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Zachary Taylor: Twelfth president of the United States from 1849 - 1850

Zachary Taylor, circa 1850

Mathew Benjamin Brady, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Predecessor and Successor

James Polk | Millard Fillmore


Whig Party

Term Dates

March 4, 1849 - July 9, 1850

Zachary Taylor was a former military general who served as the 12th president of America. He was a Mexican-American war hero and, while he wasn't political and hadn't even voted before, declared himself a Whig in the 1848 election. However, even if he was a Democrat, he still likely would have won the election. On July 9, 1850, Taylor unexpectedly died from a stomach disease while in office. He was the last Whig president elected and the second president to die in office.

Birth & early life

Taylor was born on November 24, 1784 in Barboursville, Virginia. Taylor was born to a prominent family who owned a large plantation. Taylor was the third of five kids, and had a father who was a colonel in the American Revolutionary War. At a young age, the family moved to Louisville, Kentucky. Taylor was taught to read & write by his mother, but his handwriting would remain poor for the rest of his life. Taylor attended school, and he was reported as a well-behaved student. Louisville was, at the time, a site where many Native skirmishes took place. He would recall later in his life that many of his fellow students were abducted by the Native Americans.

Military career

Early career

Taylor joined the military on May 3, 1808, being commissioned along with other men by President Jefferson due to the recent Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, a skirmish between an American and British ship. Over the next year, Taylor would spend time at a military camp in New Orleans, in which a lot of the men there, including Taylor, would suffer from illness and poor overall well-being. Because of this, Taylor and many others were allowed to take an extended leave, and Taylor used this time to return to Louisville. He would attend to his personal life, investing in stocks and purchasing a plantation as well as over 200 slaves. In 1811, Taylor was summoned to command Fort Knox, whose commander had recently fled. Taylor was able to successfully restore order in the fort, earning respect from governor William Henry Harrison. Taylor then had to leave the fort, to testify against the leader of that New Orleans camp where Taylor had suffered along with other men.

War of 1812

Tyler was summoned in 1812 to defend Fort Harrison in Indiana against an attack from Native Americans commanded by Tecumsuh. Tecumsuh is best known for the Curse of Tippecanoe, a presidential phenomenon. Tyler was able to win against the Natives, getting the US their very first victory of the war. Taylor received international praise by the people, and received a temporary promotion (known as a brevet) to major. Some say that this was the very first brevet ever given in American history. After this, Taylor helped in two expeditions, one in Illinois and another in the battle site of Tippecanoe. Two years later, Taylor led a 430 man expedition, to replace an ill Benjamin Howard. The expedition went from St. Louis to the Mississippi River, in which Taylor encountered a group of Natives. Taylor initially won what would become the Battle of Credit Island, but then had to retreat when British forces arrived and took on Taylor's forces alongside the Natives. He then had oversaw construction of Fort Johnson, which he had to flee and return to St. Louis. At war's end, Taylor's brevet was removed, and Taylor resigned from the Army. He would join again one year later.

Career after the war

After rejoining, Taylor went to command Fort Howard for around two years, until returning to Louisville. In 1819, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and had a dinner with President Monroe and General Jackson. In 1820, he went to Louisiana with the 7th Infantry. He would establish Fort Selden there, and in 1822 also established Fort Jesup. Taylor ended up moving to Baton Rouge along with his family, buying a new plantation. He was called, in 1826, to Washington, D.C., to discuss military organization. In 1828, he was summoned to command Fort Snelling (in modern day Minnesota) and was promoted to colonel of the 1st Infantry Regiment. Taylor helped end Native resistance in the area, in what was known as the Black Hawk War. During this time, Sarah Knox Taylor, Zachary Taylor's daughter, married lieutenant Jefferson Davis, who would later be the Confederate president. Zachary Taylor opposed this, saying he didn't want his daughter being a military wife. It wouldn't matter though, as Sarah would then die shortly after. After this, in 1837, Taylor was summoned to Florida during the Second Seminole War. He constructed two more forts to help General Thomas Jesup's campaign. On Christmas Day, Taylor's forces met the Natives in what became one of the largest battles between the Americans and the Natives. Because of his triumphs, Taylor was promoted to brigadier general. Jesup then left, and Taylor was in charge of all forces in Florida. He was nicknamed "Rough and Ready". Taylor then went on a nationwide tour, and it was at this time where he may have been exposed to the political scene, frequently communicating with President Harrison. Taylor then became in charge of tons of land out west, and was able to not do a lot for several years.

Mexican-American War

Likely due to being apolitical and the other generals being Whigs, Democratic President Polk sent Taylor to Fort Jesup in 1844 to fend off any Mexican forces that tried to take the land. This was being done due to the recent event of Texas gaining independence. After several skirmishes (outside of Taylor's territory), Polk proclaimed that the Mexican-American war had begun. Taylor was able to defeat forces at the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. He once again received national praise for these victories, but also because of his kind and equal treatment of Mexican prisoners of war. He treated them just like American soldiers, and even delivered last rites to the soldiers. Taylor was later recognized by Congress and was given a brevet to major general, a position that he would be fully promoted to in June 1846. Though newspaper outlets were comparing Taylor to the likes of George Washington and Andrew Jackson for being famous generals who later became president, Taylor refused, saying he would never run. After winning those previous battles, the Mexicans had fled, and Taylor chased them down, inflicting heavy casualties at the Battle of Monterrey, taking the city in three days, and being criticized for making a truce rather than forcing surrender. Taylor would remain near Monterrey as general Winfield Scott would lead forces to further intimidate Mexico. A flaw was that many of Taylor's men were sent to Scott, leaving Taylor with a smaller force, and a note was intercepted by the Mexicans, learning that Taylor was vulnerable. Taylor learnt this and set up a defensive position in a neighboring town, and, in February 1847, the Mexican forces made an assault, but Taylor still ended up forcing the Mexicans to flee. For this and his other service in the war, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal three times. Future president Ulysses Grant served under Taylor, and wrote this about him in his memoirs:

General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given to him. He felt his responsibility as going no further. If he had thought that he was sent to perform an impossibility with the means given him, he would probably have informed the authorities of his opinion and left them to determine what should be done. If the judgment was against him he would have gone on and done the best he could with the means at hand without parading his grievance before the public. No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage. General Taylor never made any great show or parade, either of uniform or retinue. In dress he was possibly too plain, rarely wearing anything in the field to indicate his rank, or even that he was an officer; but he was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all.

After this, though Taylor was still the commander of the land west of the Mississippi, Taylor effectively retired from the military.



Zachary Taylor's Inauguration

Like he had said numerous times in the past, Taylor did not want to run for public office, especially that of president. Taylor was not a political man at the slightest, and had never even voted before. However, he would say that he disagreed with the dissolution of the Second Bank of the United States done by Andrew Jackson, and that he would have voted for Whig candidate Henry Clay in the 1844 election. Taylor also did not like Polk. Southern slave owners thought that Taylor would support them, until Taylor said he would pass laws that would go against slavery. Northern abolitionists did not like Taylor, as he was a slave owner. Though many didn't want him to, Taylor was still nominated by the Whig party for the 1848 election, and as a compromise (though it didn't satisfy anyone) for the Northern abolitionists, Millard Fillmore was selected as Taylor's running mate. Taylor would end up barely being involved in campaigning at all, and let other Whigs do the work for him. It has also been speculated that he did not even vote. Taylor was likely able to win the 1848 election due to the Democrats also being divided, and Martin Van Buren running as a third party most certainly was the reason Taylor was even elected in the first place. In fact, Van Buren's main goal was to take votes away from the Democrats, so that the party would be split and Taylor would win.


Taylor, being an apolitical man, wanted to make sure that he was not associated with the prominent Whigs at the time, like Henry Clay. Instead, he carefully chose his cabinet with the help of John Clayton, an associate of John Crittenden, who was Taylor's first pick as Secretary of State but refused to be governor of Kentucky. Taylor eventually made Clayton his Secretary of State. Taylor would then venture for Washington, D.C. in January 1849, which had harsh weather, several delays and even an attempted abduction of the president-elect. Taylor then met with outgoing President Polk, who privately thought Taylor was not experienced and did not qualify for the office of president. Taylor became president on March 4, 1849, but the inauguration ceremony was delayed by one day for religious reasons.

Cabinet and Judicial Appointments

  • Taylor's Cabinet
  • Taylor's Judicial Appointments
  • Foreign policy

    Both Taylor and Secretary Clayton did not have much foreign diplomatic experience. However, at this time, there was not much foreign policy matters going on, especially involving the United States. French minister Guillaume Tell Pousin reportedly gave an insult, which almost broke diplomatic ties, but he was replaced. The Taylor administration also sent ships to help Britain find a crew of explorers who became lost in the Arctic.

    Potential Cuban Annexation

    Narsico Lopez was a man who was considered a 'radical', and wanted to take over modern-day Cuba, which at the time was controlled by Spain. Many people in the South wanted to annex Cuba, seeing it as a great opportunity for another Southern slave state. He offered the US military to help him, but Taylor thought it was illegal. They would arrest Lopez and others in his movement, but they were acquitted. There were also confrontations with the Spanish, but they were resolved in order to maintain good relations.

    Clayton-Bulwer Treaty

    Quite possibly the biggest achievement of Taylor's short presidency was the signing of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom. The treaty created an agreement for the two countries to create a canal in between Central America. While the countries had good relations, the UK had been seizing points in Nicaragua. Therefore, both nations agreed to not control any part of this canal (which would be created much later in history) that would be located in Nicaragua. The treaty would improve American-British relations, and was Taylor's last significant action as president.

    Domestic policy

    Mexican-American War aftermath

    Former President Polk (who died only three months after leaving office) left Taylor with vast, unorganized territory in the West. The territory had been divided into several military districts, with the government being unsure which ones would be states and which ones would be territories. Southerners were not happy because they thought the Western territories would be made into free states. Taylor, though still a slave owner, believed that slavery was not as good for the economy as industry, and thought the Western territories should not be wasted. He also said that the controversy was not needed. The best move for Taylor, which he did, was to admit California as a state, which left the slavery question out of Congress' hands, and instead have California's population vote on it. Taylor knew that California's population was anti-slavery, and sent a Representative out to California to scope it out. The population ended up achieving statehood and banned slavery. Another unorganized territory was that of Texas. The border between Texas and New Mexico had been disputed, but Taylor would side with the citizens of New Mexico. Texas tried to take troops to defend their border position against the federal government, but failed.

    Galphin Affair

    George Crawford, Taylor's Secretary of War, had taken charge of a situation before his appointment to Taylor's cabinet. In this situation, George Galphin, an Irish immigrant who became well respected and owned a lot of land that became the territory of Georgia, died. After this, the US government took over Galphin's estate. This all happened in around 1780. Galphin's family would argue they were owed compensation due to losses during the American Revolutionary War. 70 years went by, and Governor of the state, George Crawford, offered to help the family get their compensation if he were to get 50% of it. The family agreed, and they were able to silently pass a bill through Congress to get it done. The bill ordered that the Secretary of the Treasury pay the dues for it. This never happened, but after Crawford was appointed to the cabinet, he was able to use connections to get the issue passed on to the Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury. The three would end up settling it on their own, and Crawford would get $94,176.44. Once the news reached the public, it was labeled as a scandal, causing Crawford to resign and retire with the money he got. Some also started to call for Zachary Taylor's impeachment, due to him letting the corruption happen, and he was also censured by the House of Representatives. Taylor had wanted to reorganize his cabinet, but with the Galphin Affair, it became much harder.


    On July 4, 1850, Tyler had ingested cherries and iced milk at an event, and became sick with an unknown illness. At first, it was pretty mild, and Taylor had returned to work. However, over time, his condition worsened, and died on July 9. While it was likely a stomach disease from bad food or water, many thought he had been poisoned by Catholics or pro-slavery Southerners. Because of this, his body was exumed in 1992, and due to low arsenic levels, it was confirmed he was not poisoned.


    Taylor is probably one of the most forgettable presidents in American history, though it mostly has to do with the fact that he died just over a year into his term. Though the Clayton-Bulwer treaty was effective, it was still not that monumental. All of Taylor's issues as president were mostly addressed with the Compromise of 1850, signed by Taylor's successor, Millard Fillmore.

    Other attributions, listed from top to bottom

    Popular Graphic Arts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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