OLD ROUGH AND READY
Writing from the swamps and marshes of the Florida Territory in 1838, Brigadier General Zachary Taylor penned a sorrowful note to his brother. Surrounded by disease and shouldered with a nearly inexplicable task, Taylor felt completely drained.
“I can assure you that my days, or dreams, of ambition, if they ever existed, are passed; both age and inclination admonish me to sigh for ease, quiet and retirement on a snug little farm of a hundred or two acres in a healthy climate.”
The rumpled old soldier that was affectionately referred to as “Old Rough and Ready” had at that point spent thirty years in the service of his country. Isolated and designated to the most remote frontier posts for virtually all of his career, Taylor had served his country dutifully and faithfully with little glory and fame to show for it. And yet, in the face of this adversity, the warrior continued to drudge on in his position for almost another decade. But after a year and a half of fighting in Mexico, Taylor was granted his token of appreciation by the people of the nation he had served so dutifully and so faithfully - his elevation to the office of President.
Name: Zachary Taylor
Nicknames: Old Rough and Ready, Old Zack
Birth: November 24, 1784 in Gordonsville, Virginia
Parents: Richard Lee and Sarah Dabney Strother Taylor
Siblings: 7 (Hancock, William Dabney Strother, George, Elizabeth Lee, Joseph Pannill, Sarah Bailey, Emily Richard)
Wife: Margaret “Peggy” Mackall Smith Taylor
Marriage: June 21, 1810 in Louisville, Kentucky
Children: 6 (Ann Margaret Mackall, Sarah Knox “Knox”, Octavia Pannill, Margaret Smith, Mary Elizabeth “Betty”, Richard “Dick”)
Career: Served in the United States Military for 40 years - Appointed First Lieutenant in 1808, retired with the rank of Major General in 1849; Plantation Owner - Primarily raised cotton, owned 81 slaves when elected President
Religion: Christian (Episcopalian but never became a communicant)
Political Affiliation: Whig
Campaign Slogan: “For President of the People”
Administration: March 5, 1849 to July 9, 1850
Issues: Patronage, California statehood, Gold Rush, New Mexico & Texas boundary claims, The “Great Debate” over the Compromise of 1850, Narciso Lopez filibustering expeditions to Cuba, Anglo-American treaty to create interoceanic canal on the Central American isthmus, Galphin Claim
Death (Cause): July 9, 1850 in Washington, District of Columbia (gastroenteritis, “cholera morbus”)
Presidential Ranking: 31 out of 43 (C-SPAN 2017)
Zachary Taylor came from a family of doers. The Taylors were a well-to-do family in colonial Virginia, but ever since James Taylor had immigrated to the New World from England in 1660, succeeding generations felt the need to expand their horizons. James Taylor II moved the family estate west near the Rapidan River and built Bloomsbury in 1722, and his grandson Richard Taylor went on the first ever trading expedition from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. So it was not surprising that Zachary was born on the move as the Taylors were emigrating from Virginia to a new plot of land just east of modern-day Louisville in Kentucky.
Although the Taylors were a prominent family in early America, young Zachary didn’t have the same luxuries like other children in his position. He had no formal education - only occasionally throughout his childhood was he privately tutored, and his early letters were plagued with grammatical errors. Taylor spent his boyhood helping on the farm, playing with his friends, and listening to Revolutionary War stories from veterans like his father. On the frontier, the Taylors constantly lived in danger of attacks from Native Americans. A few of their neighbors had just barely escaped death in the face of these hostilities, and it was not uncommon to fortify the household on some uneasy nights.
Growing up in that environment, young Zachary became enamored with the life of a soldier. In 1808, when he was twenty-three years old, he received a letter from the office of the Secretary of War commissioning him as a First Lieutenant in the Seventh Infantry of the United States Army. It became very evident early on to Taylor that life in the Army would be no bed of roses. The Army in the early nineteenth century was entirely mismanaged - there were very few soldiers, and disease and petty disputes were more prevalent than battle. For most of Taylor’s career, this was the setting in which he served, having to fight inefficiency and administrative squabbles rather than the enemy on the frontier.
Taylor’s first seven year stint in the Army was promising. He had shown an innate ability to command his troops both in everyday life and under fire. In 1811, he was assigned to Fort Knox in Vincennes, Indiana, where he helped to quell altercations amongst soldiers stationed there. One year later, Taylor and fifteen healthy men were able to repel hundreds of Native Americans in a firefight for survival. His gallant defense of Fort Harrison was indeed the first American victory during the War of 1812, earning him praise and promotion to the brevet rank of Major. He was severely undermanned again in 1814 when he lost his only battle to Natives and Redcoats on the Northern Mississippi, but nevertheless Taylor was proving himself to be one of the Army’s more effective commanders.
Springfield, the boyhood home of Zachary Taylor near Louisville, KY.
The Siege of Fort Harrison on September 4-5, 1812. Taylor is shown here commanding his troops in his first battle experience.
Margaret "Peggy" Taylor (left) was the love of Zachary's life. Peggy was a devoted wife, and would often accompany her husband when he was stationed at frontier posts. Taylor (right) is shown here as a younger officer, before he became a household name in America.
The Battle of Lake Okeechobee was a toughly contested battle in the Florida swampland. Though Taylor was victorious that day, the geography and the Army itself prevented him from bringing the Second Seminole War to a close.
Taylor resigned his commission in 1815 when the War Department had decided to reduce his rank, but a year later he returned to command Fort Howard in modern-day Green Bay. For the next twenty years, Taylor moved from post to post, serving from Minnesota to Louisiana and everywhere in between. Zachary Taylor served a limited role during the Black Hawk War, a conflict in which was severely mismanaged by American military leaders and notable for the minor involvement of a young Abraham Lincoln.
Luckily for Taylor, life wasn’t completely miserable in isolation. In 1810, Zachary married his sweetheart, Margaret Mackall Smith (whom he called “Peggy”), and they had six children together. Peggy Taylor was a tough and devoted woman who loved her family. So when tensions were low and it was practical, Peggy would bring the family along with Zachary to these frontier posts to live amongst the soldiers. The Taylor daughters were often wooed by the desperate men under their father’s command, and despite their dad’s wishes, all of his daughters had married members of the military. Sarah Knox Taylor actually married a young lieutenant named Jefferson Davis, which caused some contention within the family. Sarah passed away shortly after eloping with Davis, which was a tragedy for both the groom and the family of the bride. But when Taylor by happenstance met Davis on a steamboat a decade later, Taylor reportedly apologized by stating “My daughter was a better judge of character than I was.”
In 1837, Taylor was called, as he was from time to time during his career, to solve a problem that the foremost leaders of the Army had failed to solve. The Seminoles had been refusing to relocate from their homeland in Florida for some time. After the Dade Massacre in 1835, the Army made it their mission to suppress the hostile Seminoles and send them elsewhere. Taylor was sent to Florida, where he did his best to accomplish the tasks of his superiors. At first, Taylor succeeded - he defeated the Seminoles in the pitched Battle of Lake Okeechobee on Christmas Day 1837 and implemented a system called “The Squares Plan” to efficiently capture Natives. But when General Alexander Macomb altered Taylor’s agenda, there was no hope to complete his mission. Frustrated and tired of his command in the Florida Territory, Taylor was relieved of his duty there and toured the Northeast with Peggy before returning to Louisiana, his adopted home.
In contrast to many of his fellow officers, Zachary Taylor was outwardly friendly and fair towards virtually everyone he met. He earned his nickname “Old Rough and Ready” because of his slovenly appearance and his tendency to share in the toils of soldiering with his subordinates when on a campaign. He would usually sleep in an unpretentious tent, and oftentimes slept on the ground alongside his men. While it is true that he fought Native Americans and went on missions early on in his career to burn down Native American villages, Zachary Taylor proved to be a stickler for respecting the treaties made between Natives and the United States. As miners encroached upon lands of Natives west of the Mississippi during the 1830s, it was Taylor himself who defended the Sauks. While serving around the Indian Territory in the 1840s, Brevet Brigadier General Taylor played an important role in bringing peaceful resolutions between the tribes. He was a man molded from the times he lived in, a self-proclaimed moderate who profited from the slavery institution (holding 145 slaves when he became president) and held prejudices common for the day. Individually, however, Taylor presented himself as a man with an unbridled sense of integrity, honesty, and compassion, winning over many of his contemporaries for those qualities.
THE ULTIMATE OPPORTUNITY
After a few years playing peacemaker on the Southwestern frontier, fifty-nine year old Brevet Brigadier General Zachary Taylor was sent to Fort Jesup (Louisiana) in 1844 to take command of what was to become known as the “Army of Occupation.” As the United States and Texas had begun negotiating for annexation under the Tyler Administration, Taylor’s duty at Fort Jesup was to ensure that soldiers from Mexico, which Texas won their independence from in 1836, wouldn’t impede the process or wreak havoc in the Lone Star Republic. In early 1845, the new Polk Administration gave Taylor instructions to move his troops, numbering almost four thousand men, to a point closer to the disputed border between Texas and Mexico. By August of that year, the Army of Occupation reached Corpus Christi, where they remained until March 1846.
On January 13, 1846, Secretary of War William Marcy instructed Taylor to “advance and occupy...positions on or near the east bank” of the Rio Grande. Taylor was moving into territory that was heavily disputed between the two countries, and the Mexicans believed when the Americans had crossed the Nueces River, they were an invading force. Taylor’s first test came on March 20, when a red hot Mexican General Francisco Mejia threatened to open fire on the American troops if they had crossed the Arroyo Colorado, a river between Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande. In the face of this threat, Taylor decided to cross the river anyway, bugles sounding off and ready for any sort of attack that would come their way. When the Americans crossed to the other side, there was no threat whatsoever - Mejia and the Mexicans had retreated, and the Americans continued their trek south.
A few days after the scene at the Arroyo Colorado, Taylor and his troops arrived at the banks of the Rio Grande. After raising the Stars and Bars on arrival, Taylor got his men to start constructing Fort Texas at their position opposite of Matamoros, a cattle town on the Mexican side. Taylor also worked to secure his supply line at Point Isabel, due east of Fort Texas.
The tension could be felt in the air as the two armies were on high alert. Before the fighting had started, two American officers were killed by bandits. But the final straw happened on April 25, when a detachment of dragoons headed by Captain Seth Thornton were ambushed and captured by 1600 Mexican soldiers. Considering the fact that the Mexican Army had carried this act out, Taylor wrote to military leaders in Washington, DC that “hostilities may now be considered as commenced” and left with a couple thousand men to safeguard his supplies at Point Isabel from attack.
A map of Mexico before the war. The United States fought to obtain Alta California (today's American Southwest) and to establish a border at the Rio Grande.
The Thornton Affair, the first skirmish of the Mexican-American War. After getting word of this, Taylor wrote to Secretary of War Marcy that "hostilities may now be considered as commenced."
The Battle of Palo Alto, May 8, 1846.
Taylor at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. Some historians have claimed that this was Taylor at his best as a general.
The Battle of Monterrey, September 20-25, 1846.
As Taylor was returning on the road from Point Isabel to reinforce his troops at Fort Texas, Taylor found that General Mariano Arista and over three thousand Mexican soldiers was standing in his way. On May 8, Taylor and his men commenced the first battle in the Mexican-American War at a marshy plain called Palo Alto. Although the Mexicans outnumbered Taylor’s men, the Americans had a distinct advantage in their commanders and artillery. Major Thomas Ringgold’s battery unloaded into the Mexican line, and after a brush fire started obscuring the battlefield, the fighting stopped for the day. The next morning, May 9, the two armies had shifted positions and resumed fighting at the Resaca de la Palma, a bow shaped ravine that provided for an excellent Mexican defensive position. Taylor capitalized on the weaknesses of Arista’s men, who were tired, hungry, and impatient with their commander. Perhaps at his best as a commander, Taylor was insistent on capturing his enemies’ artillery to achieve victory, telling his men to “take those guns, and by God keep them.” A gallant and brilliant charge by Captain Charles May helped to win the day for the Americans. The weary Mexican troops retreated back over the Rio Grande in an unorganized manner, with some of the men drowning in their escape. The Mexicans suffered over five hundred casualties over the two day span, while the Americans had sacrificed 49 deaths. Taylor and his men eventually crossed the Rio Grande and occupied Matamoros.
As the Americans stayed in Matamoros waiting for instructions, their ranks had swelled to around ten thousand soldiers and volunteers. In the wake of this rapid growth, Taylor continued to preach to his subordinates to keep the unruly men in check and to respect all of the customs of the Mexican people. At the same time, some artists and authors began to visit General Taylor at his camp to learn about this new folk hero in American culture. Some even began speculating about a run for the presidency. Taylor wrote to his son-in-law that “Such an idea [running for President] never entered my head, nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person.” Regardless of what Taylor originally thought about the proposition, some political pundits began throwing his name in the mix for the 1848 race.
Taylor’s next plan of attack was to overtake Monterrey, a city surrounded by mountains a little less than two hundred miles west of Matamoros. On July 6, 1846, American troops began the two month voyage to Monterrey by way of Camargo, Mier, and Cerralvo, and made camp right outside the city on September 19. Major General Pedro de Ampudia fortified the town very well, placing sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings in preparation for the American siege. Taylor split his army into two divisions; one, commanded by General William Worth, would seize the prominent Mexican positions in the west, and Taylor and a huge chunk of the American army would invade from the east.
Fighting commenced on September 20, and while Worth’s division was performing efficiently and taking many important Mexican hotspots, Taylor’s group faced much tougher opposition. When things were at their worst, the old General reportedly fought alongside his men, attempting to instill inspiration into his men. Eventually, after four days of vicious combat, the American troops came out victorious. In concordance with what he believed to be his orders, Taylor signed an eight week truce with his Mexican counterparts, writing that he “thought it would be judicious to act with magnanimity towards a prostrate foe,” especially in the face of negotiations ongoing between the two countries. But in the midst of all of the fame and popularity that came out of the victory at Monterrey, things took a sour turn in the relationship between the Polk Administration and Zachary Taylor.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
President James K. Polk was the definition of a politician, always thinking multiple steps ahead. He had pushed for the Mexican War to achieve Manifest Destiny, believed to be a calling from God to expand American borders and to assimilate the “uncultured” Natives in those territories. After peace talks with Mexico had ceased during the war, Polk wanted to retaliate against the Mexicans, who he believed had disrespected American diplomats. Due to slow communication lines, Taylor hadn’t gotten the memo when the eight week armistice was negotiated. When Polk had heard about what Taylor had done, he was enraged. Despite originally putting Taylor in charge of American forces in Mexico, the President was beginning to have doubts about his selection. Polk believed that Taylor was disobeying orders, was totally incompetent and that he was being manipulated by his political opponents. Polk, being a Democrat, understood that Taylor’s views were similar to that of the Whigs, and as an election year was coming up, Polk wanted to give as little ammunition to his opponents as possible. Therefore, Polk looked to shift the focus of the war away from the increasingly popular Taylor. He planned to have Major General Winfield Scott lead an aquatic invasion of Veracruz and march towards Mexico City. For this, much of Taylor’s most experienced troops would have to be diverted from his command and to Scott’s expedition. After it was all said and done, Taylor’s army was reduced by more than half, leaving him with four thousand troops, many of which were untrained volunteers from around the country.
With this news, Taylor fumed. He never directly spoke out against the President’s actions, but after receiving the news he was visibly upset. Left with green troops that had little to no discipline, Taylor sensed that he was being placed at a significant military disadvantage. After taking Monterrey, Taylor had moved his troops further west to a town called Saltillo, and he was vulnerable to an attack from Mexican forces. Unbeknownst to Taylor, Mexico’s General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, recently returned from exile, was leading twenty thousand troops through the Mexican desert on a mission to crush Taylor’s forces.
In February 1847, Taylor’s forces gathered near a ranch named Buena Vista in preparation for the massive force that the self-proclaimed “Napoleon of the West” was heading. On the 22nd, the arrogant Mexican general wrote Taylor that the Americans could not “in any human probability avoid suffering a rout,” and inclined him to surrender. But despite being outnumbered five to one, Taylor proclaimed “Tell him to go to hell” before respectfully denying his request for surrender. The Battle of Buena Vista was on.
This battle was the pressure test of the American army during the war with Mexico, and the ultimate test of Taylor’s leadership. In the early goings, the Americans had a chance to end the battle swiftly, but poor communication led to an unorganized retreat. It was a tactical match, and Santa Anna naturally had the upper hand because of his advantage in numbers. And yet even with victory in doubt, Taylor’s mere presence, sitting sidesaddle on his warhorse Old Whitey with bullets flying about, instilled confidence in his troops throughout the battle. Jefferson Davis, Taylor’s son in law, made a tremendous tactical maneuver which proved to be a decisive point in turning the tide. On the morning of February 24, after two days of intense fighting with heavy losses for both sides, Santa Anna was found retreating from the battlefield, leaving wounded and dying men in his midst. The Americans had won, and Taylor, in the most astounding feat of his career, proved to be the victor.
President James K. Polk
General Winfield Scott
Taylor at the Battle of Buena Vista, one of the most astounding upsets in military history.
Taylor was idolized around the country in lithographs and portraits like this one.
Taylor's Cypress Grove Plantation in Mississippi.
Taylor only agreed to seek the Presidency if a broad base of people would elect him, hence the slogan "For President of the People."
After the Battle of Buena Vista, Zachary Taylor’s name was on every American’s lips. Alone and left to his own devices, he and his officers found a way to get the job done. The Americans retreated to their original position at Walnut Springs near Monterrey, and that was where Taylor remained until November 1847. Winfield Scott led his troops on a tirade after landing at Veracruz, and in September Mexico City fell to the Americans. In the aftermath of the military victory, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave the United States more than half a million square miles of land, which included California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico. With American victory secured and the war won, Zachary Taylor requested that he return home to Baton Rouge to be with his wife and family and tend to his plantations.
On his return, Zachary Taylor was greeted with applause in every place he went. New Orleans and other towns on the lower Mississippi River celebrated the old general that had led the United States to victory. Taylor was exalted with the praise he received, remaining humble in his remarks and feeling truly relieved to be home. Throughout the winter, he routinely visited his plantation, Cypress Grove in Mississippi, to consult with his overseer and prepare for a profitable year. When Taylor arrived from Mexico, some of his “servants” (he never referred to his workers as slaves) came up to shake his hand, delighted to see the man that provided for them in ways that his neighbors could not fathom.
It was not long before letters poured in from around the country, praising General Taylor for his steady hand during the war. Along with those kind letters were political ones, asking for his views on the issues of the day. Being a lifelong military man, Taylor rarely commented about any type of political views he held as it may conflict with the mission of the orders that he was given. As a matter of fact, Taylor had never even voted before, attesting to the small premium he placed on political issues. Both Democrats and Whigs vied for Taylor’s candidacy in the upcoming presidential election, and although Taylor’s views proved to be more in line with the Whigs, he repeatedly stated that he would want to be the president of the people, and not of a political party. He would accept the resounding support of the American citizens that would select him - personally, he had no ambition to become the President, albeit he would accept if he was elected.
Taylor became a strong prospect for the Whig presidential candidate because of the nature of the party. Leadership in the party was fractured, with little direction and a history of past failures. Henry Clay, the founder of the party, had failed three times in his quest to win the Presidency, and Whigs that were tired of the status quo put their eggs in Taylor’s basket. The first independent nomination for Taylor for President happened in June 1846, and his popularity grew from there. A group called the “Young Indians,” which included both Abraham Lincoln and future Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens, brought together congressional supporters of Old Rough and Ready. Zachary Taylor’s “strategy,” if it could be called that, was to say little about what his policies were. That allowed for people across all spectrums with many different personal views to feel as if Taylor would side with them. In the North, he was a popular general that served his country with courage and bravery for over four decades. He was also a Southerner that owned plantations and slaves. Therefore, people felt as if Old Rough and Ready would agree with them on how to advance the country forward, and by saying little Taylor encouraged those feelings.
Although Taylor wouldn’t say much about his policies, he did have a few guiding principles. He said that he believed in Jeffersonian principles and longed to adhere to the checks and balances in American government. In a letter to Jefferson Davis, he revealed more, stating that he was against the government borrowing money in peacetime, that the creation of another Bank of the United States was not relevant anymore, and that the laws in the territories acquired from Mexico would be against slavery due to longtime Mexican policy. Despite these beliefs, few citizens actually knew what Taylor believed in, or even if he was a true Whig at all. On April 22, 1848, a few political campaign operatives convinced Taylor to publish the First Allison Letter, laying out his views. The letter received mixed reviews - he stated that he was a “Whig but not [an] ultra Whig” which angered some partisan politicians - but overall was a success and assured Taylor’s prominence in the upcoming National Whig Convention in June. On June 9, the Philadelphia convention chose Taylor on the fourth ballot, and picked Millard Fillmore to be his vice presidential candidate. As he wrote during the campaign months, “I cannot withdraw from the Canvass… I am in the hands of the people.”
In May, the Democrats had nominated Lewis Cass from Michigan as their presidential candidate, and for Vice President nominated William O. Butler, a general who served with Taylor during the Mexican War. However, this was not a unified party in 1848. Martin Van Buren, who was President from 1837 to 1841, decided to split ways with the Democratic Party which he had founded to head a ticket for the Free Soil Party. Free Soilers proved how important the issue of the expansion of slavery was in American politics in 1848, and many Northern Democrats and some Northern Whigs abandoned ship to support this new faction.
Taylor’s appeal worked tremendously for the Whigs. Along with his ability to keep people guessing about his politics and a strong support system of campaigners, the Whigs were able to make gains in 1848. Taylor never personally campaigned because he was actively on duty as the commander of the Western Division of the American Army, but Whig operatives were hard at work to try and gain control of Washington. On November 7, 1848, Americans turned out to the polls to have their voices heard. With 163 electoral votes and 47.3% of the popular vote, Zachary Taylor was elected to be the twelfth President of the United States. Lewis Cass gained the remaining 127 electoral votes, but could have won the election without Martin Van Buren’s entrance into the election. The Free Soiler appeal in New York state proved to be just enough to split the Democratic vote and give the state with 36 electoral votes to Taylor. When Zachary Taylor learned of his victory, he didn’t exalt but rather took the news as if it was any other thing. Some speculate that Taylor was not prepared for his stint in the White House, and that his lack of political experience would prove to be a downside for his administration. But the people elected him for who he was - someone that would go in and do the best he could in the way he knew how to do it. The man who had never voted before was going to Washington, DC to lead the United States during a time of extreme peril.
Taylor's devotion to the Union set him apart from the sectional tone that was beginning to take root in American politics.
Campaign Banner for Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, 1848.
COMMANDER IN CHIEF
The inauguration of Zachary Taylor, March 5, 1849.
Narciso Lopez, Cuban revolutionary that attempted to enlist Americans to help overthrow the Spanish government on the island.
The California Gold Rush caused American politicians to debate the status of the Western territories.
President Zachary Taylor
March 5, 1849 was Inauguration Day in Washington. On an overcast day, thousands came to the muddy streets to see Zachary Taylor, the man that they had made president, take the oath of office. In his inaugural address, he restated his intention to be guided by the Constitution and congratulated the American citizens on “the high state of prosperity to which the goodness of Divine Providence has conducted our common country.” The speech was not a memorable one, but Taylor had officially taken the reins and set off on leading the country through his vision.
Through all of his years on the frontier, Taylor had built up little knowledge of how politicians worked in Washington. Like other generals who took the office, he was accustomed to commanding rather than compromising. For Taylor specifically, he could be very adamant on a course of action, and politicians were not receptive to that style of governing. At first, Taylor’s administration was pestered by office seekers and was maligned for his Cabinet selections and the divvying of Whig patronage. He set a hard line in foreign policy, ensuring that no shots to American authority were taken and that the rule of international law was followed. Taylor did a commendable job at suppressing the filibustering expeditions of Narciso Lopez, a Cuban revolutionary who actively enlisted Americans in his attempts to overthrow the Spanish colonial government there. His greatest foreign achievement was the successful negotiation of a treaty with Britain to start the process of digging an interoceanic canal through the Central American isthmus. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty not only laid the groundwork for one of the most valuable international feats in world history, but helped to solidify peaceful relations between the United States and Great Britain, which would prove critical in the conflicts of future generations.
California, which had been rapidly expanding its population ever since the start of the Gold Rush, had no system in place to regulate the lawlessness that was occuring in the mining towns. As a territory, there was little actual ability for the federal government to regulate the Californians, and as a result murders and thievery plagued the landscape. Very early in his presidency, Taylor sent an agent by the name of T. Butler King to California where he was to help advocate for statehood. This was an important first step in Taylor’s policy surrounding the expansion of slavery into the newly acquired territories. Taylor had sensed that the multiple compromises that had been dished out in the past regulating which states could and could not have slavery were faulty, and that another compromise would only continue to fracture the Union and put off the problem at hand. With King’s presence to ensure that California would apply for statehood, Taylor proved to be decisive and take action. He wanted the people of California to decide whether or not they wanted slavery for themselves, avoiding congressional maneuverings and plots that had become so common in past decades. He adopted a similar tone when dealing with the territory of New Mexico, which was being harassed by Texas with land claims and boundary disputes. This strong stance, motivated by so-called “popular sovereignty,” proved Taylor’s insight and deep regard for the situation at hand.
If the Southern slaveholder from Louisiana hadn’t turned heads yet, his tour of the Northeast in August 1849 certainly did. Taylor wanted to gauge his popularity amongst the people in the Northeast, and could be perceived as a political scheme to shore up support in states like Pennsylvania in the case of a reelection bid. On August 23 at a stop in Mercer, Pennsylvania, Taylor made a speech in which he assured that “the people of the North need have no apprehension of the further extension of slavery.” As both California and New Mexico were drafting their antislavery state constitutions which would be overwhelmingly supported by their constituents, Taylor foresaw that this was the first step towards addressing the slavery issue. Furthermore, Taylor went on to suggest that a third party that specifically would work to halt the expansion of slavery would be unnecessary due to his efforts. Southerners were outraged - how could someone of their status become so fickle towards their political desires? Indeed, Zachary Taylor was making himself known, and was becoming more and more politically adept with every passing day.
Zachary Taylor’s tour of the Northeast was unfortunately cut short due to a nearly deadly stomach ailment, but by the time Congress reconvened in December he was robust and fully healthy. In his Annual Message sent to Congress on Christmas Eve 1849, Taylor set forth his plan to admit California and New Mexico as states with their antislavery constitutions. This would not only ensure that the crisis that had been causing great distress throughout the increasingly sectionalized country would be addressed, but also it would provide an opportunity for other important issues, like the boundary disputes between Texas and New Mexico, to be solved by federal authorities. In closing, Taylor passionately assessed the crisis at hand in his signature way:
“Attachment to the Union of the States should be habitually fostered in every American heart. For more than half a century, during which kingdoms and empires have fallen, this Union has stood unshaken. The patriots who formed it have long since descended to the grave; yet still it remains, the proudest monument to their memory and the object of affection and admiration with everyone worthy to bear the American name. In my judgment its dissolution would be the greatest of calamities, and to avert that should be the study of every American. Upon its preservation must depend our own happiness and that of countless generations to come. Whatever dangers may threaten it, I shall stand by it and maintain it in its integrity to the full extent of the obligations imposed and the powers conferred upon me by the Constitution.”
THE GREAT COMPROMISE
It was increasingly evident that the Thirty-first Congress was going to be a contentious one from the start. After taking sixty-three tries to select a Speaker of the House, political squabbling and vicious verbal jabs were being thrown at every moment possible. With the fate of the Union on the line, it seemed as if there was nothing that every congressman wouldn’t do to ensure that their vision be included in the resolutions to save their nation.
Enter Henry Clay. Our old Whig friend that failed to win the presidency thrice was one of the most, if not the most, important legislators in Antebellum America. However, his claim to fame - “The Great Compromiser” - was the exact antithesis of what Zachary Taylor stood for. Both Taylor and Clay were driven by patriotic desires, but each man approached the situation differently. Clay was known for soothing political tension by implementing compromises, like the disputed Missouri Compromise of 1820. The old General, on the other hand, decided to take a more practical approach and solve the problem as soon as possible. The great statesman and the old soldier were set to meet in a battle for political supremacy that would prove to be epic.
On January 29, 1850, Clay presented his eight step plan to resolve the many conflicts tearing the nation apart at the seams. With impeccable oratory, he advocated for the admission of California as a free state with some notable additions. Clay additionally proposed to simply accept New Mexico as a territory, organize territories without regard to slavery, have the federal government assume Texan debts in return for the Lone Star State’s relinquishments of land claims and recognition of New Mexican sovereignty, abolishing the slave trade in Washington, DC, implementing a stronger fugitive slave law, and protecting the interstate slave trade. Although Clay would eventually try to spin the plan as if it was accomplishing Taylor’s plan, Old Rough and Ready continued to stand firm alongside his simple solution. Taylor could have possibly been more effective in helping to defeat the compromise outright had he built a base of supporters in Congress to promote his plans, but this he did not do. Perhaps it was his strong streak of integrity that prevented him from venturing down that avenue, or it may have been the weak political structure guiding him, but Clay’s points became the subject of intense debate.
The “Great Debate” for the Compromise of 1850 began in February, and it proved to be a spectacle unlike anything seen in the annals of American Congressional history. Sam Houston, Jefferson Davis, Henry Foote, Thomas Hart Benton, Hannibal Hamlin, John Bell, Stephen A. Douglas, and Taylor’s main political ally William Henry Seward all took the floor to voice their opinions. The most riveting of all of the speakers were the three old statesmen: Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. Calhoun was a South Carolinean who for the majority of his career was the most influential advocate for states’ rights in the United States. Webster was a Northerner, the bulwark of industrialism and Calhoun’s natural combatant. Calhoun, too weak to formally give his address, had a friend read his blistering remarks on the situation on March 4, 1850, where he attacked the President’s “Executive Proviso” (comparing it to the Wilmot Proviso, a dead bill which proposed that all territories gained in the Mexican War would be free) and highlighted the increasing imbalance between North and South in Congress. His fiery speech even went so far as to suggest secession by the Southern states to preserve their way of life. In contrast, Webster followed him up with his infamous “Seventh of March” speech, in which he addressed the assembly “as an American” who speaks “for the preservation of the Union.” Webster held the belief that slavery would be impractical in the territories received from Mexico, but concurred with the notion to implement stronger fugitive slave laws. Calhoun would pass away later that month and Webster would eventually lose his Senate seat due to his remarks that day, but despite the impassioned oratory of some of America’s most revered statesmen, few congressmen changed their minds about how their positions on Clay’s proposal.
Senator Henry Clay - "The Great Compromiser" and fellow Whig would become Taylor's chief rival during the Great Debate for the Compromise of 1850.
Clay detailing his eight step outline for the eventual Compromise of 1850.
Daniel Webster's infamous Seventh of March speech. Though it has been cited as one of the most remembered speeches in the history of the Senate, Webster's oration didn't change many Senators' minds on the debate over the Compromise.
"DID YOU MEET THOSE TRAITORS?"
Alexander Stephens (3rd seated from left) and Robert Toombs (far right) in the Confederate Cabinet, 1861. Both were Taylor supporters in 1848, but the two Georgia representatives became political enemies with Taylor after he adopted a pro-Union and anti-compromise stance.
A cartoonist's depiction of the confrontation between Thomas Hart Benton and Henry Foote in the Senate. Tensions were high in the chamber with the nation's future at stake.
Taylor's cabinet. Reverdy Johnson (far left), William Meredith (2nd from left), and George Crawford (4th from right) were involved in the Galphin Claim scandal, where political opponents attempted to smear President Taylor as a weak and corrupt leader.
Long before the “Great Debate” had started, Southerners felt that their ways of life were being impeded upon by the American government. John C. Calhoun had long been their advocate, and he would go at any length to ensure that slavery be kept flourishing for the benefit of Southern society. In January 1849, Calhoun wrote his famed “Southern Address” which attempted to solidify Southern unity in the face of repeated attacks against slavery. The Southerner also proposed a convention in Nashville to force the issue on Northerners. This wave of extreme sectionalism in the South came to an all-time high as their fellow Southerner in the White House continued to promote antiextensionist policies. Even Taylor’s most loyal Southern Whigs, Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs of Georgia, had flipped by the end of 1849.
Tensions were never higher than after a conference between President Taylor and Stephens, Toombs, and Thomas Clingman of North Carolina. The three Southerners visited the White House on February 23 supposedly to reason with the President about their platform of admitting California as free, leaving territories open to the subject of slavery, and keeping slavery legal in Washington, DC. After the three left, however, Taylor was completely enraged. “Did you meet those traitors?” he asked Whig operative Thurlow Weed. He proceeded to state that “if they were taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang them with less reluctance than he had hung deserters and spies in Mexico!” The usually stoic Taylor had his emotions on full display, showcasing his innate desire to save the Union from dissolution. That same intensity and passion was shown when near the end of his presidency, Texans threatened to battle the American Army at Santa Fe to establish Texan supremacy in New Mexico. Taylor took a similar tone as he had before, in essence stating that he would personally take command of American troops to suppress the traitors.
When April rolled around, there were few shifts in the Great Debate. After threatening Senator Thomas Hart Benton with a gun the day prior, Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi proposed a committee of thirteen men be created to present bills to the floor to put up for a vote. Clay was chosen as the chairman and twelve other men of varying backgrounds and stances set aside their differences to come up with the basis of the Compromise of 1850. Three bills were formulated: one revolving around the statehood issues and boundary claims, one for a stricter fugitive slave act, and the other to stop importing slaves into the District of Columbia. On May 8, 1850, these bills were proposed to the Senate, but President Taylor remained adamant in his policy. Taylor refused to budge on his stance, insisting that it would only cause more harm in the future.
Clay was completely incensed when he didn’t have the votes in late May of 1850, and had some testy remarks for Taylor and his Administration. Luckily for Clay, a scandal involving three Cabinet officials threatened the rectitude of the Taylor Administration. It had turned out that Secretary of War George Crawford was a lawyer for the Galphin family, which was expecting to be paid by the American government from a land dispute. During Taylor’s administration, the cost was covered along with interest which amounted to around $235,000. Crawford would get a huge share of that money, and considering that the Secretary of Treasury and the Attorney General (fellow Cabinet members) were able to grant the absurd amount of interest, some Clay operatives connected the dots and fruitlessly attempted to paint the President as either complicit or ignorant of the scheme. The Galphin Claim, as it was called, proved to be of little importance in the end, but severely hurt the President, who valued honesty and transparency.
Even as talk of censure and poor management intended to mar the Administration, Taylor’s popularity soared in the months of May and June because of his trademark integrity and persistence. His presence helped shift the political demography in the United States. In 1850, the party structure that had lasted for a quarter of a century completely collapsed - Democrats endorsed the views of Clay, the man who founded their Whig opposition, and Whigs, the party of small executive authority, longed for Taylor to be able to take more control of the situation. A political system in which Northerners and Southerners could coexist was basically erased. Zachary Taylor’s stern leadership in the face of political chaos partially accounted for this realignment, as he was once referred to as standing unmoved like “the red moon on a summers night, unshaken… amidst the hurrying clouds.” As July 1850 entered into view, Taylor was on the path of being a formidable leader - with changes to his Cabinet in the works and his confidence growing with every decision he made, Zachary Taylor was setting himself up on a path to accomplish his goal of saving the Union.
Independence Day 1850 was supposed to be a day free from agony for Zachary Taylor. The sixty-five year old wanted some respite from the vicious partisan politics of Washington to spend his day celebrating the nation that he was working to protect. It started off well enough - Taylor visited a Sunday school recital before heading over to the Washington Monument, where speakers commemorated the addition of the ashes of Theodosius Kosciusko into the base of the monument. It was a hot day, and Taylor wanted to cool off by taking a stroll around Washington and near the Potomac. But when Taylor got back to the White House at around 4 pm, he was completely famished. He drank a lot of water and chilled milk and ate copious amounts of cherries along with other fruits and vegetables. The President had overindulged himself - he may have spent the rest of his life regretting that decision.
That night, he had intense pains in his stomach. As the days went by, Taylor’s conditions worsened. Doctors were called in and treatments were prescribed, but the old soldier knew his fate. On the night of July 9, 1850, Taylor spoke to those assembled around him: “I am about to die. I expect the summons soon. I have endeavored to discharge all my official duties faithfully. I regret nothing, but am sorry that I am about to leave my friends.” At 10:35 pm, Zachary Taylor passed into eternity.
Upon news of Taylor’s death, the nation somberly mourned. Taylor’s Vice President, Millard Fillmore, was sworn in the next morning in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Taylor’s funeral was extravagant, and many statesmen eulogized him with praising remarks. Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri Senator that had sided with Taylor in his fight to preserve the Union, stated that Taylor’s death “was a public calamity. No man could have been more devoted to the Union, or more opposed to the slavery agitation; and his position as a Southern man… would have given him a power in the settlement of those questions which no President without these qualifications could have possessed.” Abraham Lincoln, one of Taylor’s longtime supporters, believed that Taylor’s death would shake the confidence of the American people in the wisdom and patriotism of their leaders.
Because of Taylor's untimely death, some speculated that Taylor's death wasn't at the hands of a rotten meal; it was due to poisoning. Taylor was widely respected among his countrymen, but due to his stance on the Compromise, it wasn't completely implausible that someone could have acted on their political motives. Clara Rising, a Florida historian, picked up on the story, and wanted to find out the truth about President Taylor's death. In 1991, she was able to convince the Taylor family to an exhumation of the deceased President's body by Kentucky medical examiners. The examiners found that there was definitively no evidence to support that Taylor was poisoned by arsenic, seemingly putting the conspiracy to rest. However, there are still some that Taylor could have met his demise by another form of poisoning. The rumors still persist to this day.
Historians can only speculate about what Taylor could have done had he lived. Civil war may have been averted, or precipitated, had Old Rough and Ready held office for a longer period of time. These questions are the ones that we will never be able to answer, but we do know that the following fifteen years proved to be a time of intense and bloody strife among North and South, the scars of which are still visible today. Zachary Taylor was no politician, and he wasn’t perfect. But with an unshaken sense of devotion to a cause and a heart of gold, Taylor inspires us with the vision of a leader who can instill hope and patriotism into the people that he served. All of us can benefit from his example as we strive to be better citizens, better neighbors, better people today.
Hamilton, Holman. Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic. Bobbs-Merrill, 1941.
Hamilton, Holman. Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House. Easton Press, 1989.
Bauer, K. Jack. Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest. Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
Death of Zachary Taylor
The Taylor tomb at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, KY.
President Zachary Taylor - a devoted American.
Looking to do some more research? Here are some links so you can learn more about our twelfth president:
"Zachary Taylor / Miller Center"
"Zachary Taylor / The White House"
"Zachary Taylor - Wikipedia"
"Zachary Taylor / Presidents of the United States"
"Zachary Taylor Papers, Available Online / Library of Congress"
"Zachary Taylor's Springfield - Presidents: A Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary"
"Biographies: Zachary Taylor / A Continent Divided: The U.S. - Mexico War"
"Zachary Taylor's presidency" [From History Channel's "The Ultimate Guide to the Presidents"
"Life Portrait of Zachary Taylor / C-SPAN.org"
"Episode 12 - Zachary Taylor / PRESIDENTIAL podcast / The Washington Post"
"Zachary Taylor / President's Day / Kentucky Life / KET"
"President Zachary Taylor Biography"
"Zachary Taylor / 60-Second Presidents / PBS"
"1845 1852 America Under James Polk, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore"
"President Zachary Taylor"
"Zachary Taylor: Old Rough and Ready (1849 - 1850)"