Zachary Taylor

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Zachary Taylor
Zachary taylor1.jpg
12th President of the United States
From: March 4, 1849 – July 9, 1850
Vice President Millard Fillmore
Predecessor James Knox Polk
Successor Millard Fillmore
Party Whig
Spouse(s) Margaret Smith Taylor
Religion Episcopalian
Military Service
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Service Years 1808–1849
Rank Major General

Zachary Taylor (1784 - 1850) was the 12th President of the United States of America. A career army officer and a prominent American general in the Mexican War, he was nominated by the Whig Party for the 1848 presidential election, in which he narrowly defeated Democrat Lewis Cass. He served as the president from 1849-1850, during which the government was badly divided over the expansion of slavery into the western territories.[1] He was the second president to die while in office (the first being William Henry Harrison), expiring of an intestinal disorder on July 9, 1850 before the slavery controversy was temporarily resolved via the Compromise of 1850. Today, Taylor is generally remembered as a mediocre President, whose admirable personal qualities were often outweighed by a lack of political skill and experience.[2]

First Days


Zachary Taylor was born November 24, 1784 in Orange County, Virginia. He and his family moved west to Beargrass Creek, Kentucky. He later applied for the military and with help from his second cousin, James Madison he was accepted by the War Department as a Lieutenant.[3]

Career in the military

His earliest services were in Kentucky and New Orleans. He was promoted to Captain in the spring of 1811 and then given the command of Fort Knox (in Vincennes.) It was during his stay there that the War of 1812 occurred. He was put in command of Fort Harrison which he successfully defended from the shawnee chief, Tecumseh. He was given several assignments at various Forts such as Howard, Snelling and Crawford. He was later promoted to Colonel shortly before he was sent to do service in the Illinois war against the Indians. He also fought in the Second Seminole War.

Mexican War

In 1846, Taylor was in command of troops along the Rio Grande, protecting Texas from a possible invasion by Mexico following the American annexation the previous year. In May 1846, a skirmish between some of his soldiers and Mexican troops who had crossed the river prompted the outbreak of the Mexican-American War.

Taylor's "Army of Occupation," as it was called, quickly drove its Mexican foes back south of the Rio Grande before launching offensive operations into northern Mexico. He won a battle at Monterrey in September 1846, and a second, more decisive victory at Buena Vista in February 1847, establishing American control over the north-central part of the country. These triumphs made Taylor an extremely popular war hero; he had already been promoted to major general in June 1846, and received three Congressional Gold Medals for his exploits in the war, to this day the only person to have that honor.[4]


1848 election poster
Zachary Taylor was recruited by the Whig Party to run for the office of President. His successful military career boosted his campaign and enabled him to win against Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass and Free Soiler, Martin Van Buren. He then chose several loyal Whig members for his cabinet; most of these, however, were from Northern or border states and had reputations for being anti-slavery. Moreover, he relied heavily for political advice on several Whig politicians, especially Senator William H. Seward of New York, who were closely affiliated with the abolitionist movement. Although Taylor himself was a Southerner who owned a number of slaves on several plantations in Louisiana, these moves alienated many Southern politicians in both the Whig and Democratic parties, who believed he was allowing himself to be a tool of the abolitionists. In the controversy that broke out over whether or not to allow slavery in the territories that had been won from Mexico (aggravated by the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso), Taylor strongly indicated that he favored the admission of California at once as a free state, and of New Mexico in the near future with the same status. This would effectively bar the further expansion of slavery within the U.S.

Taylor's policies were denounced by many Southern congressmen, journalists, and other political figures, and fueled a crisis that lasted through much of 1849 and well into 1850. During this time, Congress was effectively deadlocked on the question of the western territories, and there were growing fears that the Union might break up over the issue. Over the spring and summer of 1850, however, several congressional leaders, most notably Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, would defuse the crisis through several pieces of legislation that became known as the "Compromise of 1850." Taylor did not exert a decisive role in these negotiations, partly because a rift between him and Clay, and this seriously weakened his political standing in his final months.


To celebrate the Fourth of July, Taylor attended a ceremony at the unfinished Washington Monument in the capital. Exhausted by the intense summer heat, he drank a large quantity of iced water and milk and ate some cherries. He quickly fell ill with "cholera morbus" (the 19th-century term for various forms of gastroenteritis), which was soon joined by typhoid fever. His condition deteriorated rapidly over the next several days, and he died on the evening of July 9, 1850.[5]

Taylor's funeral was held in New York City on July 23; he was buried in the old Taylor family plot in Louisville (now the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery).


Although Taylor came into office with considerable popular goodwill, and was genuinely mourned by the public upon his death, the general feeling by 1850 was that he had proven a poor political leader for the nation, especially in the midst of the intense furor over slavery and sectionalism. His presidency is difficult to judge due to his short tenure; most contemporaries (as well as later historians) gave him credit for his honesty, his unassuming character, and above all his determination to preserve the Union, by shows of military force if need be, but felt his lack of political experience had aggravated the ongoing sectional crisis by antagonizing rather than placating the South. One historian spoke for many when he wrote that "estimable as Taylor's common sense, practicality, and resolution had been, they fell short of supplying the qualities needed for so grave a crisis...Even those who thought best of him [agreed] that his Administration had been fumbling and confused, and his Cabinet ineffective."[6]

Other commentators, though, have given Taylor somewhat higher marks, especially in foreign policy; his presidency saw successful negotiations with Great Britain over their mutual interests in Latin America, preserving good relations between the two nations.[7]


  2. Encyclopedia of Presidents Zachary Taylor by Zachary Kent, Children's Press, 1988.
  3. Encyclopedia of Presidents Zachary Taylor by Zachary Kent, Children's Press, 1988.
  4. Encyclopedia of Presidents Zachary Taylor by Zachary Kent, Children's Press, 1988.
  5. Allan Nevins, The Ordeal of the Union, Volume I: Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847-1852 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1947), p. 333.
  6. Nevins, Ordeal of the Union, p. 334.
  7. Zachary Taylor: Impact and Legacy Miller Center of Public Affairs (2010).

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