presidents, he wasn’t a die-hard slave power/states rightist. More on that below.
His family life was for the most part good, as well. His wife, Peggy, loved setting up house wherever duties took him (and she was able to join him). They lived in style whenever they could, too, which may seem odd for an officer on the frontier.
Peggy bore him six children: one son and five daughters. Two daughters died from fever in infancy, and another married Jefferson Davis over her father’s objections. Taylor objected not so much to Davis but to Davis’ profession—an Army officer. Despite his own career, Taylor wished his daughters to marry outside the Army. Davis solved the problem by resigning, and Taylor removed his objections. But the daughter died three months later. Another daughter, Mary, served as White House hostess due to Peggy’s ill health.
The son, Richard “Dick” Taylor, became famous in his own right as a Confederate general.
As with Taylor's pre-war service my intention is not to give a blow-by-blow history, but rather illustrate Taylor's character. He grew angry over slights against him, but this time, someone was definitely out to destroy him. He was calm and deadly in battle and magnanimous when the fighting stopped. Those qualities served him as president, but few historians until late have recognized those qualities in his presidency and given him due credit. (The United States Military Academy's official map of Taylor's Mexican War campaigns is an excellent tool for following the action.)
An uneasy feeling settled over the American and Mexican camps during April, with Taylor under the impression—and orders—that he was there to defend American soil from Mexican invasion, and Mexican forces believing Americans were the invaders (they believed the 1836 treaty at San Jacinto, which ended the Texas war of independence, was null and void, and hence Taylor’s starting point at Corpus Christie was the southern extent of American soil). The ball finally went up in early may when a force of 1,600 Mexican soldiers attacked an American patrol, killing 16 Americans. Taylor responded forcefully, per his orders.
Taylor won these opening battles of the war—Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma—largely through superior artillery. The Mexicans quit the immediate area and Taylor finally entered what was indisputably Mexican territory after the formal declaration of war.
Militia reinforcements were rushed to Taylor, but it was fall before the two sides seriously clashed again.
Monterrey, crossing the president and Buena Vista
Gen. Taylor crossed the Rio Grande and peacefully occupied Matamoros. He then moved west, eventually investing the Mexican city of Monterrey, where his reinforced army fought a bruising battle against Gen. Ampudia’s numerically superior forces. Once again American artillery proved decisive, as good emplacement allowed American troops access to the fortress city, where heavy hand-to-hand street fighting commence. The bitter battle of Monterrey (Sept. 21-23) was a draw, and cost Taylor 531 casualties to Ampudia’s 367.
Exposed far inside enemy territory, still facing a superior force and with the real probability of one more attack wrecking his army, Taylor negotiated a two-month armistice with the beaten Ampudia in exchange for the Mexican retreat from Monterrey. He let the Mexican army simply withdraw. President Polk exploded in anger when he heard the news, and demanded that Taylor resume hostilities. Taylor had no authority to negotiate an armistice (though Scott’s orders actually said that he could do so if the situation warranted) and believed Taylor should have taken the whole lot prisoner. Regardless of the actual situation thousands of miles away, the cost in blood and the victory, the dour Polk privately raged at Taylor. Publicly, he said nothing, but his feelings were now clear: he had it out for Taylor. Polk would have Gen. Scott command the campaign against Mexico City, and leave Taylor languishing with a depleted force in northeastern Mexico. Polk was becoming aware that, due to Taylor’s successes, he was being thought of as a presidential candidate—and Polk did not like that one bit.
Necessity forced Gen. Scott to strip down Taylor’s army, and place Taylor on the defensive. But Taylor actually ignored the War Department’s orders to return his army to Monterrey and instead occupied Saltillo, a city more favorable than Monterrey. His defense was that a Mexican force was moving to engage him—which, in fact, there was. (Scott and Taylor had believed the Mexicans would move to engage Scott and leave Taylor alone, but they were wrong.) Gen. Santa Anna was heading toward Taylor’s army with at least 20,000 men, and Taylor, having already lost most of his veterans to Scott’s army, now numbered around 4,500—most of them untried volunteers.
He fell back to Buena Vista, and after politely turning down Santa Anna’s demand for surrender, battle was joined Feb. 22-23, 1847. In what really was a near-run thing, Taylor and his subordinates whipped Santa Anna’s forces and scored a stunning victory. American forces suffered 267 dead, 456 wounded and 23 missing, while Mexican forces suffered 549 dead, 1,039 wounded, 1,800 missing and 294 captured. Santa Anna falsely declared victory and went back to Mexico City to prepare to meet the new American threat, but the truth was Taylor had thrashed him soundly, and there were no more clashes in northeastern Mexico for the remainder of the war.
Taylor, however, had fought his last—and greatest—battle.
Fame and the Whig candidate…
Taylor never actively sought the White House. His candidacy was truly grass-roots. Rough and Ready clubs and Taylor clubs began not long after his victories in Texas. Taylor at first was even astonished that he was being considered, and held to his opinion that military men did not belong in the White House.
But when it became clear to him that he was being sidelined in the war for the crime of being a Whig—and for crossing Polk—Taylor let it be known that he was not disallowing the possibility. But, he also said, if a better man were to be nominated—Clay, perhaps—he would support him. Taylor would be perfectly content to spend a few more years in the Army at a quiet post and then retire to his plantation. If duty took him to the White House, so be it. If elected, then he’d serve as best he could. If nominated and not chosen, he’d go home. Taylor really didn’t care that much—definitely not with the fevered intensity of most who seek the office, that is.
But rather than risk backing the aging famed compromiser Henry Clay once more, or someone else who had strong stands on the issues of the day, the Whigs chose the war hero—the public blank slate. Taylor, based solely on his public image, would be their man. After all, it had worked eight years earlier. And with Martin Van Buren gathering disaffected Democrats and some Whigs under the new Free Soil party, promising to draw more Democrats than Whigs, and the Democrats selecting the unexciting Polk ally Senator Lewis Cass, Taylor seemed to be their sure bet to win the White House.
Taylor was counseled by his closed friend Kentucky Sen. John Crittenden, as well as his brother, Colo. George Taylor, to keep his political pronouncements quiet, and after a couple of potential embarrassments, he did.
During the 1848 convention, Clay made a final attempt to get the nomination, but the Whigs determined that the Great Compromiser was finished as a presidential candidate and chose Taylor. Die-hard abolitionist Whigs and Free-Soilers, furious at having to support a slave owner, started their own party and nominated Martin Van Buren as their candidate. Taylor, for his part, didn’t even campaign—both because it was still the custom of the day, as campaigning was done by proxy and through newspapers, but also because he was still on active duty. In the end, the popular Taylor beat the Democrats’ Lewis Cass and Free Soiler Van Buren to become the 12th president of the United States—even though he really didn’t want the job.
…but not a Whig president
The election of Zachary Taylor should stand as the shining example of who not to elect. The Whigs chose Taylor as their standard-bearer because he said he was a Whig. And Taylor had declared he was a Whig…but that was it. He was counseled on keeping his mouth shut on specifics, and told not to give his thoughts on what he believed beyond vague generalities. Many Whigs, therefore, simply assumed Taylor held the same beliefs, and a Whig president would naturally pursue a Whig agenda. Much to their astonishment, embarrassment and horror, Taylor proved to be no Whig (or Democrat, for that matter).
So Taylor simply told the truth as he saw it: he would be a president above party, and be president of the entire nation. He would defend the right of the South to have slavery and he would defend the right of the North to attack it—and he would fight extremists on both sides.
But after the inauguration, when Taylor started making decisions and talking about his plans, it wasn’t what Whigs wanted to hear: Taylor had no intention of bringing back a national bank (Taylor declared it dead) or restoring the tariff to 1842 levels—the two biggest Whig pet causes. Of course, Taylor bears some blame, because he could have told them this beforehand. But they weren’t interested in listening.
Quite simply, by choosing Taylor as their man in 1848 because he was incredibly popular, and not because he really stood rock solidly for major Whig causes, they wrecked their party. The coming fight over slavery, which would rend northern and southern Whigs, sealed the deal. Taylor was, in fact, the last Whig elected president. They would field candidates in 1852, ’56 and ’60, but for all intents and purposes, the party was on the way out and would be dead by the time the cannons roared at Fort Sumter.
Taylor’s cabinet would not be a Whig-pleaser, either. They felt that the novice Taylor should have a strong, recognized voice in his cabinet, like Daniel Webster was as secretary of state for Harrison and Tyler. But to their dismay, Taylor chose men below the top tier of public notables. It proved to be a mixed lot. His secretary of state, John M. Clayton, was a nationalist who, with Taylor, would set a course for American interests that would be felt for the next 50 years. But Clayton had too many personal problems to be of too much use.
The best was his attorney general, Reverdy Johnson. His secretary of war, George Crawford, the former Georgia governor, would cause some embarrassment later over an old claim stretching back to the country’s founding. The entire cabinet resigned/was fired after Taylor’s death.
The biggest problem with Taylor’s cabinet is that not one of them had any strong connection with Congress, and Taylor himself did not understand or appreciate the necessity of having allies in Congress. This created such a lack of communication and cooperation between the White House and Congress that Whigs felt alienated. Even Henry Clay noted that:
"I have never before seen such an administration. There is very little co-operation or concord between the two ends of the avenue. There is not, I believe, a prominent Whig in either House that has any confidential intercourse with the Executive.” (K. Jack Bauer, p. 265)
“Long before he had been elected president, Taylor had stated the basic convictions from which he did not deviate during his brief term in office. If he and most of his cabinet were a harmonious group on important policies, it was because they agreed on what should be done and not because strong advisors had captured the mind of a weak and ignorant president. Indeed, on the subject of Texas and New Mexico, Taylor’s belligerence went far beyond that of his advisors. No one had to let Taylor be Taylor; no one could have kept Taylor from being Taylor. He was neither weak nor modest, and no had always been one of his favorite words.” (Smith, pp. 62-63)Thousands of office-seekers
Immediately, Taylor was in trouble.
How could he satisfy everyone? In truth, he couldn’t. Taylor—like all other presidents—relied on his cabinet members to recommend office-holders, just as he had relied on friends and political patrons to recommend cabinet officials. But the whole process was wearying and dispiriting, and brought false charges of disingenuousness against Taylor.
Some historians have made hay over the fact that Whig and Taylor supporter Abraham Lincoln was overlooked for an office, but in truth the fault lay with Lincoln’s tardiness. And on an interesting note, Democrat Nathanial Hawthorne lost his office, but used his newfound time to write The Scarlet Letter.
A canal treaty 50 years before its time
President Taylor and Secretary of State Clayton pursued a treaty with Britain that laid important groundwork for the next century. It would take much space to explain the background, but essentially, first Polk’s then Taylor’s minister to Nicaragua were searching for a way to gain treaty rights for the construction of a canal in Central America to cut down on the debilitating, expensive and often deadly travel around South America. Britain was the chief rival/obstacle/potential partner, and the nations south of Mexico were still in turmoil following the revolutions from Spanish rule some 20 years earlier.
In the end, Clayton and Sir Henry Bulwer-Lutton negotiated the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, which called for neither party to exercise control over the areas or countries (Nicaragua, Costa Rica, etc.) where a proposed canal could be built, meaning no colonies, forts or anything else that would make one side suspicious of the other’s intents. In other words, strict neutrality. Although disputes over the treaty started almost immediately, it remained generally in force until 1902.
Taylor’s thinking in pressing for a canal and urging the diplomatic groundwork is a stunning achievement for an administration that is usually consigned the status of failure.
The new decade
On James K. Polk’s last day in office, he authorized the creation of the Department of the Interior, taking interior matters away from the Treasury and the Indian Bureau away from the War department. The new department came into being in Zachary Taylor’s administration, and he named Thomas Ewing of Ohio as its first head. (Ewing, by the way, was the foster father for William T. Sherman.) Unfortunately, Ewing started an unwholesome process of making it a patronage department. Nevertheless, for good or ill, Indian affairs would now have an exclusive department focus.
In the meantime, gold had been discovered in California during Polk’s final year, starting a new craze that added a fevered impetuousness to the rush to move west. The gold rush and the 49ers was one of the main reasons why Taylor encouraged California to move immediately to statehood.
During this decade, the fight over slavery finally came fully into the sunlight as a personal battle. Long gone were the days where merely the institution was assaulted as a lamentable evil; abolitionists now attacked slave owners directly as being morally deficient for holding human beings in bondage. Slave owners fought back with a vengeance, for example passing laws in Virginia demanding that the North leave slavery alone and calling on defense against northern “aggression.”
Taylor was attacked by fellow slave owners for daring to have as a friend the anti-slaver William Seward (who would gain lasting fame as secretary of state under Lincoln and Johnson). Seward, a New York Whig, helped the administration with the voluminous appointments in the Empire State, for which Taylor was immensely pleased. But to die-hard southerners, an anti-slavery agitator had to be shunned at worst or held at arm’s length at best—never embraced as a friend. This seemingly ridiculous and petty affront to southern honor cost actually Taylor support.
(Side note: Taylor turning more to Seward instead of his own vice president, also a New Yorker, naturally upset Millard Fillmore, which I’ll deal with in the next entry.)
In fact, the Democratic press viciously and even insanely attacked Taylor almost from the very start of his presidency—which may seem like no big deal in that age of the openly partisan press. Their attacks are so incredibly outrageous that they have to be read to even be believed, and many of the Taylor bashing rantings are not too dissimilar from some of the incredible Bush hating rantings of today.
But Taylor, a ferocious fighter who made peace with Indians and Mexicans when there was no need for fighting, would make friends with who he damned well pleased—and his enemies could go hang themselves for all he cared.
The politics of slavery
Slave-owner Taylor had made it quite clear that he would not be slavery’s die-hard champion. While he would not press for the elimination of slavery in any fashion, the president believed, quite firmly, that slavery had no business expanding into the new territories. In his uninspired inaugural address, he weirdly even asked the people to just not talk about slavery (not an auspicious start to his presidency).
But when Taylor got his footing, he made clear that he believed that the nation no longer need fear the expansion of slavery because of nature: geography had set the limits on slavery. The climate of the new territories from Mexico was inhospitable to the slave system, so why even argue over it? Taylor even said that the Wilmot Proviso, a northern-state pushed bill designed to outlaw slavery in the new territories, was totally unnecessary for the very same reason. It was an argument over nothing!
But the lines were already drawn, the passions were high, Taylor’s exasperations were a little naïve and, simply put, Southern defenders of slavery were throwing a huge tantrum. Speaking as if all Southerners were slave owners and just loved the system, the old states-rights warrior John C. Calhoun, near death, threw what I can only charitably call a hissy-fit. He organized a Southern-only convention to create a highly paranoid “Southern Address” that accused the northern states of conspiring to destroy slavery and states’ rights concerning slavery going all the way back to the foundation of the country! (It was utterly ridiculous, and to their credit, nearly half of the attendees refused to sign.)
Calhoun’s final speech to Congress in early 1850 was so full of paranoia and hate against the North that it just defies belief, and many of his fellow Southerners, including Taylor, thought so, too. But those who sided with Calhoun were a dangerous lot, and believed that any slight against the South, whether real or, most likely, imagined, was the gravest insult and grounds for secession. The president thought they were off their rocker.
Southerners were also mad at Taylor for urging California and New Mexico to bypass the territorial stage and immediately seek statehood. California, newly flush with the discovery of gold in 1848, had a population explosion and was essentially lawless. By not wanting the land to remain under military control, Taylor gave his approval to the formation of a state government, which Californians did at the end of 1849. But their constitution banned slavery. Again, southerners were furious. How dare they! Now, Taylor could have counseled that they deal with slavery after passing a constitution, which would have mollified the states rights champions. But they were outraged that it happened before the fact—despite the fact that transplanted Southerners helped make the constitution!
Next, Texas, a slave state, was trying to gobble up much of the New Mexico territory (which included present-day Arizona). President Taylor would have none of it, and said he would keep the peace between the two states, even using United States troops to defend New Mexico. Taylor vowed—and this is key—that the latter had been won from Mexico and would remain as it was no matter what claims Texas made on it.
Most Taylor biographers neglect or completely misunderstand Taylor’s desire to keep New Mexico away from Texas, and interpret his stance in the upcoming Compromise of 1850 as pure obstructionism.
Some outraged southerners threatened secession, raising the specter of the nullification crisis of 20 years earlier. Texas, which was full of southerners, threatened to take by force from New Mexico what it believed was rightfully Texas land. Taylor once again proved to be his own man by explaining exactly what he would do to anyone who committed the “treason” of secession, or lead aggression against a territory in defiance of the federal government. In early 1850, Taylor exploded in anger after meeting with two Georgian congressmen in the White House. The two men had been early Taylor supporters, but now they demanded that Taylor drop his support for California’s admission as a free state. Taylor refused, and said he would support constitutional law. As the two stormed out, Hannibal Hamlin, the future vice president to Abraham Lincoln, found Taylor extremely agitated. Hamlin recalled that,
“…with an expletive I shall not repeat here, he said, with an emphasis that I shall never forget, that if they attempted to carry out their schemes while he was president they should be dealt with by law as they deserved and executed.”
(Smith, P. 104)
“…if it became necessary, in executing the laws, he would take command of the army himself, and … if they were taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang them with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.” (Smith, P. 140)
Weed’s quote is probably embellished, because he added a third person to the scene who later swore he wasn’t present, but the quote is still passed off as authentic. Nevertheless, both quotes, with Hamlin’s being the more reliable, expose just how much Taylor was ready to fight for Union should it have become necessary. And that angered southerners even more.
But it never came to secession. The Great Compromiser, Henry Clay, proposed one final bill that dealt together with the great issues of the day: California, Texas and New Mexico, slavery in the capitol, fugitive slaves, and more. The president was happy with the thought of compromise, but believed, as did Clay’s old foe, Democrat Senator Thomas Hart Benton, that the issues should be dealt with separately—particularly because Taylor was keen to defend New Mexico from Texas no matter what.
In the end, a compromise was worked out—the Compromise of 1850—which, with the benefit of hindsight, we know was only a temporary cease-fire. However, Taylor wouldn’t live to see it. The compromise was still being debated when Taylor died suddenly midway through his second year in office.
Under the combined bill:
- California would become a free state,
- New Mexico would become a territory,
- Texas’ debt would be assumed by the United States government in exchange for dropping claims to New Mexican territory,
- Slavery in the remaining areas won from Mexico would be decided by “popular sovereignty”,
- the slave trade would be abolished in Washington, D.C., and
- the “fugitive slave act” would become the law of the nation.
The last odious part of the compromise let slave masters go anywhere in America to hunt for, and take back, escaped slaves.
Taylor’s ultimate role in the compromise is usually and uncharitably described as being an obstacle, as incapable of stopping the dead Calhoun and his allies, or intensely jealous of Henry Clay. But none is really true. He didn’t stand in its way at all, though his cabinet was not enthusiastic about it. Taylor, above all else, sought to keep the union together—and the omnibus bill seemed like the way to solve the current massive sectional crisis. It was Taylor’s inability to form allies and voting blocs in Congress damaged his abilities to sway the debate, and subsequently damaged him in history’s judgment. In addition, everyone tried to take credit—Clay, Daniel Webster, the South’s irascible Sen. Henry Foote, etc.—and paint the dead Taylor as someone who had been in the way.
But Elbert Smith says,
"He looked beyond his own immediate interests as a large slaveholder, recognizing that slavery could not be expanded, and tried to check unrealistic Southern demands that could only multiply Northern opposition to the institution itself. Instead, however, revisionists have made the compromise efforts the centerpiece of his administration and accepted the accusation of Taylor’s enemies … that he was an obstacle to its achievement. Supporters of the omnibus bill … defended him against the charge, and … insisted throughout that Taylor would support any compromise that did not give New Mexico to Texas. Their views, however, somehow escaped serious consideration by historians, including Taylor’s friendly biographers…
…The sudden removal of Taylor—by Providence, the Almighty, fate, or America’s usual good luck—just in time to enable Clay, (Stephen A.) Douglas, and Fillmore to save the Union was another illusion too exciting to bear closer examination.” (Smith, p.258)
It wasn’t exactly Taylor’s finest hour, but history has done a great disservice by getting Taylor’s role utterly wrong.
During the July 4, 1850, dedication of the laying of the Washington Monument, President Taylor took ill. He downed a whole pitcher of water, and took in some iced milk, cherries and cucumbers, but never loosened his clothes under the oppressive heat. Back at the White House, the old general finally loosened his clothes, but remained ill.
His condition worsened, and five days later, on July 9, he was dead.
We don’t quite know why he died. It may have been acute gastroenteritis. Possibly chloera. The immediate cause was probably a heat stroke. Some have speculated that he was poisoned, and in 1991 his body was exhumed and autopsied. Traces of arsenic were found, but only the normal amount found in all people, far less than a fatal dose. But assasination seems really far-fetched.
A stunned nation watched as Millard Fillmore assumed the presidency (and thanks to John Tyler nine years earlier, the succession happened effortlessly). Filmore would replace Taylor’s entire cabinet, and quickly make Taylor’s presidency his own presidency.
Zachary Taylor wasn’t a successful president—but neither was he unsuccessful. He’s been long thought a failure, or a nonentity, but Elbert Smith argues that during his 16 months in office, Taylor charted a steady course through the middle of the hotheads on both sides at the start of this most turbulent of decades. Like Ulysses S. Grant a generation later, Taylor’s presidential reputation fell into the hands of his enemies, and their word on him was “final.” He was a “failed” president because they said he was, regardless of the facts and regardless of what Taylor actually accomplished and attempted to do while in office.
As it were, Taylor’s desire to be president of the entire country and not remain beholden to just the slave interests cost him dearly, as did his honest friendship with the anti-slavery power-broker Seward. Enemies considered him weak because he relied on others for appointments. Well, who else did? Every other president, that’s who! In short, Taylor’s refusal to be a tool made him a “failure,” not the actual facts. In his affairs with Indian tribes and foreign nations, Taylor was skillful and deft. In matters of domestic policy, Taylor charted a course designed to placate both sides of the slavery divide, making him a facilitator of the Compromise of 1850, not an obstacle as has long been charged. Taylor even tried to get the hotheads of the north and south to see the obvious: slavery just wouldn’t work in the southwest; so, fighting over expanding it there was just stupid. But few listened to him.
Taylor’s willingness to treat secession as treason was exactly the same reaction as Jackson’s, and even more blunt than Lincoln’s. Taylor was ready and willing to destroy secession—but it’s long forgotten, because the Secession Crisis of 1850 never happened, replaced, as it were, by the Compromise of 1850. Would Taylor have slapped down an actual session crisis like Jackson? Or would he have dithered like Buchanan and let it develop until it was past the point of return? It’s more than likely he would have done the former.
Zachary Taylor, one of America’s finest soldiers, deserves much better than being remembered as a presidential failure. He was a military hero, and a hero president, and it’s good that writers of history are finally taking note.
Final assessment: Neither successful nor unsuccessful (e.g., right down the middle), and somewhat popular (but not with the political class, and definitely not with the abolitionists)
The majority of information on Zachary Taylor is usually found in collections on the presidents or in books on the Mexican War. The American Presidents Series entry has not yet been released, but it is written by John S.D. Eisenhower, author of So Far From God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848. Again, I highly recommend reading that book, both for its historical value and for the fact that it is simply one of the best books on any subject you’ll ever read—non-fiction or fiction. If you want to understand America and Mexico together, you need to read this book.
I also wasn’t able to get a hold of Elbert Smith’s brand-new 2007 biography, Zachary Taylor: The Hero President, in time for this study, but I was able to use his earlier work, The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, part of the University of Kansas’ American Presidency series. Apparently, his general thesis remains unchanged. (If you haven’t guessed by now, I have been making heavy use of books from the public library systems of St. Louis County and St. Louis City for this study.)
Also for this study, I used the ponderous and plodding Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (1985) by K. Jack Bauer. Smith disagrees with Bauer’s conclusions, as do I.
All images are public domain and found in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division unless otherwise noted.
1. A daguerreotype of Zachary Taylor, probably taken for the 1848 campaign. I think it’s the best likeness of him.
2. Taylor and his faithful horse, Old Whitey
3. Margaret “Peggy” Taylor
4. Battle of Palo Alto, May 8th, 1846. Battle of Resaca de la Palma, May 9th, 1846. Lithograph by Klauprech & Menzel after Ange Paldi, 5th Inf., U.S.A.
5. US troops marching on Monterrey during the Mexican-American War, painting by Carl Nebel. Published in the 1851 book The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated.
6 Storming of Independence Hill at the Battle of Monterey. September 1846. Copy of lithograph by Kellogs & Thayer, ca. 1847. National Archives and Records Administration. John S.D. Eisenhower, in So Far From God, took particular note of a similar image made most likely by the same artist, depicting the same street fighting in Monterrey. “This picture is remarkable for its realism at a time when artists in the United States usually depicted battle scenes in largely formal terms.” Compare this 1847 lithograph to the next image.
7. "A little more grape Capt. Bragg"—General Taylor at the Battle of Buena Vista, Feby 23d, 1847. This rather fanciful depiction of the battle of Buena Vista was created as a campaign poster. It depicts a real incident, where Taylor instructed one of his artillery captains to step up his fire (which helped win the battle), but it also shows Taylor wearing a full general’s uniform, which he almost never did. Taylor favored buckskin and jeans and a slouch hat—chosen for comfort, not style. His casual disdain of military pomp would impress young Ulysses S. Grant, who would emulate his hero’s style during the Civil War.
8. An anti-Whig campaign poster, which truthfully depicts the sole reason for selecting a Mexican War hero as presidential candidate. Taylor is not actually the general depicted, but the sentiment sit fit when Taylor was tapped to be their champion.
9. A standard campaign poster depicting Taylor and his running mate, New Yorker Millard Fillmore.
10. An extremely rare and damaged picture of Taylor’s cabinet. The president stands at center.
11. An idealized portrait of Taylor created for the campaign
12. The United States in 1850, after the compromise took effect. Map is courtesy of courtesy of Florida’s Educational Technology Clearinghouse. Credit: http://etc.usf.edu/maps/
13. Official White House portrait of President Zachary Taylor (White House Historical Association)
14. A somewhat comic yet sympathetic portrayal of the culminating episode in the flight of slave Henry Brown "who escaped from Richmond Va. in a Box 3 feet long, 2-1/2 ft. deep and 2 ft. wide." In the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, the young Brown emerges from a crate as several figures, including Frederick Douglass (holding a claw hammer at left) look on. Details of Brown's escape, whereby he had himself shipped via Adams Express from Richmond to Philadelphia, were widely publicized in a narrative of his ordeal published under his own name in 1849. The box itself became an abolitionist metaphor for the inhumanity and spiritual suffocation of slavery. It is shown on an undated broadside published in Boston. (Library of Congress description.)
15. Clay, Fillmore, Calhoun, Webster in the Senate, 1850. Henry Clay (presenting his compromise), Millard Fillmore (presiding), John C. Calhoun (right of Fillmore), and Daniel Webster (head in hand) in the Senate, 1850. Created by Peter Rothermel in 1850.
16. Matthew Brady took this daguerreotype of Zachary Taylor in 1849
17. Taylor on his death bed, in the White House, July, 1850.