|Born:||Nov. 24, 1784, Orange County, Va.|
|Education||tutored through elementary grades|
|Military service|| ♦ Kentucky Militia, 1806|
♦ U.S. Army, 1808-49 (Major General). Victorious leader in Ft. Harrison, Lake Okeechobee and in Battle of Buena Vista against Santa Anna
|Previous civilian public office||none|
|Died||July 9, 1850, Washington, D.C.|
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 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.
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 brevetted 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 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. 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.
The Whigs nominated Taylor in 1848 for the same reasons they had nominated Harrison: he was a war hero. Taylor was also a Southerner and a slaveholder (in 1841 he had bought a Mississippi plantation with many slaves) who would attract support in the South from a party with little popular following there.
In his capacity as a career officer, Taylor had never reportedly revealed his political beliefs before 1848, nor voted before that time. He thought of himself as an independent, believing in a strong and sound banking system for the country, and thought that Andrew Jackson should not have allowed the Second Bank of the United States to collapse in 1836. He believed it was impractical to talk about expanding slavery into the western areas of the United States, as he concluded that neither cotton nor sugar (both were produced in great quantities as a result of slavery) could be easily grown there through a plantation economy. He was also a firm nationalist, and due to his experience of seeing many people die as a result of warfare, he believed that secession was not a good way to resolve national problems
Taylor won the Whig nomination on the fourth ballot over Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Winfield Scott. Helped by a split in the Democratic party, with Martin Van Buren running on a Free-Soil ticket and Lewis Cass running as a regular Democrat, Taylor was elected with fewer popular votes than Cass and Van Buren combined. However, his solid electoral college majority, in part due to electoral votes from four Southern states, proved the soundness of the Whigs' “Southern strategy.”
Although Taylor had subscribed to Whig principles of legislative leadership, he was not inclined to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress. He ran his administration in the same rule-of-thumb fashion with which he had fought Native Americans.
The dominant issue of American politics in the 1840s was whether slavery would be permitted in the western territories of the United States. Debate between extreme pro and antislavery viewpoints had become very pronounced.
Taylor wanted California, New Mexico, and Utah all to be admitted to the Union. This proposal caused him to split with Whig congressional leaders, who were more mindful of Southern opposition to the admission of “free” states that would outlaw slavery and end the balance in the Union of 15 slave and 15 free states. Taylor took a strong stand against the Southerners in Congress who threatened secession if California entered the Union as a free state, and he threatened senators from Georgia that he would crush any attempt at secession.
Taylor was opposed to the Compromise of 1850, proposed by Henry Clay, that resolved the issue. The compromise, consisting of five separate laws, admitted California as a free state and abolished the slave trade in the nation's capital but balanced these measures with a stringent new law for the return of runaway slaves and the organization of Utah and New Mexico state governments without any determination about slavery. Taylor referred to this compromise as the “Omnibus Bill” and probably would have vetoed the measures had he lived.
Taylor's most significant achievement in foreign affairs was the negotiation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850) with Great Britain, which provided that any canal built in Central America would be under joint Anglo-American control. This defused a crisis that might have led to hostilities that neither nation wanted.
Taylor died in office on July 9, 1850, of acute gastroenteritis and was succeeded by Millard Fillmore.
The cause of the unknown digestive ailment was probably the consumption of copious amounts of cold milk and cherries after attending holiday celebrations and a fund-raising event at the Washington Monument.
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 honest and well intentioned, but his blunt manner and unsophisticated mind handicapped him as president. An ardent nationalist, he did not appreciate southerners' fears, and his inflexible will, which had served him well in the military, was less useful in working with Congress. Under different circumstances, he might have been a successful president, but he lacked the intellectual subtlety or political tact necessary to handle the sectional crisis.
Because of his short tenure, Taylor is not considered to have strongly influenced the office of the Presidency, or the United States. Some historians believe that Taylor was too inexperienced with politics, at a time when officials needed close ties with political operatives.