Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, in Orange County, Virginia. He spent his youth in the frontier outpost of Louisville, Kentucky. For most of Zachary’s childhood, his Louisville home was a small cabin in the woods. As his family prospered, the cabin became a substantial brick house that he shared with seven brothers and sisters. By 1800, Zachary ‘s father owned 10,000 acres, town lots in Louisville, and twenty-six slaves.
Zachary’s family could trace their roots directly to the Mayflower and William Brewster. Brewster was a key separatist leader and preacher in the Plymouth Colony. Zachary ‘s father had served in the American Revolution.
He received only a rudimentary education but was well schooled in the frontier skills of farming, horsemanship and using a musket. Zachary was a poor student, his handwriting, spelling, and grammar were crude and unrefined throughout his life. Even as a boy, he wanted a career in the military, it was a respectable alternative to law and the ministry. In 1808 he left home after obtaining a commission as a first lieutenant in the army.
In 1810 he married Margaret Mackall Smith, a member of a prominent Maryland family and they eventually had six children. As Zachary moved from one wilderness outpost to another in the Mississippi Valley frontier, his family often accompanied him.
In the years leading up to the War of 1812, Zachary helped police the western frontier of the United States against the Native Americans. He went on to command troops in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Second Seminole War in Florida from 1837 to 1840. Taylor’s willingness to share the hardships of field duty with his men earned him the affectionate nickname “Old Rough and Ready.” Although he fought Native Americans in numerous engagements, much of his service was devoted to protecting their lands from invading white settlers.
In 1840, Margaret finally settled down in Louisiana when Zachary assumed command of the fort at Baton Rouge. Although a poorly paid career officer, Zachary had parlayed the 300 acres of land given to him by his father into holdings in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In 1850, his estate was valued at around $120,000, worth approximately $6 million today.
On numerous occasions, Zachary used family time to manage his lands and plantations. Seldom at home long enough to supervise slaves or crops, he relied on associates, relatives, and his daughters to assist his wife with daily finances and decisions. He understood the toll that his career took on his family, and he hoped that his daughters would never marry career soldiers. So adamant was he on this that Lieutenant Jefferson Davis actually resigned from the Army in order to wed Zachary’s daughter, Sarah in 1835, but she died three months later. Jefferson Davis would become the president of the Confederacy.
When the U.S. annexation of Texas sparked war with Mexico, Zachary served as brigadier general and commanding officer of the army’s First Department at Fort Jesup, Louisiana. Zachary’s men quickly won victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, garnering him a recommendation from President James K. Polk and a promotion to major general.
He led his men across the Rio Grande and advanced into Mexico, capturing the heavily fortified stronghold of Monterrey by late September. Zachary then granted the Mexicans an eight-week armistice against the wishes of President Polk, who was conscious of the general’s growing political clout within the opposition Whig Party. Polk canceled the peace agreement and ordered Zachary to remain in northern Mexico while he transferred the best of his troops to the army of General Winfield Scott.
Mexican General Santa Anna, intercepting a letter from Scott to Zachary, knew that “Old Zack” (another nickname) would be left with just 6,000 men. In February 1847, Santa Anna threw his nearly 20,000 soldiers into the Battle at Buena Vista, determined to annihilate “Old Rough and Ready.” The two armies clashed, and when it ended 1,800 Mexican soldiers lay dead or wounded, Zachary lost 672. Thoroughly defeated, the “Mexican Napoleon,” as Santa Anna called himself, left the field, and General Zachary Taylor became an American hero.
In 1848, the Whig Party nominated Zachary to be president without his knowledge or presence at the nominating convention. They sent him notification of the nomination without postage paid so he had to pay for the letter that told him that he was their nominee. He refused to pay the postage and did not find out about the nomination for weeks.
Zachary was compared in the popular press to American war heroes George Washington and Andrew Jackson. Stories were told about his informal dress, the tattered straw hat on his head, and the casual way he always sat atop his beloved horse, “Old Whitey,” while shots buzzed around his head. His military record would appeal to northerners and owning 100 slaves would bring in southern votes. The Whigs nominated him to run against the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass.
On November 7, 1848, the first time the entire nation voted on the same day, and the first time Zachary had voted stating that he didn’t want to vote against a potential commander in chief. He won the popular vote and the Electoral College vote came in at 163 to Cass’s 127.
James K. Polk’s term ended on Sunday, March 4, 1849. Although Zachary refused to take the constitutional oath until March 5, because he did not want to violate the Lord’s Day.
Zachary thought the presidency should stand above party politics, and he appointed cabinet members who represented all sections of the nation, none of them were prominent Washington politicians.
Although Zachary had subscribed to Whig principles of legislative leadership, he was not inclined to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress and at times acted as though he were above parties and politics. As disheveled as always, Zachary tried to run his administration in the same way he had fought Indians, he even brought his horse with him to Washington and allowed Whitey to graze on the lawn of the White House.
The challenge facing Zachary when he took office in 1849 was the debate over slavery and its expansion into the country’s new western territories. Zachary was a slaveholder himself but was primarily driven by a strong nationalism born from years in the army, and by 1848 he had come to oppose the creation of new slave states. In February 1850, after some incensed southern leaders threatened secession, Zachary angrily told them that he personally would lead the army if it became necessary in order to enforce federal laws and preserve the Union.
On July 4, 1850, Zachary attended a ceremony at the unfinished Washington Monument with blistering temperatures. Taylor ate a variety of raw vegetables, cucumbers, cabbage, and corn, and then treated himself to a jug of iced milk and an enormous bowl of cherries.
An hour later Zachary became violently ill and had diarrhea and started vomiting. By the following morning he developed a fever and doctors offered various cure-alls, he was force fed calomel (a mercury chloride solution to induce vomiting), quinine, and opium. Five days later, just 17 months into his Presidency, the 65-year-old Zachary uttered his last words to his wife, “I have always done my duty, I am ready to die. My only regret is for the friends I leave behind me.”
His funeral took place on July 13 and an estimated 100,000 people lined the funeral route to pay their respects. The presidential hearse was drawn by eight white horses and followed by Washington dignitaries, military units, the President’s beloved horse “Old Whitey,” and his family. Behind them a line of military units, officials, and common citizens stretched for over two miles. His final resting place is in Louisville, Kentucky, the site of the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery and Monument today.
Zachary became the second president to die while in office with William Henry Harrison being the first, making the more moderate Millard Fillmore President. With Fillmore’s support, Congress adopted the Compromise of 1850 that September which paved the way for future discord in Kansas and ultimately the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Zachary’s only son, Richard, would serve as a general in the Confederate Army during that conflict.
Peggy Taylor lived a more comfortable life as a widow than she had for her four decades on the frontier, her husband leaving an ample estate, including five slaves for her. She lived with her son Dick and her only known public appearance as a widow was at his wedding in 1851 to Myrthé Bringierde Lacadière.
During a visit to her daughter Betty in East Pascagoula, Mississippi, the former First Lady died suddenly on 14 August, 1852 at 63 years old.
All of the Taylor family’s personal correspondence was stored at her last home which was burned by Union troops during the Civil War.
It was later suggested that Zachary may have been poisoned because he showed the same symptoms of arsenic poisoning. His remains were exhumed in 1991 but samples showed that his arsenic levels where not higher than the average person in those days.
Zachary was a distant relative of many other presidents including James Madison, Robert E. Lee and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Zachary Taylor Quotes
“I have always done my duty. I am ready to die. My only regret is for the friends I leave behind me.”
“The Bible is the best of books, and I wish it were in the hands of every one. It is indispensable to the safety and permanence of our institutions. A free government can not exist without religion and morals, and there cannot be morals without religion. Especially should the Bible be placed in the hands of the young. It is the best school book in the world. I would that all our people were brought up under the influence of that holy book.”
“I have no private purpose to accomplish, no party objectives to build up, no enemies to punish-nothing to serve but my country.”
“A strong reputation is like a good bonfire. When you have one kindled it’s easy to keep the flame burning, even if someone comes along and tries to piss on it. But if you fall asleep and neglect it…You’ll wake up with ashes.”
“I am not a party candidate, and if elected cannot be President of a party, but the President of the whole people.”
“My life has been devoted to arms, yet I look upon war at all times, and under all circumstances, as a national calamity to be avoided if compatible with national honor.”
“I would not be the mere President of a Party. I feel bound to administer the government untrammeled by party schemes.”
“Stop your nonsense and drink your whiskey!”
“May the boldest fear and the wisest tremble when incurring responsibilities on which may depend our country’s peace and prosperity, and in some degree the hopes and happiness of the whole human family.”
“I shall pursue a straight forward course deviating neither to the right or left so that comes what may I hope my real friends will never have to blush for me, so far as truth, honesty & fair dealings are concerned.”
“In the discharge of duties my guide will be the Constitution, which I this day swear to preserve, protect, and defend.”
“I regret nothing, but I am sorry that I am about to leave my friends.”
“The idea that I should become President seems to me too visionary to require a serious answer. It has never entered my head, nor is it likely to enter the head of any other person.”
“For more than half a century… this Union has stood unshaken. 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 power given by the Constitution to the Executive to interpose his veto is a high conservative power; but in my opinion it should never be exercised except in cases of clear violation of the Constitution, or manifest haste and want of due consideration by Congress.”
“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. . .”
“In conclusion I congratulate you, my fellow-citizens, upon the high state of prosperity to which the goodness of Divine Providence has conducted our common country. Let us invoke a continuance of the same protecting care which has led us from small beginnings to the eminence we this day occupy.”
“The only ground of hope for the continuance of our free institutions is in the proper moral and religious training of the children, that they may be prepared to discharge aright the duties of men and citizens.”
“Let us invoke a continuance of the same protecting care which has led us from small beginnings to the eminence we this day occupy.”
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