Zachary Taylor (November 24, 1784 – July 9, 1850) was the 12th President of the United States, serving from March 1849 until his death in July 1850.
From War Hero to President
Zachary Taylor earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” for his willingness to fight alongside his men while he was serving as a military commander. He led his men across the Rio Grande into Mexico, capturing the heavily fortified stronghold of Monterrey. Taylor 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 his opposition, the Whig Party. Polk canceled the peace agreement and ordered Taylor to remain in northern Mexico while he transferred the best of Taylor’s troops to the army of General Winfield Scott.
In February 1847, Taylor disobeyed these orders and marched his troops south to Buena Vista, using his artillery to defeat a Mexican force more than three times the size of his own. Taylor became a national hero as a result of his victories in the Mexican-American War, which won him election to the White House despite his vague political beliefs.
Zachary Taylor used his homespun ways as political assets. His long military record appealed to voters in the North; and his ownership of one hundred slaves lured voters in the South. He did not commit himself on troublesome issues. The Whigs nominated him to run against the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, who favored letting the residents of territories decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery.
In protest against Taylor–the slaveholder–and Cass–the advocate of “squatter sovereignty”–northerners who opposed extension of slavery into territories formed the Free Soil Party and nominated Martin Van Buren. In a close election, the Free Soilers stole enough votes from Cass to elect Taylor.
Although Zachary Taylor agreed with the same principles for how to lead the legislature as the Whig Party, he did not follow all of the edicts proposed by the Whig leaders in Congress. He seemed as though he were above parties and politics during those times. Taylor tried to run his administration in the same way he led his military troops.
In the past, voters chose whether they wanted slavery allowed in their state when they wrote the state’s constitution. Following this precedent, Taylor urged settlers in New Mexico and California to draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing the territorial stage to end the disputes over slavery.
Southerners were furious, since neither state constitution was likely to permit slavery; Members of Congress were dismayed because they thought the President was usurping their policy-making privileges. In addition, Zachary Taylor’s solution ignored two major associated issues: the northern dislike of the slave market operating in the District of Columbia and the southern demands for a more stringent fugitive slave law.
In February 1850, President Zachary Taylor had held a stormy conference with southern leaders who threatened secession. He told them that if necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would lead the Army. Persons “taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang … with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.” He never wavered.
Then events took an unexpected turn. After participating in ceremonies at the Washington Monument on a blistering July 4,Zachary Taylor fell ill; within five days he was dead. After his death, the forces of compromise triumphed, but the war Taylor had been willing to face came 11 years later. In it, his only son Richard served as a general in the Confederate Army.
The accompanying image highlights the America President Zachary Taylor’s life and achievements: