Updated: Jun 8, 2021
In this third edition of the blog series "Cherrypicking," Cameron Coyle comments on the life and legacy of Zachary Taylor at 236 - and how he stays with us in the most subtle of ways.
It hurts me to write that very few Americans today can tell you much about President Zachary Taylor.
Other Zachary Taylors have come and gone. For instance, an avid NFL fan might know that the current head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals is Zac Taylor. He or she may go on a rant about how Coach Taylor has put Joe Burrow’s career in jeopardy by making his #1 overall pick pass sixty times a game as a rookie with a rebuilding offensive line - now the young Burrow has compound tears in his ACL and MCL to show for it - but that’s beside the point.
With President Zachary Taylor’s 236th birthday passing last Tuesday, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the old man. Yes, he was given a proper celebration in my household and was highlighted by members of the highly attentive and close-knit presidential history community on Instagram and Facebook. And yet I knew that outside of the supportive culture surrounding this growing yet small Project, a majority of Americans passed November 24 without pausing to commemorate Zachary Taylor in the slightest.
Allow me a moment to wipe away the lone tear running down my cheek.
That’s better. Where were we?
Oh, yes. Pitying our old friend’s legacy among the American people. It is unfortunate that we have no national display of fireworks for President Taylor’s birthday, that we must remain in school (or at least on Zoom) despite this momentous annual occasion.
Earlier that weekend, however, I made a small discovery that gave me some comfort.
Midday Saturday my dad and I were driving into South Jersey for a high school lacrosse playday. Coach Green and Coach Whitlow asked me to suit up with a group of Blue Star athletes that ranged from freshmen to seniors, facing the squads from Lawrenceville and St. Augustine, two top lacrosse programs in the area. As we drew closer to the field of battle, I felt myself getting a little nervous. It had been a while since I played a full game in goal, let alone two, and even though I’ve poured my love and soul into the sport of lacrosse for over eight years, I still find myself managing my anxieties going into every competition.
Nearing St. Augustine High School, I looked down at my cracked phone screen to make sure we were heading to the right place.
And wouldn’t you know it: motivation struck.
According to the map, we were heading to 611 Cedar Avenue, Buena Vista, New Jersey. Buena Vista….
Quick web search, and it was exactly what I suspected: the town name was derived from the Battle of Buena Vista, Zachary Taylor’s most improbable and most remembered military victory.
In a moment, all the tension built up in my bones was released, and I smiled as we passed the green sign welcoming drivers to Buena Vista. “Dad,” I said, “the stars are aligning.”
Marching over to the field, my focus meandered away from the actual games ahead and back to 1847. Outgunned, outmanned, how did General Taylor command his men to victory? An aura of infectious self-confidence, a calm and collected person, and choice inspirational words to his men gave General Taylor the edge those rainy February days. Now, channeling my inner Taylor, I aspired to give off a similar aura and lead my team with coolness, decisiveness, and determination.
We did a solid job, especially for never having played together as a full group before. Losing the first game 9-6 and winning the second 13-9, our defense played consistently. Like Zachary Taylor presiding over his young troops, shots whizzed about the turf. Only two shots grazed General Taylor’s coat during the historic battle. I wasn’t so lucky - a few shots found direct hits to my legs and right shoulder, with deep purplish bruises to show for it. Not a purple heart, but a purple thigh at the end of action.
Ugly bruises aside, it was inevitable that Taylor would be with me that day. Even in the most random of circumstances, Zachary Taylor impacted my day. And whether they knew it or not, my brothers in arms (or, more precisely, “brothers with sticks”) were also graced by the General/President.
People all across the country and perhaps all around the world interact with Zachary Taylor on a regular basis in ways they may not suspect. There are four Taylor Counties (in Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Kentucky) named after the twelfth president, and a host of towns bearing the Taylor name or the name of something connected to his legacy dot the United States.
In his hit song "Glorious," Macklemore paraphrased a quote from Ernest Hemingway: “I heard you die twice. Once when they bury you in the grave, and the second time is the last time that somebody mentions your name.”
So last Tuesday, a waitress in Taylor, Michigan may have been just as oblivious to President Taylor’s quiet celebration as a corn farmer in Platte, Iowa. But both waitress and farmer couldn’t rightfully deny that Zachary Taylor, by that second definition, lives on in our time.
March on, Zack. Even when it seems that you’ve been forgotten, counted out, you find a way.
Smith, E. B. The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor & Millard Fillmore. University Press of Kansas (1988).