Taylor, the third son in a large family, was born into the Virginia planter class at Orange County in 1784. His parents soon moved to the outskirts of Louisville, Ky., where in a few years they built Springfield as their residence. Tutors provided Taylor with an elementary education. In his late teens, he joined the Kentucky militia, and in 1808 entered the Regular Army and served as an infantry lieutenant at New Orleans. Two years later, on leave at home, he married Margaret Mackall Smith. Two of their five daughters were to die as children and one was to wed Jefferson Davis; their only son, Richard, was to become a Confederate general. A few months after his marriage, Zachary won a captaincy.
Next based at Forts Knox and Harrison, in Indiana Territory, Taylor took part in William Henry Harrison's campaign against the Indians and moved up to brevet major. During the War of 1812, he served mainly in the same area, though he spent a few months in present Iowa and Illinois, and became a major. In 1815, irked by a peacetime reduction in rank to captain, he resigned from the Army, but the next year he was reappointed as a major.
Long years of garrison duty followed. For some time he was stationed principally in the Mississippi Valley at posts scattered from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. He saw action in the Black Hawk War (1832), and advanced to a colonel. His next major assignment was in Florida, in the years 1837-40, where his role in the Second Seminole War gained him a brevet brigadier generalcy. From 1840 to 1844, while headquartered at Baton Rouge, La., near which he purchased property, he served for a time at Fort Smith, Ark., and Fort Gibson, Okla.; established Fort Washita, Okla.; and then assumed command of Fort Jesup, La.
In 1845 while Taylor was commanding the First Department of the Army at the latter fort, President Polk ordered him to prepare to defend Texas against a possible Mexican invasion, and he concentrated an army at Corpus Christi. The following January, Polk directed him to advance into the area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, which was disputed with Mexico.
Following the outbreak of hostilities there in the spring, before the United States declared war against Mexico, he won quick victories and the rank of brevet major general in battles at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. He subsequently crossed the Rio Grande and scored another success at Monterrey, shortly before which he became a major general in the Regular establishment.
But President Polk, dissatisfied with his independent manner of command and aware of his growing popularity with the public and his potential as a Presidential candidate for the Whigs, ordered him to remain in northern Mexico and sent Gen. Winfield Scott to capture Mexico City. Meantime, Taylor had triumphed again, at Buena Vista in early 1847, though Polk had already stripped him of most of his Regulars. Near the end of that year, his request to be relieved was granted. He returned home to a hero's welcome and the Presidency.
Although many Whigs had opposed the war, Taylor was attractive for a variety of reasons. His military record made him a certain vote getter in all parts of the country. As a southerner who owned a slave-operated plantation, he would strengthen the ticket of a party that was strongest in the North. Finally, essentially apolitical, he had not taken firm stands on any of the troublesome issues of the day.
The Whigs, however, had to expend considerable energy to enlist Taylor as their standard bearer. He disliked politics, had never even voted in a Presidential election, and was aware of his inexperience in statecraft. Even when a Whig faction induced him to make the race, only a couple of months before the 1848 convention, he asserted that he would be a national rather than a partisan President and that principle would prevail over party and politics.
The prime election issue, an explosive one, was the extension of slavery into the Southwest, newly acquired from Mexico. The Whigs avoided this issue and touted Taylor's military record. The Democratic Party, represented by Lewis Cass, straddled the fence by advocating popular sovereignty, or letting the residents of new areas decide for themselves whether or not they wanted slavery. Many antislavery Democrats and some dissident Whigs defected to the Free Soil Party. Its candidate, ex-President Martin Van Buren, took a strong stand against the expansion of slavery. In the close election, aided by the divisive influence of the Free Soilers, the Whigs triumphed.
Taylor's most urgent problem was the status of California and New Mexico. The rush generated by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 had created conditions that the new U.S. military government was unable to control. New Mexican and Texan contention over a strip of land between the Pecos River and Rio Grande threatened to erupt into a full-blown war. Inhibited by the inflammatory slavery issue, Polk had been unable to push Territorial bills for California and New Mexico through Congress, so Taylor inherited the task.
To the surprise of many people, Taylor soon demonstrated the political independence he had stressed in his campaign. Despite his southern background, his long military experience had made him an ardent nationalist. He rejected a congressional compromise on the slavery extension issue espoused by Whig leaders and attempted to end the legislative dispute once and for all. To avoid the crisis lengthy debates over the status of slavery in Federal Territories would create, he sought to bring California and New Mexico into the Union as States as soon as possible. In an echo of the Democratic platform, he sent word to residents of the two areas that they should decide the slavery issue for themselves. They should then bypass the Territorial stage, and draw up "republican" constitutions for admittance as States.
Congress, which felt it should make such a decision, was offended, as were also most southerners and Democratic leaders, who knew the two areas would prepare constitutions banning slavery. Some leading northern Whigs wanted to compromise, and the southern proslavery Whigs were incensed. Nevertheless, Taylor stuck to his position. He reacted to threats of secession by vowing to use military force if necessary to preserve the Union. Furthermore, he let it be known that, though he did not favor the Wilmot Proviso, which would exclude slavery from the entire territory acquired from Mexico, he would sign it if Congress passed it. He managed to irritate southern opinion further by opposing an expedition being organized to conquer Cuba. Even moderate southern Whigs began to desert him.
Early in 1850 Taylor, averting the possibility of armed conflict with Great Britain, negotiated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. This instrument attempted to resolve American and British disagreements in Central America and to neutralize the region pending the construction of a transoceanic canal.
Taylor was stricken suddenly on Independence Day 1850 at the White House, shortly after attending a ceremony at the Washington Monument, and died a few days later at the age of 65. Congress soon compromised on the slavery issue. But, as he had foreseen, a confrontation between the forces of union and disunion was inevitable.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004