Zachary Taylor

From Ohio History Central
Taylor, Zachary.jpg
President Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, in Orange County, Virginia. The following year, Taylor’s family moved to Kentucky. The Taylors settled near modern-day Louisville. Taylor received a modest education, as no public schools existed at this time. Taylor’s father tried to hire tutors for his son, but he had difficulty finding any on the frontier.

In 1808, Zachary Taylor joined the United States Army as a first lieutenant. Secretary of State, soon to be President, James Madison secured Taylor his commission. Two years later, Taylor received a promotion to captain. During the War of 1812, Taylor played an important role in the defense of Fort Harrison in Indiana against a coalition of six hundred American Indians, including Potawatomi, Wea, Winnebago, Kickapoo, and Shawnee. He was rewarded for his service by being breveted major. At the end of the War of 1812, military authorities reduced Taylor to the rank of captain due to the downsizing of the army and its officer corps. Taylor felt slighted by this reduction in rank, prompting him to resign from the U.S. Army.

In 1816, Taylor returned to the U.S. Army, now as a captain, and two years later, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. Over the next several decades, Taylor played an active role in several wars against the Native Americans, including the Black Hawk War and conflicts in Florida versus the Seminole. In 1841, now a brigadier general, Taylor assumed command of all United States forces in the southern part of the United States. He established a home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he became a sizable slave holder.

In 1845, Taylor accepted command of U.S. troops along the Texas-Mexico border. Both the United States and Mexico claimed Texas, and eventually the Mexican-American War erupted between the two countries. Taylor commanded United States troops in northern Mexico, emerging victorious at the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847.

Taylor’s victory at Buena Vista immediately made him a household name. The struggling Whig Party quickly nominated him for the United States presidency in 1848. Taylor won the election by nearly 140,000 popular and thirty-six Electoral College votes. Despite Taylor’s victory, this election began the collapse of the Whig Party. Taylor, a southern slave holder, divided the Whigs into Northern and Southern factions. As tensions increased over the expansion of slavery in the late 1840s and the early 1850s, Northern Whigs could not support a slave owner. The Democratic Party nominated Lewis Cass, a former Ohioan, but Southern Democrats could not support a Northern candidate. In the end, Taylor won, thanks to numerous Southern Democrats voting for him, but the Whig Party was in decline. The Whigs ran Winfield Scott in 1852. Scott lost to Franklin Pierce, and the growing tensions over slavery prevented the party from ever running another candidate for the presidency. The party divided, with most Southern Whigs joining the Democratic Party and Northern Whigs joining the Free-Soil Party.

Taylor proved to be ill-prepared for his presidency. He had no prior political experience. At this point in United States history, tensions between Northerners and Southerners over slavery and its expansion grew heated. Taylor advocated letting people living in a territory to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. United States Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun helped devise the Compromise of 1850, which sought to guarantee California’s admittance as a free state, while at the same time granting concessions, namely the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, to the Southerners. Many historians believe that Taylor would have vetoed the compromise, perhaps leading to civil war between the North and the South.

Taylor never had a chance to oppose or to support the Compromise of 1850. On July 4, 1850, Taylor laid the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. Extreme heat made him feel ill, and five days later, on July 9, 1850, Taylor died.

Ohioans actively supported Taylor in the presidential campaign of 1848. The principal reason for this was because many Ohio voters supported the Whigs and their call for internal improvements. Joseph Vance, a Whig, became the first Whig governor of Ohio in 1836. The Whig Party also dominated the Ohio legislature at this same time. The Panic of 1837 caused Ohio voters to replace Vance with Democrat Wilson Shannon and to replace the Whig majority in the legislature with a Democratic one. As the state’s economic conditions improved, Ohioans returned a Whig, Thomas Corwin, to the governor’s office. By 1845, the Whigs controlled both the legislature and the governor’s office once again. Unfortunately for Ohio Whigs, growing turmoil on the national level in the late 1840s and the early 1850s also influenced state politics. With Zachary Taylor’s death and the national collapse of the Whig Party, Ohio Whigs associated themselves with other parties, primarily the Free Soil Party, the Know-Nothing Party, and eventually the Republican Party.

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