Wednesday, December 21, 2011

10 Fun Facts About Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor, the 12th President of the United States

1)  Born in Virginia in 1784, Taylor came from a distinguished line of American families that included three passengers on the Mayflower.  His second cousin was future President James Madison.  The family moved to the frontier of Kentucky when Taylor was still a child, and he grew up in a log cabin near present day Louisville, where his father - a prominent Revolutionary war officer - became a large landowner.  

2)  Because of his frontier upbringing, Taylor had virtually no formal education, and this is illustrated in a number of personal letters where he routinely misspells words and uses poor grammar.

3)  Taylor entered military service around 1808 and served throughout the War of 1812.  His duties with the military eventually took him to New Orleans, and he ultimately bought a plantation and settled in nearby Baton Rouge.  Shortly after entering military service, he met and married a Maryland woman named Margaret Smith.  Together, they had 6 children.  Taylor's only son, Richard, would later become a general in the Confederate army.  One of his daughters, Elizabeth, fulfilled the duties of First Lady while her father was president; Taylor's wife Margaret, by this time, was a virtual recluse and took no part in official functions.

4)  In 1835, another daughter, Sarah, met and married a young West Point graduate named Jefferson Davis.  Taylor disapproved of the marriage because he didn't want a military life for his daughter.  In order to get Taylor's blessing, Davis resigned his commission in the military.  Sarah, however, died after only three months of marriage.  Davis, of course, would go on to become the President of the Confederacy during the Civil War.  He and his former father-in-law remained estranged until serving together in the 1840's.

5)  Taylor rose to prominence for his service in the Mexican War of the mid-1840's, where he won a number of decisive victories against superior Mexican forces.  When he returned from the war, he was welcomed as a hero, with many people comparing him to the likes of George Washington and Andrew Jackson.  He was commonly known by the nickname "Old Rough and Ready."

6)  Taylor was courted as a presidential candidate in 1848 primarily because of his prominence as a war hero.  Prior to running for president, Zachary Taylor had never even personally voted in a presidential election.  Pursued by both the Whig and the Democratic parties, he eventually declared himself a Whig and easily won their nomination for president.  With the Democratic party partially split by an anti-slavery third party called the Free Soil Party (which nominated former president Martin Van Buren), Taylor managed to win the election, despite only garnering 47% of the popular vote.

7)  Taylor was the last U.S. president to own slaves while in the White House.

8)  The issue of slavery - and, specifically, the question of whether slavery should be allowed to expand into new western territories won in the Mexican War - dominated most of Taylor's time in office.  Though he was a slaver-holder himself, Taylor supported the so-called Wilmot Proviso, which would have effectively outlawed slavery in new western territories.  Southern states threatened to secede over this issue, and Taylor - a nationalist to the core - promised to lead the armies himself, if necessary, to preserve the Union.  In a meeting with southern leaders in February of 1850, he is said to have stated: "Anyone taken in rebellion against the Union, I will hang, with less reluctance than I hanged deserters and spies in Mexico."

9)  While discussions were taking place among the leaders of Congress on a compromise solution to the question of slavery in the western territories, Taylor took a break in July, 1850, to observe the groundbreaking ceremonies, on July 4, of the new Washington Monument.  It was a hot day, and he cooled off by consuming fruit and milk.  Within several days, he was battling a severe digestive ailment, possibly cholera, and succumbed to the illness on July 9, 1850, only 16 months into his presidency.  He became the second president in less than a decade to die in office from illness.  He was buried near his childhood home in Louisville, Kentucky.

10)  In the 1980's, questions began to be raised about the possibility that Zachary Taylor had been assassinated by poisoning.  The theories pointed to the unusual circumstances of his death (there were no known cholera outbreaks that year in Washington, and his symptoms are not entirely consistent with other food-born illnesses, like typhoid), and to the fact that he had many political enemies in Washington, due to his refusal to compromise over the issue of slavery.  It is a historical fact that, without Taylor's death, the Compromise of 1850 - which allowed California into the Union as a free state, but which kept slavery possible in other territories - may never have happened.  As a result of this speculation, Taylor's body was exhumed in 1991, to be tested for arsenic - which tends to remain in the body after death.  The tests showed conclusively that Taylor was not poisoned by arsenic.  The medical examiners who opened his casket reported that his body was well-preserved, and was recognizable from photographs of the long-dead president.


BC said...

The Poisoning Theory leads me to recommend strongly the reading of "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York". In the opening pages, the use of arsenic is discussed as well as reasons why murderers quit using it. It is a very fascinating read.

Scott said...

I have to say that among all the presidents I have researched so far, Old Rough and Ready is my favorite.

It's noteworthy to point out (and I guess I should have made this one of the "facts"): Taylor is the only true "Independent" president we have ever had, since the formation of the 2-party system in 1820. He was not a member of any political party during his life, and never held public office prior to becoming president.

A few other presidents have also never held public office before - notably Eisenhower and Grant. But both those men were the supreme commanders of the U.S. army, which is essentially a political job anyway.

Taylor is the only president in U.S. history who had never held either public office, nor the top post in the U.S. military. The highest he got was major general, which essentially made him a battlefield general - he was basically a soldier. He was, without question, the most non-political man who ever got elected to the White House.

We need a Zachary Taylor today, I fear.