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Zachary Taylor Biography

Lesson Plans |

#12: Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

Zachary Taylor (November 24, 1784 – July 9, 1850) had a forty-year career in the Army, with the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and the Mexican-American War among his credits. His presidency did not get a chance to measure up, as he died after 16 months in office; this is the third-shortest presidential tenure in US history. James Madison was Taylor’s second cousin.

Zachary Taylor was born in Barboursville, Virginia to a planter family and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. His father Richard Lee Taylor had been a lieutenant colonel in the Revolutionary War and prospered during Zachary’s youth due to a period of boom in Kentucky. As Richard acquired land and slaves, Zachary got whatever education he could in an area with no formal schools. His somewhat informal education may account for his similarly informal approaches to military and political leadership, not to mention his homespun philosophies and mannerisms.

Prior to 1848, the year he was elected President, Taylor had never spoken publicly about his political convictions – he hadn’t ever voted, either. Yet his stature, earned through his fiercely devoted military service, was such that during the 1840s increasing numbers of groups arose clamoring for a presidential run by Taylor. That this support came from an uncommonly diverse cross-section of Americans from different regions, political parties, and factions made one thing clear: Zachary Taylor was in demand to reach the White House. But on whose ticket?

Taylor was at heart politically independent. He believed in the core elements of the Whigs’ approach to governing: the President should not meddle in Congress and should veto only those laws which are unconstitutional, and the might and integrity of collective decision-making should be respected. But he was apathetic to specific party platforms. Far from a Jacksonian Democrat, Taylor disapproved heartily of Jackson’s dismantling of the Second Bank of the United States; far from a true Whig, he considered the very concept of a national bank “dead, and [it] will not be revived in my time.” Though he owned slaves, he thought the expansion of slavery into the west was a moot point, as he believed the west was not conducive to a southern-style plantation economy, and his military experience made him a staunch nationalist who had no tolerance for threats of secession.

He ultimately ran on the Whig ticket, though he was careful not to commit to stances on hot-button issues and didn’t even exhibit the pretense of partisan loyalty. In the Election of 1848, the expansion of slavery was on everyone’s minds as the US had just acquired California and New Mexico, where the question of slavery was still unanswered. Democrat Lewis Cass believed that the residents should answer it for themselves. Former President, and former Democrat, Martin Van Buren ran against both Cass and Taylor for the Free Soil Party, a short-lived party formed in opposition to the expansion of slavery. The Free Soilers split the Democratic vote and handed Taylor the election. Taylor in turn instructed the people of California and New Mexico to skip the traditional territorial stage, draft constitutions, and apply for statehood. This irked Congress for obvious reasons, and southerners who knew (as Taylor did) that these constitutions would likely forbid slavery. When southern leaders threatened to secede, he threatened to respond with military force – and personally lead the Army. But after a sweltering Independence Day, 1850, Taylor fell ill with a still-mysterious ailment and died five days later.

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zachary taylor biography

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