Throughout American history, there have been several military heroes who have gone on to be president. Most famous among these men are George Washington and Dwight D. Eishenhower. Lesser known than those two, Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1848 entirely upon his record as a military leader. Taylor had a vague political ideology and was catapulted into office on the laurels of victory in the Mexican-American War. He proved a forgettable president, due mostly to his untimely death in 1850 a little over one year into his presidency. Let's learn more about this little-known military leader and president, Zachary Taylor.
Born in Virginia in 1784, Zachary Taylor was a native of the slave-holding South. Early on in his life, his family moved to Kentucky, and Taylor was raised near the banks of the Ohio River. Taylor's family held a large amount of land and numerous slaves to cultivate it.
Taylor's upbringing did not see him attend any prestigious schools. In 1808, he joined the U.S. army as a first lieutenant in the infantry and, thus, he began a long and prestigious career that would catapult him to fame. Soon after joining the army, Taylor married Margaret Mackall Smith.
Taylor's early military career saw him in several different posts. During this time, he acquired both land and slaves near Louisville, where he had grown up. He gained notoriety during the War of 1812 by fighting against Native Americans in the Indiana Territory. This began his steady rise in rank through the army. By 1820, Taylor had become a lieutenant colonel. By the mid 1820s, Taylor acquired a plantation in Louisiana and moved there with his young family. During the 1830s, Taylor commanded troops during the Black Hawk War in Illinois and the Second Seminole War in Florida. During the latter, he gained a famous nickname, Old Rough and Ready, for his military leadership.
War With Mexico
In the mid 1840s, tensions between the United States and Mexico were running high over territorial expansion and the possible annexation of Texas into the Union. President James Polk wanted to be aggressive with Mexico and, thus, sent then-General Taylor with a force of U.S. soldiers to the Rio Grande. Taylor's force became engaged with a party of Mexican soldiers, and Polk used the incident to justify bringing the U.S. into war.
The Mexican-American War began in 1846, and it was Taylor's shining moment. Taylor led U.S. forces in Northern Mexico, gaining victories at Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. After defeating Mexican troops at Monterrey, Taylor sent a large portion of his army to join Winfield Scott's men in taking Veracruz. In early 1847, Taylor achieved a tremendous victory at the Battle of Buena Vista, defeating a much larger Mexican army.
Just in time for the presidential election of 1848, the victory in the Mexican War catapulted Taylor to national fame and reverence. President Polk had pledged to only serve one term, and thus the race for the presidency was wide open. The Whig Party saw an opportunity and began courting Taylor for its national ticket. Despite having previously renounced any intention of running for the presidency, Taylor was swayed by the Whigs.
Taylor's political ideology was vague, but it seemed to fit with the Whigs. Despite being from the South and being himself a slave owner, Taylor did not support the expansion of slavery into western territories. He also opposed the growing sectionalism and saw potential secession as a great threat to the country. He believed in an executive who did not meddle in legislative affairs. All of these things made Taylor an ideal Whig, despite his other positions and stances, some of which were too vague and others of which were in strong contrast to those of the Whigs.
In 1848, Taylor accepted the Whig nomination, and Millard Fillmore was put forward as his Vice President. Taylor and Fillmore won the election that year, defeating Democrat Lewis Cass.
While Taylor's military career was long and distinguished, his presidency was the opposite. With the victory over Mexico had come new territory for the U.S., and that led to inflamed sectional tensions over the issue of slavery. Taylor attempted to deal with these tensions by admitting new regions as states rather than territories, especially in regards to California. He favored sectional compromise over exalting the interests of one particular region. Taylor realized that as a potential state, California would likely be slave-free. His attempts at sectional compromise on this important issue helped to lay the groundwork for Senator Henry Clay to draft his famed Compromise of 1850 regarding California, fugitive slave laws, and numerous other issues.
Another prominent issue which Taylor worked on was the relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain. In the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, Taylor's Secretary of State, John Clayton, was able to negotiate an agreement with Great Britain regarding a possible future canal running through Central America. The agreement laid the groundwork for future cooperation and work on the project, which would eventually become a major breakthrough for global transportation when finished.
Yet, before Taylor could see these issues to their final completion, he was gone. Just over one year after entering the presidency, Taylor developed a severe gastrointestinal illness. Within just five days, his health deteriorated rapidly and, on July 9, 1850, President Taylor died. Vice President Fillmore rose to the presidency and served out the rest of Taylor's term.
The presidency of Zachary Taylor was very short, yet his life was not. Taylor accomplished a great deal. He should perhaps be remembered first as a great military leader who played a leading role in many of the conflicts of the early 1800s, and second as a reluctant president who attempted to cool sectional tensions but simply did not live long enough to see the job through to the end.
Subsequent to completing the lesson on Zachary Taylor, make sure you're prepared to:
- Recount Zachary Taylor's early years
- Discuss Taylor's military career and his role in the Mexican-American War
- Appraise Taylor's time on the political stage and his short term as President
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