Zachary Taylor's Administration

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

Anyone in search of information on U.S. presidents of the antebellum period will find it in this lesson. This lesson will cover Zachary Taylor's administration, which lasted from March 4, 1849 through July 9, 1850.

Old Rough & Ready

Zachary Taylor was born in November 1784 in Virginia, as a true son of the South. Taylor came from a family of planters, whose move to Kentucky in his infancy proved to be beneficial. The Taylor family members thrived in their new home and became plantation owners replete with slaves. However, the battlefield was young Taylor's true calling, and he enlisted in the army at the age of 22.

Private Taylor rose through the ranks of the Army quickly and became lieutenant only two years after enlisting. In the military, Taylor made a name for himself, participating in several major wars, such as the War of 1812 and the Seminole Wars. Taylor's greatest battles were against Native American tribes on the frontier, and throughout his military career, which spanned 40 years, Taylor defended the American frontier with skill and tenacity, earning the nickname Old Rough and Ready.

Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor

By the time the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, Taylor was a national hero with enough name recognition to catch the attention of the Whig Party. Ironically, the Whigs had been in staunch opposition to the Mexican-American War, but they saw in Taylor a candidate who could win the White House for their party because of his popularity and reputation.

The election of 1848 was permeated by the issue of slavery and its expansion. The spurned former president Martin Van Buren had failed to earn the Democratic nomination in the previous election, so with other antislavery forces, he started the Free Soil Party and earned its nomination in 1848 to run against Taylor and the Whigs and Lewis Cass and the Democrats.

The popular vote was close, but Taylor won the popular vote by a small margin and the Electoral College decisively with 163 votes to Cass's 127. Although wholly unfamiliar with politics and the nuances of leading a nation, Taylor headed to the White House for one of the shortest administrations in history.

Taylor's Administration

Zachary Taylor would die of cholera a little more than a year after becoming president, serving from March 1849 through July 1850. His cabinet consisted of Vice President Millard Fillmore and Secretary of State John Middleton Clayton. Just after Taylor and Fillmore claimed victory in 1848, California applied for statehood as a free state. Throughout Taylor's 16 months in office, congressional debate over California was the main issue of his presidency.

Because of Taylor's background as a slaveholder, one could assume that as president he would have supported the issue of slavery's spread to the territories formed from the areas won from Mexico in 1848. Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico gave to the United States the areas from Texas through California, and saw some new territories such as Arizona, Utah, and Nevada added to the Union.

Each time one of these territories petitioned for statehood the issue of whether that state would be free or slave-holding caused congressmen for and against slavery to fear that one side would gain a majority over the other. As Congress burned with debate before and after his inauguration, Taylor made an uncharacteristic decision.

The Virginia-born, Kentucky-raised, Louisiana plantation owner decided to support California's admission to the Union as a free state as one of his first acts as president. Then for equal measure, Taylor also came out against the creation of any new slave-holding state to the Union.

Southerners were aghast at Taylor's announcement and support, but Taylor's decision on California stemmed from his military service. Taylor was a dedicated Unionist, and as a military hero felt strongly about the need to keep the nation together even if it meant by force. Although he was a slaveholder, Taylor saw the issue of slavery tearing the nation he loved apart and was willing to sacrifice his penchant toward owning others if it meant keeping the nation together.

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