American Culture: Zachary Taylor Mini Biography
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. Before his presidency, Taylor was a career officer in the United States Army, rising to the rank of major general. Taylor’s status as a national hero as a result of his victories in the Mexican-American War won him election to the White House despite his vague political beliefs. His top priority as president was preserving the Union, but he died 16 months into his term, before making any progress on the status of slavery, which had been inflaming tensions in Congress. He remains the only President to come from Louisiana.
Taylor was born into a prominent family of planters who migrated westward from Virginia to Kentucky in his youth. He was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army in 1808 and made a name for himself as a captain in the War of 1812. He climbed the ranks establishing military forts along the Mississippi River and entered the Black Hawk War as a colonel in 1832. His success in the Second Seminole War attracted national attention and earned him the nickname “Old Rough and Ready”. In 1845, as the annexation of Texas was underway, President James K. Polk dispatched Taylor to the Rio Grande area in anticipation of a potential battle with Mexico over the disputed Texas–Mexico border. The Mexican–American War broke out in April 1846. In May, Taylor defeated Mexican troops commanded by General Mariano Arista at the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, and managed to drive his troops out of Texas. Taylor subsequently led his troops into Mexico, where they once again defeated Mexican troops commanded by Pedro de Ampudia at the Battle of Monterrey in September. Defying orders, Taylor moved his troops further south. Despite being severely outnumbered, he dealt a crushing blow to Mexican forces under Antonio López de Santa Anna in February 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista. After this, most of Taylor’s troops were transferred to the command of Major General Winfield Scott, but Taylor’s popularity remained significant.
The Whig Party convinced the reluctant Taylor to lead their ticket in the 1848 presidential election, despite his unclear political beliefs and lack of interest in politics. At the 1848 Whig National Convention, Taylor defeated Scott and former Senator Henry Clay to take the nomination. He won the general election alongside New York politician Millard Fillmore, defeating Democratic candidates Lewis Cass and William Orlando Butler, as well as a third party effort led by former President Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, Sr. of the Free Soil Party.
As president, Taylor kept his distance from Congress and his cabinet, even as partisan tensions threatened to divide the Union. Debate over the status of slavery in the Mexican Cession dominated the political agenda and led to threats of secession from Southerners. Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not push for the expansion of slavery, and he sought sectional harmony above all other concerns. To avoid the issue of slavery, he urged settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood, setting the stage for the Compromise of 1850. Taylor died suddenly of a stomach-related illness in July 1850, with his administration having accomplished little aside from the ratification of the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty. Fillmore served the remainder of Taylor’s term.