Zachary Taylor: Life in Brief

Zachary Taylor: Life in Brief

At the time he became President, Zachary Taylor was the most popular man in America, a hero of the Mexican-American War. However, at a time when Americans were confronting the explosive issue of slavery, he was probably not the right man for the job. Taylor was a wealthy slave owner who held properties in the plantation states of Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi. During his brief time in office—he died only sixteen months after his election—his presidency foundered over the question of whether the national government should permit the spread of slavery to the present-day states of California, New Mexico, and Utah, then newly won from Mexico. His sudden death put Vice President Millard Fillmore into the White House, and Fillmore promptly threw his support behind the Compromise of 1850, canceling out much of the impact of Taylor's presidency.

Career Soldier, "Indian Fighter," and War Hero

Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, to a landed family of planters. His family's fortunes grew, and by 1800, they owned 10,000 acres in Kentucky and a number of slaves. He knew as a child that he wanted a military career. In 1808, he received his first commission as an officer, becoming commander of the garrison at Fort Pickering, the site of modern-day Memphis. He was transferred from one frontier post to another in a career that built his professional reputation but made his personal life difficult.

In 1810, he married Margaret Mackall Smith, the daughter of a prominent Maryland family. She followed him from post to post as their family grew. The family finally settled in Louisiana, where Taylor assumed command of the fort at Baton Rouge. Taylor won fame as an "Indian fighter" in the present-day states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas. Although he frequently fought Native Americans, he also protected their lands from invading white settlers. He believed that the best solution for coexistence between settlers and Native Americans was a strong military presence to keep the two sides apart.

In 1845, Texas was granted statehood. Mexico disputed lands along the new state's border, and President James Knox Polk ordered Taylor and his troops into the contested area, a deployment that ignited the Mexican-American War. After winning two decisive encounters, Taylor, facing overwhelming odds, triumphed in a battle against the Mexican General Santa Anna at Buena Vista. When the smoke cleared, Taylor's army of 6,000 had defeated a Mexican force of 20,000, and Zachary Taylor, "Old Rough and Ready," as he was known because of his willingness to share his troops' hardships, was a national hero.

The Politics of Slavery

Although Taylor had never divulged his political preferences, after his victory, clubs sprang up to support his presidential candidacy. By then, he was a wealthy slave owner, and the South hoped he would support states' rights and the expansion of slavery into the new areas won from Mexico. The North pointed to his service on the nation's behalf and hoped fervently that he was a Union man.

In fact, Taylor thought of himself as an independent. He differed with the Democrats over the concept of a strong national bank and opposed the extension of slavery into areas where neither cotton nor sugar could be grown. He also had problems with the Whigs' support of strong protective tariffs. Most importantly, he passionately opposed secession as a means of resolving the nation's problems. In the end, he announced that he was a Whig. At their 1848 nominating convention, the Whigs named Taylor for President, adding New York's Millard Fillmore to the ticket to appease those who opposed the nomination of a slave owner and doubted Taylor's commitment to the Whig Party.

On November 7, 1848, the first time the entire nation voted on the same day, Taylor and Fillmore narrowly defeated the Democratic ticket, headed by Michigan's Lewis Cass, and the ticket of the Free-Soil Party, led by former President Martin Van Buren.

Slavery had been the driving issue of the campaign, and it would be the central challenge of Taylor's brief presidency as well. The nation was polarized over the question of whether to extend the institution to the new western territories. Taylor believed that the people of California—in which he hoped to include the Mormons around Salt Lake—and New Mexico should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to permit slavery by writing constitutions and applying immediately for statehood. In this way, he hoped to avoid the increasingly rancorous sectional debate over congressional prohibition of slavery in any territorial governments organized in the area. Many in the South, however, feared that the addition of two free states would upset the delicate North-South balance in the Senate.

Some southern Democrats called for a secession convention, and Taylor's reaction was a bristling statement that he would hang anyone who tried to disrupt the Union by force or by conspiracy. In this heated atmosphere, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and others began to cobble together a compromise in the Senate. To placate the South, they proposed the enactment of a second Fugitive Slave Law that would mandate the return of escaped slaves apprehended anywhere in the nation. This effort would become the Compromise of 1850.

The compromise legislation did not prohibit slavery in the Mexican Cession. It admitted California as a free state, and it allowed for the organization of Utah and New Mexico as formal territories, rather than as states, without any federal restrictions on slavery. This left open the possibility that any states formed from those territories could opt for slavery, and indeed the language of the compromise explicitly committed future Congresses to admit them as slave states if they so desired. Many northerners were outraged by that concession to the South, and it intensified their opposition to any further extension of slavery. This was the issue that pushed the nation down the road to Civil War.

At a time when strong leadership and party politics were absolutely essential, Taylor probably damaged his cause by refusing to engage directly with Congress or to pull together a functional coalition. He held onto his belief that the President should stand above party politics.

On July 4, 1850, after attending celebrations in Washington, D.C., Taylor contracted a virulent stomach ailment that may have been cholera. He died on July 9, and more than 100,000 people lined the funeral route to see the hero laid to rest. He left behind a country sharply divided and a vice president, Millard Fillmore, who supported the Compromise of 1850. In the end, Taylor had limited personal impact on the presidency, and his months in office did little to slow the approach of the great national tragedy of the Civil War.