Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) served in the army for some four decades, commanding troops in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War (1832) and the second of the Seminole Wars (1835-1842). He became a full-fledged war hero through his service in the Mexican War, which broke out in 1846 after the U.S. annexation of Texas. Elected president in 1848, Taylor entered the White House at a time when the issue of slavery and its extension into the new western territories (including Texas) had caused a major rift between the North and South. Though a slaveholder, Taylor sought to hold the nation together–a goal he was ready to accomplish by force if necessary–and he clashed with Congress over his desire to admit California to the Union as a free state. In early July 1850, Taylor suddenly fell ill and died; his successor, Millard Fillmore, would prove more sympathetic to the interests of southern slaveholders.
Zachary Taylor’s Early Life and Military Career
Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, in Orange County, Virginia. The descendant of a long line of prominent Virginia planters, he was raised on a tobacco plantation outside Louisville, Kentucky, where his parents moved around the time of his birth. He received only a rudimentary education but was well schooled in the frontier skills of farming, horsemanship and using a musket. In 1808, the young Taylor left home after obtaining a commission as a first lieutenant in the army. In 1810, he married Margaret Mackall Smith, and they went on to have six children. (Their second daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, would marry Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, in 1835; she died three months later.) Taylor made his home near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on a 2,000-acre plantation with some 80 slaves. He owned a second plantation in Mississippi.
In the years leading up to the War of 1812, Taylor helped police the western frontier of the United States against the Native Americans. He went on to command troops in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Second Seminole War in Florida from 1837 to 1840. When the U.S. annexation of Texas sparked war with Mexico, Taylor served as brigadier general and commanding officer of the army’s First Department at Fort Jesup, Louisiana. Taylor’s men quickly won victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, garnering him a recommendation from President James K. Polk and a promotion to major general.
From War Hero to President
As a military commander, Zachary Taylor earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” for his willingness to get his boots dirty alongside his men. He led his men across the Rio Grande and advanced into Mexico, capturing the heavily fortified stronghold of Monterrey by late September. Taylor then granted the Mexicans an eight-week armistice against the wishes of President Polk, who was conscious of the general’s growing political clout within the opposition Whig Party. Polk canceled the peace agreement and ordered Taylor to remain in northern Mexico while he transferred the best of Taylor’s troops to the army of General Winfield Scott. In February 1847, Taylor disobeyed these orders and marched his troops south to Buena Vista, using his artillery to defeat a Mexican force more than three times the size of his.
By the time the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War in early 1848, Taylor had emerged in Whig circles as a leading candidate for president. Declaring his candidacy just six weeks before the national convention, Taylor won the Whig nomination despite the party’s opposition to the Mexican War. His military record undoubtedly appealed to northerners, while his slaveholding status captured southern votes, helping him win a victory in the general election over the Democratic candidate Lewis Cass and former president Martin Van Buren, the candidate of the Free Soil Party.
Zachary Taylor in the White House
The central challenge facing Zachary Taylor as he took office in 1849 was the sectional debate over slavery and its expansion into the country’s new western territories. The emergence of the antislavery Free Soil Party had intensified southerners’ fears that the abolitionist North would gain control of Congress, and they saw slavery’s extension in the West as the only way of maintaining a balance. Gold had been discovered in California in 1848, and there was tremendous pressure to resolve the issue of the territory’s statehood as its population expanded. Though a slaveholder himself, Taylor was primarily driven by a strong nationalism born of years in the army, and by 1848 had come to oppose the creation of new slave states. To end the dispute over slavery in the new territories, he wanted settlers in both California and New Mexico to draft constitutions and be admitted immediately into the Union, skipping the territorial phase. Slavery advocates were outraged, as neither state was likely to allow slavery, and many in Congress felt Taylor was taking away their legislative power.
In February 1850, after some incensed southern leaders threatened secession, Taylor angrily informed them that he personally would lead the army if it became necessary in order to enforce federal laws and preserve the Union. He became increasingly unwilling to appease southern slave owners and opposed a compromise bill proposed by Henry Clay that would combine California’s admission to the Union with the abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C. (supported by abolitionists), and a strong fugitive slave law (supported by southerners) while allowing New Mexico and Utah to be established as territories. Taylor’s brief time in the White House was also marred by a financial scandal involving several members of his administration, including Secretary of War George Crawford.
Zachary Taylor’s Sudden Death
On July 4, 1850, Zachary Taylor attended a ceremony at the unfinished Washington Monument; temperatures were blistering, and he reportedly ate only raw vegetables, cherries and milk. He took ill with violent stomach cramps the following day and died on July 9 of acute gastroenteritis. (Conspiracy theorists later suggested that Taylor may have been poisoned, but his remains were exhumed in 1991 and this speculation was disproved.) Taylor became the second president to die while in office (after William Henry Harrison). In a boon for pro-slavery forces, the more moderate Millard Fillmore succeeded him.
Taylor was a popular president, though history has viewed him more harshly for his passivity in the face of growing sectional tensions. With Fillmore’s support, Congress adopted the Compromise of 1850 that September; its inconsistencies paved the way for future discord in Kansas and ultimately for the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Taylor’s only son, Richard, would serve as a general in the Confederate Army during that conflict.