Zachary Taylor: A Farmer, Soldier, and President - by Wesley Kelchner
A few months ago, a fellow student named Wesley reached out to me to order a ZTP shirt. He told me that he is a big fan of American history, and that Zachary Taylor is his favorite president - so naturally, we hit it off. Wesley has generously helped promote the Project on his subreddit, r/Presidents, and I am proud to publish an article he wrote about his favorite president on this website. Wesley, thank you for your passion and giving me the opportunity to add someone new to the ZTP family. Without further ado, here it is! -Cam
Zachary Taylor: A Farmer, Soldier, and President
If there is one thing to know about Zachary Taylor, it was that he was as loyal to the Union as one could be. He devoted most of his life to his country, despite the time strain it placed on his ventures and even his own family. He never cared much for politics; he would keep himself in the loop and had his own views, but it was not a passion for him. He would rather talk about planting and prices of cotton, not the current Congress and Administration. It may be a wonder how a person like him held the highest political office, but it’s certainly a story worth telling.
Zachary Taylor dedicated his life to his country. From his meager start as a lieutenant, Taylor rose to the rank of major general during his nearly 40-year military career, only gaining real recognition at the end of the career. His experience as general led him to grow a major disdain for politics regarding the military, as it often got in the way of sound strategies that made the most logical sense. The “bureaucrats,” as he viewed them, were making decisions far away. They cared too much about patronage rather than promoting skill and professionalism. It is a wonder why Taylor ever considered the Presidency. Well, he didn’t at first, but fate would nudge him to that esteemed office in which he had no envy of attaining.
After the Mexican American War, in which Taylor bravely fought with his men in crushing Santa Anna, Zachary Taylor was a name of national recognition. The incumbent, President James K. Polk, promised he would not seek a second term. The Democrats and Whigs really did not have strong frontrunners, so they both tried to lay claim on Taylor, coaxing him to accept a nomination. Meanwhile, Taylor merely wanted to enjoy retirement and return to his plantation, refusing to consider office. But as time went on, he felt it his duty that if his country wanted him to be president, he would accept the position in yet another opportunity to serve his country.
While Taylor ran as a Whig, he accepted nominations from many parties, as he was not a party man. At the time, he knew the Whigs were known as only “the second-place party," but he had a disliking to how Andrew Jackson governed as president, and decided to stay away from the party of Jackson. Famously, Taylor never voted prior to 1848; he never wanted to vote against the person who would become Commander in Chief. And he never did, as he won the election against Lewis Cass, the Democratic nominee and a staunch expansionist. It is also of note that former president Martin Van Buren ran with the Free Soil Party, a party dedicated to stop the expansion of slavery while allowing it to exist where it already was.
When Zachary Taylor entered the White House, he faced a crisis that no president since James Monroe had to deal with, and no president until Abraham Lincoln would adequately resolve it. This crisis was what to do with all the land that the United States ascertained once the Mexican American War concluded. Now, acquiring land may not appear in and of itself to be a crisis, but the country was exceedingly divided over slavery. Many Southerners wanted the new land to be all slave because they felt restricting it did nothing but restrict white slave owners, who sensed danger and believed it was pointless to decide the question in the new land. Many Northerners wanted the new land to be free because they felt expansion was unnecessary for the institution and did not want to see slavery out west. This may sound noble, but some Northerners and settlers felt this way because they did not want black people in these lands for racial and economic reasons, so it is the right thing for the wrong reasons. Taylor personally thought it was not economically sound nor feasible, and as time went on, he saw the ever-increasing divide of the country because of slavery, but he was not ready to abolish it outright, as he felt it to be a constitutional right. Had he lived longer, would his views change? Personally, I think there was a chance, but it would be unlikely at best. Either way, President Taylor did not want to see slavery expand.
Henry Clay, the leader and founder of the Whig Party, did not particularly think that slavery should not expand. He believed that the South would feel outnumbered, and cries of tyranny would ensue. He proposed multiple compromises and eventually one rose above the rest: the Great Compromise. It would make California a free state and prohibit the slave trade in Washington, DC. It also would amend the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, and reinforcement of the policy was expected. Taylor, on the other hand, did not care for the Compromise. Instead, he adopted The President’s Plan, making New Mexico and California two massive states that would be free, and eventually they, along with Texas, would break up into smaller states. While Taylor felt that the executive branch should not be so involved with Congress and legislating, he also felt the Great Compromise was, well, compromised. He felt it was to appease the South because they threatened secession if they did not get what they wanted, equivalent to blackmailing the country. President Taylor was planning on vetoing the bill if it came to his desk—or at least that’s what everyone thought. Taylor never made a public statement saying he would veto the Compromise of 1850, but he made it clear he was not bowing down to traitors. Clay was scrambling to get a resolution that would meet Old Rough and Ready’s approval, hoping he could convince the President that this Compromise was the best course of action. As time went on, Clay’s plan faltered. It lost popularity while the President’s Plan grew more popular, much to Clay’s chagrin. Was Taylor going to veto the bill? Fate had other plans.
It was a hot July 4th in the year 1850. Everyone was celebrating, and Zachary was no exception. Everyone wanted him around, and so he stayed in the hot sun. Drinking lots of iced milk and eating many cherries and other fruits, Taylor felt uneasy. He left for the White House, and his condition over the next five days worsened. He had nausea and diarrhea. It did not help that the medical practice of the time had many quirks to ensure death was inevitable for the patient. On July 9th, 1850, the country’s 12th president succumbed to the anguish his body (and doctors) brought upon him, and he passed away. He was the first president to die in office during a crisis, and the only president to date to die in office while being elected in a year that did not end with 0 (some trivia for you). What caused Taylor to feel so sick? Over the course of time, the theory has changed. The most common and long-lasting one is that the milk or cherries contained something, like cholera, that caused gastroenteritis. Some even believe today he was poisoned, but that theory has been disproven when his body was exhumed in 1991 to test for arsenic. A newer theory, one that many (including I) have subscribed to, is that the White House water was contaminated, and that was supposedly the reason why Presidents Taylor and William Henry Harrison died in office. However it happened, it was one of the biggest tragedies the country had suffered, as Clay’s Compromise was passed under President Millard Fillmore, Taylor’s former vice president. The signing of this act, paired with the rigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, only deepened the divide between North and South over time, and delayed the inevitable Civil War that Taylor was prepared to face. We can only speculate what would have happened had Zachary Taylor lived throughout his first term, and even a second, but that cannot change what happened. It was a major tragedy in a crucial hour.