Zachary Taylor - Twelfth President of the United States

Zachary Taylor, Twelfth President of the United States
Zachary Taylor, Twelfth President of the United States, Portrait by Mathew Brady. Credit Line: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-13012 DLC

Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784 in Orange County, Virginia. He grew up, however, near Louisville, Kentucky. His family was wealthy and had a long history in America having descended from William Brewster who arrived on the Mayflower. He was not well educated and never went to college or continued studying on his own. Instead, he spent his time serving in the military.

Family Ties

Zachary Taylor's father was Richard Taylor. He was a large landowner and planter along with a Revolutionary War veteran. His mother was Sarah Dabney Strother, a woman who was quite well-educated for her time. Taylor had four brothers and three sisters. 

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.

Zachary Taylor's Military Career

Taylor was in the military service from 1808-1848 when he became president. He served in the Army. In 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.

Mexican War - 1846-48

Zachary Taylor was an important part of the Mexican War. He successfully defeated Mexican forces in September 1846 and allowed them two months armistice upon their retreat. President James K. Polk was angry and ordered General Winfield Scott to take over and lead many of Taylor's troops into immediate action against Mexico. However, Taylor went ahead and fought Santa Anna's forces against Polk's directives. He forced Santa Anna's withdrawal and became a national hero at the same time.

Becoming the President

In 1848, Taylor was nominated by the Whigs to run for president with Millard Fillmore as Vice President. Taylor did not learn about his nomination for weeks. He was opposed by Democrat Lewis Cass. The main campaign issue was whether to ban or allow slavery in territories captured during the Mexican War. Taylor did not take sides and Cass came out for allowing the residents to decide. The third party candidate, former President Martin Van Buren, took votes from Cass allowing Taylor to win.

Events and Accomplishments of Zachary Taylor's Presidency:

Taylor seemed 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. This made a rule that canals across Central America were to be neutral and no colonization should occur in Central America. It stood until 1901.

Even though Taylor held lots of slaves and this caused many in the South to support him, he was against extending slavery into the territories. He believed wholeheartedly in preserving the Union. The Compromise of 1850 came about during his time in office and it appeared that Taylor might veto it. However, he died suddenly after eating some fresh cherries and drinking some milk which caused him to contract cholera. He died on July 8, 1850 at the White House. Vice President Millard Fillmore was sworn in as the president the next day. 

Historical Significance:

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. 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 indeed.