Biography of Zachary Taylor, 12th U.S. President

Zachary Taylor

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Zachary Taylor (November 24, 1784–July 9, 1850) was the 12th president of the United States. Born in Orange County, Virginia, he grew up near Louisville, Kentucky. Taylor's family built its wealth over the years, but as a young man he lacked the funds for a college education. His decision to enter the military helped catapult him into the White House with the nickname "Old Rough and Ready." Though he served only a short period of time as president, he was well-liked and respected. A theory that he was assassinated has been debunked.

Fast Facts: Zachary Taylor

  • Known For: 12th president of the United States
  • Also Known As: Old Rough and Ready
  • Born: November 24, 1784 in Barboursville, Virginia
  • Parents: Sarah Dabney (Strother) Taylor, Richard Taylor
  • Died: July 9, 1850 in Washington, D.C.
  • Education: Grammar school and home education
  • Awards and Honors: Appeared on postage stamps; namesake for several roads, counties, highways
  • Spouse: Margaret Mackall Smith,
  • Children: Sarah Knox Taylor, Richard Taylor, Mary Elizabeth Bliss, Octavia Pannell, Ann Mackall, Margaret Smith
  • Notable Quote: "I have no private purpose to accomplish, no party objectives to build up, no enemies to punish—nothing to serve but my country."

Early Years

Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784 in Barboursville, Virginia, and was the third of nine children of Richard Taylor and Sarah Dabney Strother. The family inherited a plantation in Virginia but, unable to make the land productive, they moved to a tobacco plantation near Louisville on the Kentucky frontier. It was there that Taylor learned the "frontier skills" of shooting, farming, and horsemanship—skills that would serve him well in later life. While his father, a slave owner, became increasingly wealthy, Zachary attended only grammar school and did not go to college.

Taylor married Margaret "Peggy" Mackall Smith on June 21, 1810. She was raised in a wealthy tobacco plantation family in Maryland. Together they had three daughters who lived to maturity: Ann Mackall; Sarah Knox, who married Jefferson Davis (the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War) in 1835; and Mary Elizabeth. They also had one son named Richard. A daughter named Octavia died during childhood.

Military Career

Taylor was in the Army for four decades, from 1808 until he assumed the presidency in 1849; at that time he had the rank of major general. During the War of 1812, he defended Fort Harrison against Native American forces. He was promoted to major during the war but briefly resigned at the end of the war before rejoining in 1816. By 1832, he was named a colonel. During the Black Hawk War, he constructed Fort Dixon. He took part in the Second Seminole War and was named commander of all U.S. Forces in Florida as a result of the role he played during the Battle of Lake Okeechobee. In 1840 he was assigned to a position in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he made his home.

Mexican War, 1846–1848

Zachary Taylor played a major role in the Mexican War, successfully defeating Mexican forces in September 1846 and allowing them two months armistice upon their retreat. President James K. Polk, frustrated with Taylor's clemency toward the Mexicans, ordered General Winfield Scott to take over and lead many of Taylor's troops into immediate action against Mexico. Taylor, however, ignored orders and engaged Santa Anna's forces against Polk's directives. He forced Santa Anna's withdrawal and became a national hero at the same time.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War, was signed in 1848; by that time Taylor had become a military hero and was the candidate of choice for the Whig Party. During this period of tension between North and South, Taylor combined a military record that impressed the North with slave ownership, which attracted southerners.

Becoming President

In 1848, Taylor was nominated by the Whigs to run for president with Millard Fillmore as his running mate (he did not learn about his nomination until weeks later). He was challenged by Democrat Lewis Cass. The main campaign issue was whether to ban or allow slavery in territories captured during the Mexican War. Taylor, a dedicated supporter of the Union, did not express an opinion, while Cass supported the idea of allowing residents of each state to decide. Former President Martin Van Buren, leader of the Free Soil abolitionist party, entered the race and took votes from Cass, allowing Taylor to win with 163 of 290 electoral votes.

Events and Accomplishments of Taylor's Presidency

Taylor served as president from March 5, 1849, until July 9, 1850. During his administration, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty was made between the U.S. and Great Britain. The agreement stated that canals across Central America were to be neutral and outlawed the colonization in Central America. It stood until 1901.

Taylor himself was a slave owner and thus, for a period of time, he had significant support from the South. He was, however, dedicated to preserving the Union and believed that the best way to ensure the continuity of the Union was to avoid extending slavery into the territories. He disagreed with Congress over the question of whether California should be admitted to the Union as a free state; his successor Millard Filmore was more sympathetic to the Southern cause.

By 1850, Taylor started suggesting he would be willing to take up arms to preserve the Union. The Compromise of 1850 was introduced by Henry Clay; according to History.com, the Compromise traded "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 was unimpressed by the Compromise and showed signs that he might veto it.

Death

On a hot day in July, Taylor ate only raw vegetables, cherries, and milk. He contracted gastroenteritis soon after, along with violent cramps. He died on July 8, 1850, at the White House, and Vice President Millard Fillmore was sworn in as president the next day. Some believed that Taylor might have been assassinated by poison. His body was exhumed in 1991, and testing concluded there were no signs of arsenic present in his remains (though it's possible that other poisons could have caused his death).

Legacy

Zachary Taylor was not known for his education and he had no political background. He was elected solely on his reputation as a war hero. As such, his short time in office was not one full of major accomplishments outside of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. However, if Taylor had lived and in fact vetoed the Compromise of 1850, the events of the mid-19th century would have been very different.

Sources

  • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica. “Zachary Taylor.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 7 Mar. 2019.
  • Editors, History.com. “Zachary Taylor.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009.
  • Zachary Taylor.” The White House, The United States Government.