Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor

12th President, 1849-1850

Early Life and Pre-presidency

Zachary Taylor Portrait by Joseph Bush, 1848

Zachary Taylor Portrait by Joseph Bush, 1848

  • Born on November 24, 1784 in Orange County, Virginia.
  • Parents: Richard Taylor and Sarah Dabney Strother. Siblings: Hancock, William Dabney Strother, George, Elizabeth Lee, Joseph Pannill, Sarah Bailey, and Emily Richard.
  • Is the second cousin of James Madison, the 4th U.S. President.
  • His family migrated to the Kentucky frontier that would later become Louisville, Kentucky.
  • Because there were no formal schools in the frontier at that time, Taylor received only sporadic education.
  • Joined the U.S. Army in 1808 as first lieutenant and was promoted to captain in 1810.
  • Married Margaret Mackall Smith (1788–1852) on June 21, 1810. Children: Ann Margaret Mackall (1811–1875), Sarah Knox (1814–1835), Octavia Pannill (1816–1820), Margaret Smith (1819–1820), Mary Elizabeth (1824–1909), and Richard (1826–1879).
  • From 1811 to 1837, he moved from post to post with his growing family establishing forts and fighting the Indians, particularly during the War of 1812 and the Second Seminole War in 1837. He finally settled his family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
  • Won the Battle of Lake Okeechobee against the Seminole Indians on December 25, 1837 and was promoted to brigadier general.
  • In May 1841, he became the commander of the Second Department of the Army’s Western Division.
  • In early 1846, Taylor was ordered by then President James K. Polk to advance to an area in the Rio Grande that was disputed by the U.S. and Mexico. Texas had just been granted statehood, but Mexico, from which Texas had previously declared its independence, declared that it would go to war with the U.S. if Texas became its state. When some of Taylor’s men were attacked by Mexican troops, he reported the incident to the president who then asked Congress to declare war with Mexico.
  • During the ensuing Mexican–American War (1846–1848), Taylor won decisive victories in the Battle of Palo Alto, Battle of Resaca de la Palma, Battle of Monterrey, and the Battle of Buena Vista. He became a national hero who was likened to George Washington and Andrew Jackson, both generals who won key battles for the Union.
  • He remained in Monterrey, Mexico after the Mexican–American War until late 1847 then returned to Louisiana to a hero’s welcome.
  • With his victories in the war, Jackson became a prime candidate for President in the 1848 election. Although he initially said he was not interested in politics, he allied himself with the Whig Party.
  • He won the Whig Party nomination for President with Millard Fillmore as his Vice President. They won the election over the Democratic candidate Lewis Cass.

Presidency

Zachary Taylor Daguerrotype by unknown artist, ca. 1850

Zachary Taylor Daguerrotype by unknown artist, ca. 1850

  • Took his oath of office on March 5, 1849 at the East Portico, U.S. Capitol.
  • Spent the summer after his inauguration touring the unfamiliar northeastern United States.
  • Vice President: Millard Fillmore (1849–1850).
  • When Taylor took office, the question of what to do regarding slavery in the new acquired territories from Mexico was dividing Congress. The status of California, New Mexico, and the Utah territory were being debated. Northerners from both parties wanted to abolish slavery, but Southerners wanted to maintain it.
  • Taylor urged California and New Mexico to apply for statehood and left the decision of whether to allow or ban slavery in the hands of their respective states’ legislatures. California applied as a free state in 1850. At that time the Union was equally divided with 15 free states and 15 slave states. Since California would upset the balance, Congress stalled on its application.
  • Decided that Utah would be managed as a federal territory after promising Latter Day Saint settlers that their religious freedom would be upheld.
  • Senate Majority Leader Henry Clay, with the help of Senator Daniel Webster, created a proposal called the Compromise of 1850 that would allow California to be accepted as a free state while the other territories (New Mexico and Utah) would be held under federal jurisdiction with the issue of slavery being decided by the territories’ inhabitants in the future. Taylor was not in favor of the compromise.
  • The Clayton–Bulwer Treaty was ratified by the United States and Great Britain on April 19, 1850. The treaty was signed in response to proposals to build a canal through Nicaragua that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Both countries renounced control over any canal that would be built.
  • After attending several Independence Day celebrations on July 4, 1850, Taylor suffered a severe stomach illness that became progressively worse in the next few days. Doctors diagnosed his illness as cholera morbus and were unable to treat him. Taylor died on July 9, 1850.
  • Taylor served only 16 months of his four-year term in office before succumbing to his illness.
  • Over 100,000 people lined the funeral route on July 13, 1850 and the procession that followed his hearse stretched for about two miles.
  • He was initially interred at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., then tranported to the Taylor family plot in Louisville, Kentucky. The area later became the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.
  • For many years after his death, theories circulated that he may have been assassinated using a poison. In 1991, his body was exhumed to obtain hair, fingernail and other tissue samples. Analysis of the samples revealed no traces of poison.
  • During his Presidency, Taylor kept his distance from both political parties and the legislature. He was thus seen as an “outsider,” but many believed he should have taken a more active role in politics at a time when the secession issue was gaining ground.
  • Taylor’s term was marked by growing calls for secession from southern states if their rights to uphold slavery would be threatened. The concern was largely due to the acquisition of new territories that southern states saw as an opportunity to expand their territory and slavery.