President #12, C-SPAN Historians ranking #29
He’s Tanned, Rough, and Ready
What can be said about a man who was President for just 16 months? What can be said about a President who never held any other political office in his life? What can be said about a man who likely never voted in his life until he was elected President? What can be said about a man who almost went directly from battlefield success to the White House?
As it turns out, not much. John S. D. Eisenhower, son of another general turned President, tries to give us a look at the life of the third man to parlay military success (after Washington and Jackson) into the Presidency. Unfortunately, Taylor’s term in office was brief, most of his papers were destroyed in the Civil War, and his greatest accomplishments occurred in a war that happened before mass communications (in the form of the telegraph) had taken hold.
Eisenhower did not get the most interesting President to write about, but he tries his best. The book works best if you are interested in military history, or the particular ins and outs of battlefield strategy. But at the end of the book, Taylor remains something of a cipher.
This is not to say that the life of Zachary Taylor is not worth examining. His military career spanned the two wars that the U.S. fought in after the Revolution and before the Civil War: The War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Taylor was also the father-in-law, albeit briefly, of Jefferson Davis.
Taylor was born on November 24, 1784 in Orange County, Virginia, but that was only because his mother was too far along in her pregnancy to accompany her husband, Richard, to his new property (a reward for his Revolutionary War service) in Kentucky, in what would become Louisville.
Although young Zachary Taylor received little formal education, he was able to read and write acceptably. In 1808, Taylor followed in his father’s footsteps and became a soldier, getting a commission as a first lieutenant.
But in 1809, Taylor’s military career almost ended because of one of the most colossal errors committed by an American commander in peacetime. Taylor had been transfered to New Orleans, where James Wilkinson, a brigadier general, was in command. The oppressive heat of New Orleans was making most under his command ill.
The Secretary of War ordered Wilkinson to move his troops north to Natchez, where conditions were more favorable. But, Wilkinson moved the force south to a spot called Terre Aux Bouefs. This place was even hotter and more humid than New Orleans. And there was even less food. The soldiers began to die by the score.
Finally, Wilkinson (who had likely moved the soldiers south because there was money in it for him) decided to move whatever soldiers were left to Natchez. And nearly all of the remaining soldiers perished on that trip. What of Zachary Taylor? He was fortunate in that he got sick almost as soon as he arrived and he was sent back home to Louisville to recover.
(During his Army career, Wilkinson also served as a spy for Spain, was a co-conspirator with Aaron Burr to commit treason, had numerous mistresses, and took countless bribes. Yet, he was never successfully court martialed.)
During the War of 1812, Taylor fought in the West. He made a name for himself when he successfully defended Fort Harrison (in present day Indiana near Terre Haute) from an assault by an allied force of Indians. Taylor was made a brevet major for his actions. However, Taylor saw little action after Fort Harrison as most of the fighting in the War of 1812 occurred near the U.S.-Canada border. Taylor asked to be transferred to that theater, but he stayed in the West.
When the War of 1812 ended though, the Army was reduced in size and Taylor was demoted back down to captain. Taylor took this as a sign to leave the Army, and he did. He went back to Louisville to work on his plantation, which proved to be a very lucrative endeavor for him.
But, the Army would keep calling Taylor back. Taylor always answered the call, serving in various frontier posts. In 1820, Taylor moved his family with him to Louisiana. Tragically, he saw two of his young children die of malaria there in a span of four months.
By 1832, Taylor had worked his way up in the military to the rank of lieutenant colonel. At this time, the U.S. engaged in a rather pointless and bloody affair called the Black Hawk War. Black Hawk was the name of a Sauk Indian chief who tried to halt the gradual takeover of his people’s land in Illinois by white Americans. Both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln would fight in this war, which was really more of a chase by the Army to catch Black Hawk. After a few months, Black Hawk was captured and all but 50 of his men were killed, either by the Army or by the Sioux.
Davis, a lieutenant serving under Taylor, had grown fond of his commander’s daughter Sarah. However, Taylor refused to let his daughter marry an Army officer. The two ended up courting in secret, and eventually wed in 1835, by which time Davis had resigned his commission. However, Sarah Taylor died soon after her marriage of malaria.
While fighting against Seminoles in Florida, Taylor earned his nickname of “Old Rough and Ready” because he would always be out on the battlefield with his troops. Taylor drove his troops hard, but no harder than he would drive himself. Because of his actions in Florida, Taylor had become Brigadier General Zachary Taylor.
Taylor would later find himself commanding troops at Fort Jesup near what is the border today between Louisiana and Texas. In 1845, Taylor was ordered by President James Polk to move his troops to a point south of the Nueces River in what was then the village of Corpus Christi, Texas.
The point of this maneuver was for the U.S. to tell Mexico just where they believed the border between Texas and Mexico was. According to Mexico, the border was on the north side of the Nueces. But Polk wanted to establish a U.S. presence south of the Nueces, and, if possible, as far south as the Rio Grande. (The river has been expanded into a bay in recent times.)
At first, Polk attempted to negotiate a settlement with Mexico, but the Mexicans would not sell the U.S. the disputed territory. So, Taylor’s troops marched further south to the Rio Grande, right across from the Mexican town of Matamoros. On April 26, 1846, Mexican soldiers fired at and killed some of Taylor’s men. The news was sent back to Washington. And by May 13, Congress had declared war on Mexico.
Taylor spent much of the war along the U.S.-Mexico border. After capturing Monterrey, Taylor hoped that the U.S. government would just follow a strategy of waiting around for Mexico to surrender. But Mexico wouldn’t surrender. Eventually, Polk, on the advice of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, ordered General Winfield Scott (who was already a declared candidate for President in 1848) to lead an amphibious assault on the port of Veracruz, with the eventual takeover of Mexico City.
However, such an invasion required Taylor to give up some of his best soldiers to Scott. While the attack on Veracruz was successful for the U.S., Mexican president Santa Anna decided that his last best hope was to attack what was left of Taylor’s forces, which were now in a place called Buena Vista.
The Battle of Buena Vista (fought in February of 1847 near the city of Saltillo, Mexico), saw over 670 American officers killed and an estimated 1,500 volunteer soldiers desert. But, the Americans won as the Mexican Army was spent after a long march through the Mexican Desert. The war was essentially over. The U.S. added most of present day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and California.
Taylor ended up being the hero of the war for the Americans. His plain dress (he rarely wore a full uniform) and easy manner endeared him to his men. Although the Mexican War proved to be unpopular as it was being fought, the American people still wanted a hero.
In 1848, there would be an election. Polk had promised to serve only one term, so the race was wide open. It’s not clear when Taylor became interested in running for President. He had made few political statements during his military career.
Taylor wanted to be drafted to become President. He didn’t want to have to run for office. It’s also quite possible that he had no idea how to run for office. No one knew which party Taylor belonged to.
The Whig Party, seeing a chance to win the White House, sent a delegation to Louisiana to get Taylor to declare himself a Whig. After that, Taylor was able to win the nomination in June of 1848. At the time, parties sent letters to the nominees informing them of the selection. Taylor did not respond for an entire month. However, Taylor was not hesitant to run. Instead, the local postmaster had refused to deliver the letter to Taylor because it had insufficient postage and Taylor had left instructions that he would not pay postage due. Eventually, a second letter was sent and Taylor began his race for the White House. Millard Fillmore, the state comptroller for New York, was given the Vice Presidential nomination.
The Democrats would nominate another soldier, Lewis Cass. Cass however had also served in the government both as a Cabinet member and a Senator.
Taylor did not campaign much. He hoped that his personal popularity and a general dissatisfaction with the Democrats (who had been in power almost since Jefferson’s election) would carry the day. Taylor was right. He won 47.3% of the popular vote, besting Cass and third party candidate Martin Van Buren. The Electoral Vote tally was 163-127.
General Taylor was now President Taylor. En route to Washington, he was on a steamship that carried Whig Party leader (and political rival) Henry Clay. When Taylor came up to Clay to pay his respects, the Kentucky senator brushed him off, not knowing who he was. Clay tried to apologize, but Taylor just moved on.
Outgoing President Polk feared that a political novice like Taylor would be easily swayed by Congressional Whigs. Polk also worried that Taylor was not committed to adding the newly won territory from Mexico as states. (Polk would have bigger problems as he died four months after leaving office.)
Taylor immediately faced the problem that the new territories would be a political landmine because of the issue of slavery. Southern Slave interests demanded that any free state be admitted with a slave state to preserve a balance in the Senate. But Taylor’s party, the Whigs (at least the Northerners), were backing something called the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in any of the new territories.
Soon after Taylor took office, California (it’s the big state on the left) was telling Washington that it was ready for statehood. California, despite having numerous Southerners work on its first Constitution, was going to prohibit slavery. So, there was a demand to find another state suitable to add as a slave state.
However, nearly all of the territory taken from Mexico was unsuitable for slavery. New Mexico and Arizona and Utah were not well suited for Southern-style plantations.
Congress was ready to come up with a carefully crafted compromise that would take care of the situation. California would be admitted as a free state, a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law would be adopted, other territories would vote on whether or not to be free or slave states, and the public slave trade in the District of Columbia would be stopped.
Clay wished to put all these measures into one big bill, called the Omnibus Act. It had little chance of passing as there were too many controversial ideas in one piece of legislation. Also, Taylor had indicated he would veto the bill.
The paradox of Taylor was, despite owning slaves and profiting greatly from their labor, that he had no desire to spread slavery into any new territory in the United States. Why this is so is unclear, according to Eisenhower.
The Omnibus Act was debated through the spring of 1850, but no final vote was taken in Congress before it adjourned for the summer. Taylor stayed in Washington for the Independence Day celebrations.
During the numerous functions Taylor attended, he gulped down fresh fruits and cold milk. This turned out to give the President a bad case of gastroenteritis. And then there were complications from the heat in Washington. Taylor caught a fever and died on July 9, 1850. Fillmore became President. In the fall, the Omnibus Act was separated into smaller bills and was passed and became known as the Compromise of 1850.
Some historians believe that the Compromise of 1850 paved the way for the Civil War. Others believe it served to delay the inevitable war between the free and slave states. Another group of historians believe that if Taylor had vetoed the Compromise of 1850, he could have used his personal popularity as a war hero, and a Southerner, to work out some amicable solution that would have prevented the Civil War.
The last theory is hard for me (and Eisenhower) to believe. Zachary Taylor may have been popular, but his popularity was no match for the enmity brewing in the United States over slavery. Taylor had not shown any ability to work with the political leaders of his own party to accomplish much of anything.
It almost seemed that Taylor just sort of stumbled his way into the White House because it seemed like the thing to do. Much of his own papers were destroyed during the Civil War. Taylor was the stereotypical old soldier who did just fade away.
Other stuff: If you are looking for Zachary Taylor memorials in the U.S., you don’t have a big selection. Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, which is part of the US Veterans Affairs, is the site of Taylor’s grave. Taylor’s wife, Margaret, is buried there as well. The cemetery is closed to further interments. It is located in Louisville.
The only major international agreement signed during Taylor’s Administration was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (Taylor signed it three days before he died.) The treaty prohibited the U.S. or Great Britain from building a canal through Central America unilaterally. Theodore Roosevelt had to work around that. It wasn’t that hard.