The Life of Zachary Taylor

Old Rough and Ready

Years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Northerners and Southerners were sharply divided over whether the territories taken from Mexico should be opened to slavery.

Born in Virginia in 1784, Zachary Taylor was taken to Kentucky and raised on a plantation. Even though Taylor was a career officer in the United States Army, serving in both the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War along with Abraham Lincoln, he spoke often of growing cotton. Taylor made his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He also owned a plantation with 100 slaves in Mississippi. Curiously, despite his status as a slave owner, Taylor was not an advocate of slavery. Forty years serving in the Army had made him a committed nationalist.

Zachary Taylor and the Mexican American War

Taylor spent much of his military career defending the steadily advancing frontiers of the United States against Indian attacks. He served with distinction in the Mexican-American War, winning significant victories at the Battle of Monterrey and the Battle of Buena Vista.

However, President Polk distrusted Taylor’s informal style of command, restricting him to northern Mexico. The task of taking Mexico City was given to General Winfield Scott instead. Taylor was outraged, saying, “The Battle of Buena Vista opened the road to Mexico and the Halls of Montezuma that others might revel in them.”

Zachary Taylor in Politics

After the war, Taylor’s backcountry manner proved to be a political asset, along with his war record, which appealed to Northerners. Conversely, his status as a slave owner appealed to voters in the South.

Taylor proved to be a very shrewd politician, not involving himself with troublesome issues. As a result, the Whigs nominated him as their Presidential candidate in 1848, while the Democrats nominated Lewis Cass, who believed that the residents of the territories applying for statehood should be allowed to determine whether or not they wanted slavery.

In protest to the slave-owning Taylor, Lewis Cass advocated “squatter sovereignty.” In the meantime Abolitionists and Northerners against slavery had formed the Free Soil Party and nominated Martin Van Buren as their candidate. In a very close election, the Free Soilers took just enough votes away from Cass to give Taylor a narrow victory. Zachary Taylor became the 12th President of the United States.

President Zachary Taylor

Taylor subscribed to the Whig principle of legislative leadership, however, that did not mean that he would be a puppet for the Whigs in Congress. At times, Taylor seemed to be above partisan politics. He tried to run his administration in the same casual way he fought Indians.

Traditionally, people living in the territories applying for statehood were able to decide whether or not they would be admitted as a slave state or a free state. In order to end the dispute over the spread of slavery in the United States, Taylor encouraged the governments of the California and New Mexico Territories to draft constitutions as quickly as possible. This move outraged many in the South, as California and New Mexico would clearly not accept slavery. It also angered many people in Congress who saw Taylor’s action as an attempt to usurp Congressional prerogatives.

Taylor’s solution also ignored several long simmering side issues, such as the slave market in Washington DC and Southern criticisms regarding runaway slave laws.

The Compromise of 1850

In February, 1850, Taylor held a contentious meeting with Southern leaders in the White House. When they threatened secession, Taylor responded by warning them that he would hang anyone who tried to secede from the Union and that he would personally command the Army, if necessary, in order to uphold American law.

Events took a turn for the worse, that July. After attending ceremonies at the Washington Monument, Taylor became ill. He died of Gastroenteritis five days later, leaving Vice President Millard Fillmore as the 13th President of the United States.

Works Cited

Zachary Taylor. The White House. US Government, Apr.18/09

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