Taylor, Zachary

Taylor, Zachary
born Nov. 24, 1784, Montebello, Va., U.S.
died July 9, 1850, Washington, D.C.

12th president of the U.S. (1849–50).

He fought in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War (1832), and the Seminole War in Florida (1835–42), earning the nickname "Old Rough-and-Ready" for his indifference to hardship. Sent to Texas in anticipation of war with Mexico, he defeated the Mexican invaders at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma (1846). After the Mexican War formally began, he captured Monterrey and granted the Mexican army an eight-week armistice. Displeased, Pres. James K. Polk transferred Taylor's best troops to the command of Winfield Scott to serve in the invasion of Veracruz. Taylor ignored orders to remain in Monterrey and marched south to defeat a large Mexican force at the Battle of Buena Vista (1847). He became a national hero and was nominated as the Whig candidate for president (1848). He defeated Lewis Cass to win the election. His brief term was marked by a controversy over the new territories that produced the Compromise of 1850 and by a scandal involving members of his cabinet. He died, probably of cholera, after only 16 months in office and was succeeded by Millard Fillmore.

Zachary Taylor, daguerreotype by Mathew B. Brady.

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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▪ president of United States
born November 24, 1784, Montebello, Virginia, U.S.
died July 9, 1850, Washington, D.C.
 12th president of the United States (1849–50). Elected on the ticket of the Whig Party as a hero of the Mexican-American War (1846–48), he died only 16 months after taking office. (For a discussion of the history and nature of the presidency, see presidency of the United States of America.)

      Taylor's parents, Richard Taylor and Mary Strother, migrated to Kentucky from Virginia shortly after Zachary, the third of their nine children, was born. After spending his boyhood on the Kentucky frontier, Taylor enlisted in the army in 1806 and was commissioned first lieutenant in the infantry in 1808. In 1810 he married Margaret Mackall Smith (Margaret Taylor (Taylor, Margaret)), with whom he had six children. His daughter Sarah Knox Taylor married Jefferson Davis (Davis, Jefferson), the future president of the Confederate States of America, in 1835, and his son, Richard Taylor, fought in the Civil War (American Civil War) as a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army.

      Taylor served in the army for almost 40 years, finally advancing to the rank of major general (1846). He commanded troops in the field in the War of 1812 (1812, War of), the Black Hawk War (1832), and the second of the Seminole Wars in Florida (1835–42), in which he won promotion to the rank of brigadier general for his leadership in the Battle of Lake Okeechobee (1837). In 1840 he was assigned to a post in Louisiana and established his home in Baton Rouge.

      Soon after the annexation of Texas (1845), President James K. Polk (Polk, James K.) ordered Taylor and an army of 4,000 men to the Rio Grande, opposite the Mexican city of Matamoros. A detachment of Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande and engaged Taylor's forces in a skirmish (April 25, 1846) that marked the beginning of the Mexican-American War. Two weeks later Mexican troops again crossed the river to challenge Taylor, whose forces decisively defeated the invaders on two successive days in the battles of Palo Alto (Palo Alto, Battle of) and Resaca de la Palma (May 8 and 9). On May 13 the United States formally declared war on Mexico. Taylor then led his troops across the Rio Grande and advanced toward Monterrey, capturing the city on September 22–23 and granting the Mexican army an eight-week armistice, an action that displeased Polk. Taylor further alienated Polk by writing a letter, which found its way into the press, criticizing Polk and his secretary of war, William L. Marcy (Marcy, William L). Polk then ordered Taylor to confine his actions to those necessary for defensive purposes and transferred Taylor's best troops to the army of General Winfield Scott (Scott, Winfield). The following February, however, Taylor disobeyed these orders and with his diminished force marched south and, in the Battle of Buena Vista (Buena Vista, Battle of), won a brilliant victory over a Mexican army that outnumbered his troops by about four to one.

  Cabinet of President Zachary TaylorHaving thus won the north of Mexico, Taylor emerged as a hero and began to be seen by Whig (Whig Party) politicians as a possible presidential candidate. At the Whig Party convention in 1848 Taylor gained the nomination on the fourth ballot. He defeated the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, in the general election, winning the electoral college vote 163 to 127. (See primary source document: Inaugural Address (Zachary Taylor: Inaugural Address). See also Cabinet of President Zachary Taylor.)

      Taylor's brief administration was beset with problems, the most perplexing of which was the controversy over the extension of slavery into the newly acquired Mexican territories. By 1848 Taylor had come to oppose the creation of new slave states, and in December 1849 he called for immediate statehood for California, whose new constitution explicitly prohibited slavery. Southerners in Congress, who feared a permanent majority of free states in the Senate, fought bitterly against the proposal, and the controversy was not finally resolved until September of the following year (two months after Taylor's death), with the adoption of the Compromise of 1850 (1850, Compromise of). A further problem was the revelation in mid-1850 of financial improprieties on the part of three members of Taylor's cabinet. Deeply humiliated, Taylor, who prided himself on honesty, decided to reorganize his cabinet, but before he could do so he died suddenly of an attack of cholera. He was succeeded by Millard Fillmore (Fillmore, Millard).

Additional Reading
Biographies covering Taylor's military and political careers include Brainerd Dyer, Zachary Taylor (1946, reissued 1967); Holman Hamilton, Zachary Taylor, 2 vol. (1941–51, reprinted 1989); and K. Jack Bauer, Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (1985). Another useful source is Elbert B. Smith, The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor & Millard Fillmore (1988).

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Universalium. 2010.

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