Zachary Taylor's Economic Policies

Instructor: Richard Weil

Richard teaches an online world geography class, he holds a doctorate in the field.

Zachary Taylor was president from 1849 to 1850. His brief term was the start of a critical decade leading up to the Civil War. His policies for using the federal government's money led to a stronger America that continued to grow after the war.

Before the White House

When putting a stamp on an envelope, do you ever think of Zachary Taylor? As president, Zachary Taylor implemented several economic acts that shaped the future of the nation, some of which are still policies today--including cheaper postage.

Zachary Taylor on an 1875 stamp.
Zachary Taylor

Taylor was born in Virginia in 1784. Called ''Old Rough and Ready'' for his fighting skills, he fought in the War of 1812 and against the Indians. A general in the Mexican War, he defeated Santa Ana at Buena Vista, making him a national hero.

He accepted the Whig nomination for president, while promising to be independent and nationally oriented. He was apolitical, and had never even voted. In a three-way race based on personalities and what to do with the land taken from Mexico, Taylor won 163 electoral votes, 17 more than needed.

A Vision for America's Development

Taylor's military assignments gave him a wide view of the nation. America was prospering and the economy wasn't a big issue in the campaign, so he wanted to make sure the country kept growing. His major statement was in his one State of the Union address, in December, 1849.

In this speech the first economic issue was the budget. In 1849 the government had spent $93.5 million, with a deficit of $6 million. This was expected to rise as the final costs of the Mexican War were assessed. In addition, the purchase of the Southwest ($15 million) and claims for property taken from Americans there ($3.25 million) were covered by bonds. So the government had to borrow more, moving further from a balanced budget, much less paying off the national debt.

Since there was no federal tax system, to raise money Taylor asked Congress for higher tariffs. This was a problem, as Northern manufacturers wanted protection from foreign imports while Southerners, with a more agrarian economy, wanted cheaper goods. Congress did not act on Taylor's request, and in 1857, substantially lowered tariffs.

Taylor also wanted Congress to examine the sub-treasuries that had been developed to collect and distribute specie. This wasn't done. He did recommend a drop in postage rates, which would still give the government a profit. This occurred in 1851, and mail use soared.

The Western Lands

Taylor came into office when America was trying to integrate vast new territories. The 1846 Oregon Treaty with Great Britain had given the U.S. the Northwest, while the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico in 1848 gave it control of the Southwest. Suddenly the country stretched not just to the Rockies, but to the Pacific.

Managing this large area was a major concern. For California, Taylor appointed a revenue collector for customs, which the military had done. The money was to be used to improve rivers and harbors there. He proposed a branch mint in San Francisco, which opened in 1854, replacing the private gold coining operations there. Also, the Southwest was to be surveyed, followed by ''liberal'' sales of lands and mineral rights, with the lowest rates for the first settlers.

San Francisco, 1849. The Gold Rush created a city out of a little town.
San Francisco, 1849

Taylor saw sea and land trade as essential for the nation's growth, and was willing to use federal monies to improve commerce. He was ahead of his time in suggesting Congress see if a transcontinental railroad should be a private or public enterprise, and recommended surveying routes. He encouraged federal spending for harbor improvements, and for America's new West Coast he ordered lighthouses and a full survey. In Panama he gave moral support to Americans building a railway across the isthmus.

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