Zachary Taylor (November 24, 1784 – July 9, 1850) was the 12th president of the United States, serving from March 1849 until his death in July 1850. Taylor previously was a career officer in the United States Army, rose to the rank of major general and became a national hero as a result of his victories in the Mexican-American War. As a result, he won election to the White House despite his vague political beliefs. His top priority as president was preserving the Union, but he died sixteen months into his term, before making any progress on the status of slavery, which had been inflaming tensions in Congress.
Taylor was born into a prominent family of plantation owners who moved westward from Virginia to Louisville, Kentucky in his youth. He was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army in 1808 and made a name for himself as a captain in the War of 1812. He climbed the ranks establishing military forts along the Mississippi River and entered the Black Hawk War as a colonel in 1832. His success in the Second Seminole War attracted national attention and earned him the nickname “Old Rough and Ready”. In 1845, during the annexation of Texas, President James K. Polk dispatched Taylor to the Rio Grande in anticipation of a battle with Mexico over the disputed Texas-Mexico border. The Mexican-American War broke out in April 1846, and Taylor defeated Mexican troops commanded by General Mariano Arista at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and drove his troops out of Texas. Taylor then led his troops into Mexico, where they defeated Mexican troops commanded by Pedro de Ampudia at the Battle of Monterrey. Defying orders, Taylor led his troops further south and, despite being severely outnumbered, dealt a crushing blow to Mexican forces under Antonio Lpez de Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista. Taylor’s troops were transferred to the command of Major General Winfield Scott, but Taylor retained his popularity.
The Whig Party convinced the reluctant Taylor to lead their ticket in the 1848 presidential election, despite his unclear political tenets and lack of interest in politics. At the 1848 Whig National Convention, Taylor defeated Scott and former Senator Henry Clay to take the nomination. He won the general election alongside New York politician Millard Fillmore, defeating Democratic Party candidates Lewis Cass and William Orlando Butler, as well as a third-party effort led by former president Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, Sr. of the Free Soil Party. Taylor became the first president to be elected without having served in a prior political office.
As president, Taylor kept his distance from Congress and his cabinet, even though partisan tensions threatened to divide the Union. Debate over the status of slavery in the Mexican Cession dominated the political agenda and led to threats of secession from Southerners. Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not push for the expansion of slavery, and sought sectional harmony above all other concerns. To avoid the issue of slavery, he urged settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood, setting the stage for the Compromise of 1850. Taylor died suddenly of a stomach disease on July 9, 1850, with his administration having accomplished little aside from the ratification of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. Fillmore served the remainder of his term. Historians and scholars have ranked Taylor in the bottom quartile of U.S. presidents, owing in part to his short term of office (16 months), and he has been described as “more a forgettable president than a failed one.”
Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, on a plantation in Orange County, Virginia, to a prominent family of planters of English ancestry. His birthplace may have been Hare Forest Farm, the home of his maternal grandfather William Strother, though this has not been determined with certainty. He was the third of five surviving sons in his family (a sixth died in infancy) and had three younger sisters. His mother was Sarah Dabney (Strother) Taylor. His father, Richard Taylor, had served as a lieutenant colonel in the American Revolution.
Taylor was a descendant of Elder William Brewster, a Pilgrim leader of the Plymouth Colony, a Mayflower immigrant, and a signer of the Mayflower Compact; and Isaac Allerton Jr., a colonial merchant, colonel, and son of Mayflower Pilgrim Isaac Allerton and Fear Brewster. Taylor’s second cousin through that line was James Madison, the fourth president.
His family forsook their exhausted Virginia land, joined the westward migration and settled near future Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. Taylor grew up in a small woodland cabin until, with increased prosperity, his family moved to a brick house. The rapid growth of Louisville was a boon for Taylor’s father, who by the start of the 19th century had acquired 10,000 acres (40 km2) throughout Kentucky, as well as 26 slaves to cultivate the most developed portion of his holdings. Taylor’s formal education was sporadic because Kentucky’s education system was just taking shape during his formative years. His mother taught him to read and write, and he later attended a school operated by Elisha Ayer, a teacher originally from Connecticut. He also attended a Middletown, Kentucky academy run by Kean O’Hara, a classically trained scholar originally from Ireland, and the father of Theodore O’Hara. Ayer recalled Taylor as a patient and quick learner, but his early letters showed a weak grasp of spelling and grammar, as well as poor handwriting. All improved over time, though his handwriting was always difficult to read.
Marriage and Family
In June 1810, Taylor married Margaret Mackall Smith, whom he had met the previous autumn in Louisville. “Peggy” Smith came from a prominent family of Maryland plantersshe was the daughter of Major Walter Smith, who had served in the Revolutionary War. The couple had six children:
- Ann Mackall Taylor (1811-1875), married Robert C. Wood, a U.S. Army surgeon at Fort Snelling, in 1829.
- Sarah Knox “Knoxie” Taylor (1814-1835), married Jefferson Davis in 1835, a subordinate officer whom she had met through her father at the end of the Black Hawk War; she died at 21 of malaria in St. Francisville, Louisiana, three months after her marriage.
- Octavia Pannell Taylor (1816-1820), died in early childhood.
- Margaret Smith Taylor (1819-1820), died in infancy along with Octavia when the Taylor family was stricken with a “bilious fever.”
- Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Taylor (1824-1909), married William Wallace Smith Bliss in 1848 (he died 1853); married Philip Pendleton Dandridge in 1858.
- Richard Scott “Dick” Taylor (1826-1879), became a Confederate Army general; married Louise Marie Myrthe Bringier in 1851.
- Margaret Smith Taylor
- Sarah Taylor
- Richard Scott Taylor
On May 3, 1808, Taylor joined the U.S. Army, receiving a commission as a first lieutenant of the Seventh Infantry Regiment. He was among the new officers commissioned by Congress in response to the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, in which an American frigate had been boarded by the crew of a British warship, sparking calls for war. Taylor spent much of 1809 in the dilapidated camps of New Orleans and nearby Terre aux Boeufs, in the Territory of Orleans. Under the command of James Wilkinson, the soldiers at Terre aux Boeufs suffered greatly from disease and lack of supplies, and Taylor was given an extended leave, returning to Louisville to recover.
Taylor was promoted to captain in November 1810. His army duties were limited at this time, and he attended to his personal finances. Over the next several years, he began to purchase a good deal of bank stock in Louisville. He also bought a plantation in Louisville, as well as the Cypress Grove Plantation in Jefferson County, Mississippi Territory. These acquisitions included slaves, rising in number to more than 200. In July 1811 he was called to the Indiana Territory, where he assumed control of Fort Knox after the commandant fled. In a few weeks, he was able to restore order in the garrison, for which he was lauded by Governor William Henry Harrison. Taylor was temporarily called to Washington to testify for Wilkinson as a witness in a court-martial, and so he did not take part in the November 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe against the forces of Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief.
War of 1812
During the War of 1812, in which U.S. forces battled the British Empire and its Indian allies, Taylor successfully defended Fort Harrison in Indiana Territory from an Indian attack commanded by Tecumseh. The September 1812 battle represented the first land victory of the war for the American forces, for which Taylor received wide praise, as well as a brevet (temporary) promotion to the rank of major. According to Eisenhower, this represented the first brevet ever awarded in United States history. Later that year, Taylor joined General Samuel Hopkins as an aide on two expeditionsthe first into the Illinois Territory and the second to the Tippecanoe battle site, where they were forced to retreat in the Battle of Wild Cat Creek. Taylor moved his growing family to Fort Knox after the violence subsided.
In the spring of 1814, he was called back into action under Brigadier General Benjamin Howard, and after Howard fell sick, Taylor led a 430-man expedition from St. Louis, up the Mississippi River. In the Battle of Credit Island, Taylor defeated Indian forces, but retreated after the Indians were joined by their British allies. That October he supervised the construction of Fort Johnson near present-day Warsaw, Illinois, the last toehold of the U.S. Army in the upper Mississippi River Valley. Upon Howard’s death a few weeks later, Taylor was ordered to abandon the fort and retreat to St. Louis. Reduced to the rank of captain when the war ended in 1815, he resigned from the army. He re-entered it a year later after gaining a commission as a major.
Command of Fort Howard
For two years, Taylor commanded Fort Howard at the Green Bay, Michigan Territory settlement, then he returned to Louisville and his family. In April 1819 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and dined with President James Monroe and General Andrew Jackson. In late 1821, Taylor took the 7th Infantry to Natchitoches, Louisiana, on the Red River. On the orders of General Edmund P. Gaines, they set out to locate a new post more convenient to the Sabine River frontier. By the following March, Taylor had established Fort Jesup, at the Shield’s Spring site southwest of Natchitoches.
That November (1822) he was transferred to Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River in Louisiana, where he remained until February 1824. He spent the next few years on recruiting duty. In late 1826, he was called to Washington, D.C., for work on an Army committee to consolidate and improve military organization. In the meantime Taylor acquired his first Louisiana plantation and decided to move with his family to their new home in Baton Rouge.
Black Hawk War
In May 1828, Taylor was called back to action, commanding Fort Snelling in Michigan Territory (now Minnesota) on the northern Mississippi River for a year, and then nearby Fort Crawford for a year. After some time on furlough, spent expanding his landholdings, Taylor was promoted to colonel of the 1st Infantry Regiment in April 1832, when the Black Hawk War was beginning in the West. Taylor campaigned under General Henry Atkinson to pursue and later defend against Chief Black Hawk’s forces throughout the summer. The end of the war in August 1832 signaled the final Indian resistance to U.S. expansion in the area.
During this period Taylor opposed the courtship of his 17-year-old daughter Sarah Knox Taylor with Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, the future President of the Confederate States of America. He respected Davis but did not wish his daughter to become a military wife, as he knew it was a hard life for families. Davis and Sarah Taylor married in June 1835 (when she was 21), but she died three months later of malaria contracted on a visit to Davis’s sister’s home in St. Francisville, Louisiana.
Second Seminole War
By 1837, the Second Seminole War was underway when Taylor was directed to Florida. He defeated the Seminole Indians in the Christmas Day Battle of Lake Okeechobee, which was among the largest U.S.-Indian battles of the nineteenth century; as a result, he was promoted to brigadier general. In May 1838, Brig. Gen. Thomas Jesup stepped down and placed Taylor in command of all American troops in Florida, a position he held for two yearshis reputation as a military leader was growing and he became known as “Old Rough and Ready.” Taylor was criticized for using bloodhounds in order to track Seminole.
After his long-requested relief was granted, Taylor spent a comfortable year touring the nation with his family and meeting with military leaders. During this period, he began to be interested in politics and corresponded with President William Henry Harrison. He was made commander of the Second Department of the Army’s Western Division in May 1841. The sizable territory ran from the Mississippi River westward, south of the 37th parallel north. Stationed in Arkansas, Taylor enjoyed several uneventful years, spending as much time attending to his land speculation as to military matters.
In anticipation of the annexation of the Republic of Texas, which had established independence in 1836, Taylor was sent in April 1844 to Fort Jesup in Louisiana, and ordered to guard against attempts by Mexico to reclaim the territory. There were more senior generals in the army who might have taken this important command, such as Winfield Scott and Edmund P. Gaines. But both were known members of the Whig Party, and Taylor’s apolitical reputation and friendly relations with Andrew Jackson made him the choice of Democratic President James K. Polk. Polk directed him to deploy into disputed territory in Texas, “on or near the Rio Grande” near Mexico. Taylor chose a spot at Corpus Christi, and his Army of Occupation encamped there until the following spring in anticipation of a Mexican attack.
General Zachary Taylor rides his horse at the Battle of Palo Alto, May 8, 1846
When Polk’s attempts to negotiate with Mexico failed, Taylor’s men advanced to the Rio Grande in March 1846, and war appeared imminent. Violence broke out several weeks later, when some of Captain Seth B. Thornton’s men were attacked by Mexican forces north of the river. Polk, learning of the Thornton Affair, told Congress in May that a war between Mexico and the U.S. had begun. That same month, Taylor commanded American forces at the Battle of Palo Alto and the nearby Battle of Resaca de la Palma. Though greatly outnumbered, he defeated the Mexican “Army of the North” commanded by General Mariano Arista, and forced the troops back across the Rio Grande. Taylor was later praised for his humane treatment of the wounded Mexican soldiers prior to the prisoner exchange with General Arista, giving them the same care as was given to American wounded. After tending to the wounded, he performed the last rites for the dead of both the American and Mexican soldiers killed during the battle.
These victories made him a popular hero, and in May 1846 Taylor received a brevet promotion to major general and a formal commendation from Congress. In June, Taylor was promoted to the full rank of major general. The national press compared him to George Washington and Andrew Jackson, both generals who had ascended to the presidency, although Taylor denied any interest in running for office. “Such an idea never entered my head,” he remarked in a letter, “nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person.”
After crossing the Rio Grande, in September Taylor inflicted heavy casualties upon the Mexicans at the Battle of Monterrey, and captured that city in three days, despite its impregnable repute. Taylor was criticized for signing a “liberal” truce, rather than pressing for a large-scale surrender. Polk had hoped that the occupation of Northern Mexico would induce the Mexicans to sell Alta California and New Mexico, but the Mexicans remained unwilling to part with so much territory. Polk sent an army under the command of Winfield Scott to besiege Veracruz, an important Mexican port city, while Taylor was ordered to remain near Monterrey. Many of Taylor’s experienced soldiers were placed under the command of Scott, leaving Taylor with a smaller and less effective force. Mexican General Antonio Lpez de Santa Anna intercepted a letter from Scott regarding Taylor’s smaller force, and he moved north, intent on destroying Taylor’s force before confronting Scott’s army.
Learning of Santa Anna’s approach, and refusing to retreat despite the Mexican army’s greater numbers, Taylor established a strong defensive position near the town of Saltillo. Santa Anna attacked Taylor with 20,000 men at the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, leaving around 700 Americans dead or wounded at a cost of over 1,500 Mexican.[b] Outmatched, the Mexican forces retreated, ensuring a “far-reaching” victory for the Americans.
In recognition of his victory at Buena Vista, on July 4, 1847, Taylor was elected an honorary member of the New York Society of the Cincinnati, the Virginia branch of which included his father as a charter member. Taylor also was made a member of the Aztec Club of 1847, Military Society of the Mexican War.
Taylor remained at Monterrey until late November 1847, when he set sail for home. While he spent the following year in command of the Army’s entire western division, his active military career was effectively over. In December he received a hero’s welcome in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which set the stage for the 1848 presidential election.
Ulysses S. Grant served under Taylor in this war and had this to say about his style of leadership: “A better army, man for man, probably never faced an enemy than the one commanded by General Taylor in the earliest two engagements of the Mexican War.”
General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given to him. He felt his responsibility as going no further. If he had thought that he was sent to perform an impossibility with the means given him, he would probably have informed the authorities of his opinion and left them to determine what should be done. If the judgment was against him he would have gone on and done the best he could with the means at hand without parading his grievance before the public. No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage. General Taylor never made any great show or parade, either of uniform or retinue. In dress he was possibly too plain, rarely wearing anything in the field to indicate his rank, or even that he was an officer; but he was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all.
Election of 1848
In his capacity as a career officer, Taylor had never publicly 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 President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, should not have allowed the Second Bank of the United States to collapse in 1836. He believed it was impractical to expand slavery into the western areas of the U.S., as 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.
Well before the American victory at Buena Vista, political clubs were formed which supported Taylor for president. His support was drawn from an unusually broad assortment of political bands, including Whigs and Democrats, Northerners and Southerners, allies and opponents of national leaders such as Henry Clay and James K. Polk. By late 1846 Taylor’s opposition to a presidential run began to weaken, and it became clear that his principles more closely resembled Whig orthodoxy. As support for Taylor’s candidacy grew, he continued to keep his distance from both parties, but made it clear that he would have voted for Whig Henry Clay in 1844 had he voted. In a widely publicized September 1847 letter, Taylor stated his positions on several issues. He did not favor chartering another national bank, favored a low tariff, and believed that the president should play no role in making laws. Taylor did believe that the president could veto laws, but only when they were clearly unconstitutional. Many southerners believed that Taylor supported slavery and its expansion into the new territory absorbed from Mexico, and some were angered when Taylor suggested that if he were elected president he would not veto the Wilmot Proviso, which proposed against such an expansion. This position did not enhance his support from activist antislavery elements in the Northern U.S., as these wanted Taylor to speak out strongly in support of the Proviso, not simply fail to veto it. Most abolitionists did not support Taylor, since he was a slave-owner.
In February 1848, Taylor again announced that he would not accept either party’s presidential nomination. Taylor’s reluctance to identify himself as a Whig nearly cost him the party’s presidential nomination, but Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky and other supporters finally convinced Taylor to declare himself a Whig. Though Clay retained a strong following among the Whigs, Whig leaders like William H. Seward and Abraham Lincoln were eager to support a war hero who could potentially replicate the success of the party’s only other successful presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison. At the 1848 Whig National Convention, Taylor defeated Clay and Winfield Scott to receive the Whig nomination for president. For his vice presidential nominee the convention chose Millard Fillmore, a prominent New York Whig who had chaired the House Ways and Means Committee and had been a contender for Clay’s vice presidential nominee in the 1844 election. Fillmore’s selection was largely an attempt at reconciliation with northern Whigs, who were furious at the nomination of a slave-owning southerner; all factions of the party were dissatisfied with the final ticket. Taylor continued to minimize his role in the campaign, preferring not to directly meet with voters or correspond regarding his political views. His campaign was skillfully directed by Crittenden, and bolstered by a late endorsement from Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts.
Democrats were even less unified than the Whigs, as former Democratic President Martin Van Buren broke from the party and led the anti-slavery Free Soil Party’s ticket. Van Buren won the support of many Democrats and Whigs who opposed the extension of slavery into the territories, but he took more votes from Democratic nominee Lewis Cass in the crucial state of New York. Nationally, Taylor defeated Cass and Van Buren, taking 163 of the 290 electoral votes. In the popular vote, he took 47.3%, while Cass won 42.5% and Van Buren won 10.1%. Taylor would be the last Whig to be elected president and the last person elected to the U.S. presidency from neither the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, as well as the last Southerner to win a presidential election until Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912.[c]
Taylor ignored the Whig platform, as historian Michael F. Holt explains:
Taylor was equally indifferent to programs Whigs had long considered vital. Publicly, he was artfully ambiguous, refusing to answer questions about his views on banking, the tariff, and internal improvements. Privately, he was more forthright. The idea of a national bank “is dead, and will not be revived in my time.” In the future the tariff “will be increased only for revenue”; in other words, Whig hopes of restoring the protective tariff of 1842 were vain. There would never again be surplus federal funds from public land sales to distribute to the states, and internal improvements “will go on in spite of presidential vetoes.” In a few words, that is, Taylor pronounced an epitaph for the entire Whig economic program.
Presidency (1849-1850)”]”Taylor administration” redirects here. For the Liberian government led by President Charles G. Taylor, see Charles G. Taylor Presidency
Transition and inauguration
As president-elect, Taylor kept his distance from Washington, not resigning his Western Division command until late January 1849. He spent the months following the election formulating his cabinet selections. He was deliberate and quiet about his decisions, to the frustration of his fellow Whigs. While he despised patronage and political games, he endured a flurry of advances from office-seekers looking to play a role in his administration.
While he would not appoint any Democrats, Taylor wanted his cabinet to reflect the nation’s diverse interests, and so apportioned the seats geographically. He also avoided choosing prominent Whigs, sidestepping such obvious selections as Clay. He saw Crittenden as a cornerstone of his administration, offering him the crucial seat of Secretary of State, but Crittenden insisted on serving out the Governorship of Kentucky to which he had just been elected. Taylor settled instead on Senator John M. Clayton of Delaware, a close associate of Crittenden’s.
The Taylor Cabinet Office Name Term President Zachary Taylor 1849–1850 Vice President Millard Fillmore 1849–1850 Secretary of State John M. Clayton 1849–1850 Secretary of Treasury William M. Meredith 1849–1850 Secretary of War George W. Crawford 1849–1850 Attorney General Reverdy Johnson 1849–1850 Postmaster General Jacob Collamer 1849–1850 Secretary of the Navy William B. Preston 1849–1850 Secretary of the Interior Thomas Ewing, Sr.1849–1850
With Clayton’s aid, Taylor chose the six remaining members of his cabinet. One of the incoming Congress’s first actions would be to establish the Department of the Interior, so Taylor would be appointing that department’s inaugural secretary. Thomas Ewing, who had previously served as a senator from Ohio and as Secretary of the Treasury under William Henry Harrison, accepted the patronage-rich position of Secretary of the Interior. For the position of Postmaster General, which also served as a center of patronage, Taylor chose Congressman Jacob Collamer of Vermont. After Horace Binney refused appointment as Secretary of the Treasury, Taylor chose another prominent Philadelphian in William M. Meredith. George W. Crawford, a former Governor of Georgia, accepted the position of Secretary of War, while Congressman William B. Preston of Virginia became Secretary of the Navy. Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland accepted appointment as Attorney General, and Johnson became one of the most influential members of Taylor’s cabinet. Vice President Fillmore was not in favor with Taylor, and Fillmore was largely sidelined throughout Taylor’s presidency.
Taylor began his trek to Washington in late January, a journey rife with bad weather, delays, injuries, sicknessand an abduction by a family friend. Taylor finally arrived in the nation’s capital on February 24 and soon met with the outgoing President Polk. The incumbent Democrat held a low opinion of Taylor, privately deeming him “without political information” and “wholly unqualified for the station” of president. Taylor spent the following week meeting with political elites, some of whom were unimpressed with his appearance and demeanor. With less than two weeks until his inauguration, he met with Clayton and hastily finalized his cabinet.
Taylor’s term as president began Sunday, March 4, but his inauguration was not held until the following day out of religious concerns.[d] His inauguration speech discussed the many tasks facing the nation, but presented a governing style of deference to Congress and sectional compromise instead of assertive executive action. His speech also emphasized the importance of following President Washington’s precedent in avoiding entangling alliances. During the period after his inauguration, Taylor made time to meet with numerous office-seekers and other ordinary citizens who desired his attention. He also attended an unusual number of funerals, including services for former president Polk and Dolley Madison. According to Eisenhower, Taylor coined the phrase “First Lady” in his eulogy for Madison. Throughout the summer of 1849, Taylor toured the northeastern U.S., to familiarize himself with a region of which he had seen little. He spent much of the trip plagued by gastrointestinal illness and returned to Washington by September.
As Taylor took office, Congress faced a battery of questions related to the Mexican Cession, acquired by the U.S. after the Mexican War and divided into military districts. It was unclear which districts would be established into states and which would become federal territories, while the question of their slave status threatened to bitterly divide Congress. Additionally, many in the South had grown increasingly angry about the aid that northerners had given to fugitive slaves. While a southern slaveowner himself, Taylor believed that slavery was economically infeasible in the Mexican Cession, and as such he opposed slavery in those territories as a needless source of controversy. His major goal was sectional peace, preserving the Union through legislative compromise. As the threat of Southern secession grew, he sided increasingly with antislavery northerners such as Senator William H. Seward of New York, even suggesting that he would sign the Wilmot Proviso to ban slavery in federal territories should such a bill reach his desk.
In Taylor’s view, the best way forward was to admit California as a state rather than a federal territory, as it would leave the slavery question out of Congress’s hands. The timing for statehood was in Taylor’s favor, as the Gold Rush was well underway at the time of his inauguration, and California’s population was exploding. The administration dispatched Rep. Thomas Butler King to California, to test the waters and advocate on behalf of statehood, knowing that the Californians were certain to adopt an anti-slavery constitution. King found that a constitutional convention was already underway, and by October 1849, the convention unanimously agreed to join the Unionand to ban slavery within their borders.
The question of the New Mexico-Texas border was unsettled at the time of Taylor’s inauguration. The territory newly won from Mexico was under federal jurisdiction, but the Texans claimed a swath of land north of Santa Fe and were determined to include it within their borders, despite having no significant presence there. Taylor sided with the New Mexicans’ claim, initially pushing to keep it as a federal territory, but eventually supported statehood so as to further reduce the slavery debate in Congress. The Texas government, under newly instated governor P. Hansborough Bell, tried to ramp up military action in defense of the territory against the federal government, but was unsuccessful.
The Latter Day Saint settlers of modern-day Utah had established a provisional State of Deseret, an enormous swath of territory which had little hope of recognition by Congress. The Taylor administration considered combining the California and Utah territories but instead opted to organize the Utah Territory. To alleviate the Mormon population’s concerns over religious freedom, Taylor promised they would have relative independence from Congress despite being a federal territory.
Taylor sent his only State of the Union report to Congress in December 1849. He recapped international events and suggested several adjustments to tariff policy and executive organization, but such issues were overshadowed by the sectional crisis facing Congress. He reported on California’s and New Mexico’s applications for statehood, and recommended that Congress approve them as written and “should abstain from the introduction of those exciting topics of a sectional character”. The policy report was prosaic and unemotional, but ended with a sharp condemnation of secessionists. It had no effect on Southern legislators, who saw the admission of two free states as an existential threat, and Congress remained stalled.
President Zachary Taylor standing in front of his Cabinet, seated from left:
Reverdy Johnson, Attorney General; William M. Meredith, Secretary of the Treasury; William B. Preston, Secretary of the Navy; George W. Crawford, Secretary of War; Jacob Collamer, Postmaster General; Thomas Ewing, Secretary of the Interior; and John M. Clayton, Secretary of State. Lithograph by Francis D’Avignon, published by Mathew Brady, 1849.
Taylor and his Secretary of State, John M. Clayton, both lacked diplomatic experience, and came into office at a relatively uneventful time in American-international politics. Their shared nationalism allowed Taylor to devolve foreign policy matters to Clayton with minimal oversight, although no decisive foreign policy was established under their administration. As opponents of the autocratic European order, they vocally supported German and Hungarian liberals in the revolutions of 1848, although they offered little in the way of aid. A perceived insult from the French minister Guillaume Tell Poussin nearly led to a break in diplomatic relations until Poussin was replaced, and a reparation dispute with Portugal resulted in harsh words from the Taylor administration. In a more positive effort, the administration arranged for two ships to assist in the United Kingdom’s search for a team of British explorers, led by John Franklin, who had gotten lost in the Arctic. While previous Whig administrations had emphasized Pacific trade as an economic imperative, the Taylor administration took no major initiative in the Far East.
Throughout 1849 and 1850, they contended with Narciso Lpez, the Venezuelan radical who led repeated filibustering expeditions in an attempt to conquer the island of Cuba. The annexation of Cuba was the object of fascination among many in the South, who saw in Cuba a potential new slave state, and Lpez had several prominent Southern supporters. Lpez made generous offers to American military leaders to support him, but Taylor and Clayton saw the enterprise as illegal. They issued a blockade, and later, authorized a mass arrest of Lpez and his fellows, although the group would eventually be acquitted. They also confronted Spain, which had arrested several Americans on the charge of piracy, but the Spaniards eventually surrendered them to maintain good relations with the U.S.
Arguably the Taylor administration’s definitive accomplishment in foreign policy was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, regarding a proposed inter-oceanic canal through Central America. While the U.S. and Britain were on friendly terms, and the construction of such a canal was decades away from reality, the mere possibility put the two nations in an uneasy position. For several years, Britain had been seizing strategic points, particularly the Mosquito Coast on the eastern coast of present-day Nicaragua. Negotiations were held with Britain that resulted in the landmark Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. Both nations agreed not to claim control of any canal that might be built in Nicaragua. The treaty promoted the development of an Anglo-American alliance; its completion was Taylor’s last action as president.
Compromise attempts and final days
Clay took a central role as Congress debated the slavery question. While his positions had some overlap with Taylor’s, the president always maintained his distance from Clay. Historians disagree on his motivations for doing so. With assistance from Daniel Webster, Clay developed his landmark proposal, the Compromise of 1850. The proposal allowed statehood for California, giving it independence on the slavery question, while the other territories would remain under federal jurisdiction. This would include the disputed parts of New Mexico, although Texas would be reimbursed for the territory. Slavery would be retained in the District of Columbia, but the slave trade would be banned. Meanwhile, a strict Fugitive Slave Law would be enacted, bypassing northern legislation which had restricted Southerners from retrieving runaway slaves. Tensions flared as Congress negotiated and secession talks grew, culminating with a threat from Taylor to send troops into New Mexico to protect its border from Texas, with himself leading the army. Taylor also said that anyone “taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang … with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.” The omnibus law was a major step forward but ultimately could not pass, due to extremists on both sides.
No great compromise reached Taylor’s desk during his presidency; instead, his last days were overshadowed by the Galphin affair. Before joining the Taylor cabinet, Secretary of War Crawford had served as a lawyer. He had been involved in a fifteen-year case, representing the descendants of a colonial trader whose services to the British crown had not been repaid at the time of the American Revolution. The British debt to George Galphin was to be assumed by the federal government, but Galphin’s heirs only received payment on the debt’s principal after years of litigation, and were unable to win an interest payment from the Polk administration. Treasury Secretary Meredith, with the support of Attorney General Johnson, finally signed off on the payment in April 1850. To the president’s embarrassment, this payment included a legal compensation of nearly $100,000 to Crawford; two cabinet members had effectively offered a tremendous chunk of the public treasury to another. A House investigation cleared Crawford of any legal wrongdoing, but nonetheless expressed disapproval of his accepting the payment. Taylor, who had already been sketching out a re-organization of his cabinet, now had an unfolding scandal to complicate the situation.
An 1850 print depicting the death of Zachary Taylor
On July 4, 1850, Taylor reportedly consumed copious amounts of raw fruit and iced milk while attending holiday celebrations during a fund-raising event at the Washington Monument, which was then under construction. Over the course of several days, he became severely ill with an unknown digestive ailment. His doctor “diagnosed the illness as cholera morbus, a flexible mid-nineteenth-century term for intestinal ailments as diverse as diarrhea and dysentery but not related to Asiatic cholera”, the latter being a widespread epidemic at the time of Taylor’s death. The identity and source of Taylor’s illness are the subject of historical speculation (see below), although it is known that several of his cabinet members had come down with a similar illness.
Fever ensued and Taylor’s chance of recovery was small. On July 8, Taylor remarked to a medical attendant:
I should not be surprised if this were to terminate in my death. I did not expect to encounter what has beset me since my elevation to the Presidency. God knows I have endeavored to fulfill what I conceived to be an honest duty. But I have been mistaken. My motives have been misconstrued, and my feelings most grossly outraged.
Despite treatment, Taylor died at 10:35 p.m. on July 9, 1850. He was 65 years old. After his death, Vice President Fillmore assumed the presidency and completed Taylor’s term, which ended on March 4, 1853. Soon after taking office, Fillmore signed into law the Compromise of 1850, which settled many of the issues faced by the Taylor administration.
Taylor was interred in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., from July 13, 1850, to October 25, 1850 (which was built in 1835 to hold remains of notables until either the grave site could be prepared or transportation arranged to another city). His body was transported to the Taylor Family plot where his parents were buried on the old Taylor homestead plantation known as “Springfield” in Louisville, Kentucky.
Judicial Appointments Court Name Term W.D. La.Henry Boyce 1849-1861[e]D. Ill.Thomas Drummond 1850-1855 N.D. Ala.
S.D. Ala.John Gayle 1849-1859 D. Ark.Daniel Ringo 1849-1851[f]
Historical Reputation and Memorials
Taylor’s mausoleum at the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky
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. Despite his shortcomings, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty affecting relations with Great Britain in Central America is “recognized as an important step in scaling down the nation’s commitment to Manifest Destiny as a policy.” While historical rankings of Presidents of the United States have generally placed Taylor in the bottom quarter of chief executives, most surveys tend to rank him as the most effective of the four presidents from the Whig Party.
Taylor was the last president to own slaves while in office. He was the third of four Whig presidents,[g] the last being Fillmore, his successor. Taylor was also the second president to die in office, preceded by William Henry Harrison, who died while serving as president nine years earlier.
In 1883, the Commonwealth of Kentucky placed a 50-foot monument topped by a life-sized statue of Taylor near his grave. By the 1920s, the Taylor family initiated the effort to turn the Taylor burial grounds into a national cemetery. The Commonwealth of Kentucky donated two adjacent parcels of land for the project, turning the half-acre Taylor family cemetery into 16 acres (65,000 m2). On May 5, 1926, the remains of President Taylor and his wife (who died in 1852) were moved to the newly constructed Taylor mausoleum, made of limestone with a granite base and marble interior, nearby. The cemetery property has been designated as the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.
The US Post Office released the first postage stamp issue honoring Zachary Taylor on June 21, 1875, 25 years after his death. In 1938, Taylor would appear again on a US postage stamp, this time on the 12-cent Presidential Issue of 1938. Taylor’s last appearance (to date, 2010) on a US postage stamp occurred in 1986, when he was honored on the AMERIPEX presidential issue. After Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln, Zachary Taylor was the fifth American president to appear on US postage.
Postage stamp, issue of 1875
Presidential dollar coin, 2009
He is the namesake for several entities and places around the United States, including:
- Camp Taylor in Kentucky and Fort Zachary Taylor in Florida
- The SS Zachary Taylor, a World War II Liberty ship
- Zachary Taylor Parkway in Louisiana and Zachary Taylor Hall at Southeastern Louisiana University
- Taylor County, Georgia
- Taylor County, Iowa
- Taylor County, Kentucky The 100th county established in Kentucky was named after Zachary Taylor.
- Rough and Ready, California; the historical origin of the town is depicted in a 1965 episode of the syndicated western television series, Death Valley Days.
- Zachary Taylor Highway in Virginia
- Taylor, Michigan
President Taylor was also the namesake for architect Zachary Taylor Davis.
B.E.P. engraved portrait
Almost immediately after his death, rumors began to circulate that Taylor was poisoned by pro-slavery Southerners, and similar theories persisted into the 21st century. In 1978, Hamilton Smith based his assassination theory on the timing of drugs, the lack of confirmed cholera outbreaks, and other material. In the late 1980s, Clara Rising, a former professor at University of Florida, persuaded Taylor’s closest living relative to agree to an exhumation so that his remains could be tested. The remains were exhumed and transported to the Office of the Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner on June 17, 1991. Samples of hair, fingernail, and other tissues were removed, and radiological studies were conducted. The remains were returned to the cemetery and reinterred, with appropriate honors, in the mausoleum.
Neutron activation analysis conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory revealed no evidence of poisoning, as arsenic levels were too low. The analysis concluded Taylor had contracted “cholera morbus, or acute gastroenteritis”, as Washington had open sewers, and his food or drink may have been contaminated. Any potential for recovery was overwhelmed by his doctors, who treated him with “ipecac, calomel, opium, and quinine” at 40 grains per dose (approximately 2.6 grams), and “bled and blistered him too.” Political scientist Michael Parenti questions the traditional explanation for Taylor’s death. Relying on interviews and reports by forensic pathologists, he argues that the procedure used to test for arsenic poisoning was fundamentally flawed. A 2010 review concludes: “there is no definitive proof that Taylor was assassinated, nor would it appear that there is definitive proof that he was not.”