James K. Polk sent the Army of Occupation under Taylor's command to the Rio Grande in 1846. Mexico attacked Taylor's troops and Taylor defeated them despite being outnumbered 4-to-1. Polk later declared war. In the Mexican-American War that followed, Taylor won additional important victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista and became a national hero.
Polk kept Taylor in northern Mexico, disturbed by his informal habits of command and his affiliation with the Whig Party. He sent an expedition under General Winfield Scott to capture Mexico City. Taylor, incensed, thought that "the battle of Buena Vista opened the road to the city of Mexico and the halls of Montezuma, that others might revel in them."
Election of 1848
Taylor/Fillmore campaign poster
Taylor received the Whig nomination for President in 1848. Like many other army officers, he was nonpolitical and had never voted. His homespun ways and his status as a war hero were political assets. Taylor defeated Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate, and Martin Van Buren, the Free Soil candidate.
To the astonishment of Whigs, Taylor ignored their platform, as historian Michael Holt explains:
Taylor was equally indifferent to programs Whigs had long considered vital. Publicly, he was artfully ambiguous, refusing to answer queries about his views on banking, the tariff, and internal improvements. Privately, he was more forthright. The idea of a national bank "is dead, and will not be revived in my time." In the future the tariff "will be increased only for revenue"; in other words, Whig hopes of restoring the protective tariff of 1842 were vain. There would never again be surplus federal funds from public land sales to distribute to the states, and internal improvements "will go on in spite of presidential vetoes." In a few words, that is, Taylor pronounced an epitaph for the entire Whig economic program.
Although Taylor won the election, he didn't know it at first. Having been a popular war general, he received many fan letters, some without postage. To avoid having to pay for these letters' postage, he asked his post office to stop sending letters without postage. However, because the letter from Washington informing Taylor that he had won the election did not have postage, Taylor didn't receive the letter until another letter with postage had been sent.
Although Taylor had subscribed to Whig principles of legislative leadership, he was not inclined to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress. He ran his administration in the same rule-of-thumb fashion with which he had fought Indians.
Under Taylor's administration the United States Department of the Interior was organized, although the department had been activated under President Polk's last day in office. He appointed former Treasury Secretary Thomas Ewing Secretary of the Interior.
Compromise of 1850
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. Taylor urged settlers in New Mexico and California to draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing the territorial stage. New Mexico was too small to act but California—which had high population growth from the gold rush—wrote a constitution that did not allow slavery; it was approved by the voters and a new state government took over in December 1849 without Congressional approval. Southerners were furious with Taylor and with California. In February 1850, Taylor 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. Henry Clay then proposed a complex Compromise of 1850. Taylor died as it was being debated. (The Clay version failed but another version did pass under the new president, Millard Fillmore.)
Administration and Cabinet
Portrait of Zachary Taylor
Supreme Court appointments
States admitted to the Union
The cause of Zachary Taylor's death is not well understood, nor is it well documented. On July 4, 1850, Taylor was diagnosed by his physicians with cholera morbus, a term that included diarrhea and dysentery but not true cholera. Cholera, typhoid fever, and food poisoning have all been indicated as the source of the president's ultimately fatal gastroenteritis. More specifically, a hasty snack of iced milk, cold cherries and pickled cucumbers consumed at an Independence Day celebration might have been the culprit. By July 9, Taylor was dead.
In 1991, Taylor's body was exhumed, and Larry Robinson and Frank Dyer conducted an autopsy at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Investigating the possibility of assassination by means of deliberate poisoning, Dyer and Robinson detected traces of arsenic and sent the results to a Kentucky medical examiner, who determined the quantity of arsenic present -- there is a faint amount of arsenic present naturally in the human body -- was several hundred times less than there would have been had he been poisoned with arsenic. Taylor is buried in Louisville, Kentucky, at what is now the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. At the exhumation, observers noted that Taylor's body, while somewhat decomposed, was still instantly recognizable as the 12th President--Taylor's brow ridge remained intact.
There is some strong evidence that Taylor died from complications of heat stroke. On July 4, 1850, the weather in Washington was hot and rather humid. Taylor was there to preside over ceremonies at the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. Taylor was sporting a thick coat, vest, high-collared shirt, and a top hat. Shortly after arriving, Taylor complained that he was very thirsty. He went to the reception table and downed a large amount of water directly from a pitcher.
Since the water was sitting in the sun, the idea of cholera is a possibility. But Taylor exhibited classic symptoms of heat stroke, particularly red, flushed skin on the face. Records also indicate that Taylor was having trouble walking and exhibiting slurred speech. At no time while outside did anyone loosen or remove Taylor's clothing. Only after returning to the White House was some of his clothing loosened. It was only a short time before Taylor collapsed.
At this point his clothing was removed, but internal organs had already been damaged. In fact, his doctors were mystified as to the cause of multiple organ failure. Medical sciences had not addressed heat stroke and the internal damage caused by it. According to author Charles Panati, Taylor actually awoke briefly and said- "I should not be surprised if this were to result in my death." He took a few sips of iced milk, again adding to the possibility of cholera. He lapsed again into unconsciousness and died on July 9,1850.
Taylor's son Richard became a Confederate Lieutenant General, while his daughter Sarah Knox Taylor (1814–1835) had married future President of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis three months before her death of malaria. Taylor's brother, Joseph Pannill Taylor, was a Brigadier General in the Union Army during the Civil War. . Taylor's niece Emily Ellison Taylor was the wife of Confederate General Lafayette McLaws.
President Taylor and his Cabinet
From left to right: William B. Preston, Thomas Ewing, John M. Clayton, Zachary Taylor
, William M. Meredith, George W. Crawford, Jacob Collamer and Reverdy Johnson.
- Taylor's term of service was scheduled to begin on March 4, 1849, but as this day fell on a Sunday, Taylor refused to be sworn in until the following day. Vice President Millard Fillmore was also not sworn in on that day. Most scholars believe that according the U.S. Constitution, Taylor's term began on March 4, regardless of whether he had taken the oath or not.
- Taylor always preferred old and slovenly clothes (including his unique straw hat) to military uniforms, leading to his nickname, "Old Rough and Ready."
- Taylor had a stutter.
- Taylor was a poor writer and had difficulty spelling.
- Taylor was the last Veteran of the War of 1812 to serve as President (the others were Andrew Jackson & W.H. Harrison); the only Veteran of the Second Seminole War as President; and the first Veteran from either the Black Hawk War (the other was Abraham Lincoln) or the Mexican-American War (the others were Franklin Pierce, and Ulysses Grant) to become President.
- In 1942, a Liberty ship named the SS Zachary Taylor was launched. The ship was scrapped in 1961.
- Michael Parenti devoted a chapter in his controversial 1999 book History as Mystery to what he called "The Strange Death of Zachary Taylor." In it he speculates that Taylor was assassinated and that his autopsy was botched.
- ^ Holt 1999 p 272
- Bauer, Jack K. Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest. Louisiana State University Press: 1993. ISBN 0-8071-1851-6
- Hamilton, Holman. Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic (1941) vol 1
- Hamilton, Holman. Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House (1951) vol 2
- Michael F. Holt; The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. (1999)
- Smith, Elbert B. The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. University Press of Kansas: 1988. ISBN 0-7006-0362-X.