Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), twelfth president of the United States, was, as one of the two military heroes of the Mexican War, the last Whig president.
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.
Further Reading on Zachary Taylor
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).