Friday, September 5, 2008

Zachary Taylor: 12th President

Known as a great military leader, "Old Rough and Ready" Zachary Taylor was born in a dependency (a log cabin which no longer exists) on Montebello Plantation near Barboursville, Virginia, on November 24, 1784, into a distinguished Virginia family. His father, who had served with George Washington during the American Revolution, had sold the family plantation, Hare Forest, located between Rapidan and Orange, and was thus looking for a new estate. Unfortunately, measels broke out among the traveling party, which included his plantation slaves, so they were fortunate to be able to find lodging in dependencies on Montebello Plantation. Zachary Taylor lived in Virginia only a short time, being raised from infancy on the Kentucky frontier, where he received little formal education, and most of that from private tutors.

However, his lineage was extraordinary: James Madison was a second cousin, and Robert E. Lee was a third cousin once removed. Taylor was a descendant of King Edward I of England, as well as Mayflower passengers Isaac Allerton and Wm. Brewster.

Taylor joined the army in 1808 and was promoted to Colonel in 1832. He spent most of his military career policing the frontiers against Indians. In the Mexican-American War he won major victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista.

Although he was apolitical and had never voted, he was recruited by the Whig Party to be their presidential candidate in the 1848 election. Taylor was decidedly not a puppet of their political platform, remaining fiercely independent of mind on most issues. He became the second U.S. president, after Washington, never to hold any prior office.

He was a bit of an anomaly, a southern slave owner who was a nationalist, not a secessionist. He was the triumphant military conqueror of Mexico who saw little need for Manifest Destiny as a foreign policy. He was an army general who shied away from war as an instrument of state. He was a stern military commander who avoided decisive actions as president.

The slavery issue dominated Taylor's short term. Although he owned slaves, he took a moderate stance on the territorial expansion of slavery, angering fellow Southerners. 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 from this stance.

His term as president lasted only 16 months; he died on July 9, 1850, after participating in ceremonies at the Washington Monument on a blistering July 4. Taylor fell ill immediately thereafter, and within five days he was dead. There was suspicion of poisoning as the cause of death, and his remains were exhumed and tested, but the final analysis was that his death was caused by severe gastroenteritis, brought on by norovirus. He is buried in Louisville, Kentucky.

His death brought about the ascent of his vice-president, Millard Fillmore, to the presidency.


His second daughter was married to Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Taylor refused to pay postage due on an envelope once, the very one that contained his nomination to the Presidency.
Among things in common with George Washington, Taylor was an Episcopalian, an adept military leader, had no higher education, had never held political office before serving as president and owned slaves.

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