Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest
Author: K. Jack Bauer
Release Date: August 1993
Most of what I knew about Zachary Taylor prior to reading this book, I had learned from two separate sources. Most of my knowledge came from reading the James Polk biography by Robert Merry, “A Country of Vast Designs,” which detailed Taylor’s Mexican war exploits and his ascension to presidential candidate for the Whig party. The rest of my knowledge came from “John Tyler: Champion of the Old South,” by Oliver Chitwood. Chitwood’s novel didn’t talk about Taylor at all, but I used to get Taylor and Tyler confused quite a bit, so reading that one helped me remember which one Tyler was, which gave me some knowledge on Taylor by process of elimination.
I’m sure that I will see patterns as I read more presidential biographies, and authors will likewise point out similarities, but upon finishing “Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest” I got a heavy sense of déjà vu with one William Henry Harrison. The Whig party of that era has always seemed to pale in comparison to the Democrat party of the era, or even the Federalist party before it. Instead of leaders like Jackson and Jefferson, the Whig party took many of its leads from Henry Clay who (although a major figure of his era) history has not venerated as it has his rivals. The two Whig presidents to win presidential elections ended up both being military leaders following American wars, and both were elected on vague politics than on the strength of any issues. Where William Henry Harrison was elected based on catchy log cabin campaigning and rhyming slogans, Zachary Taylor thrived with alliterative nicknames (“Old Rough and Ready”) and a refusal to take positions on important issues of the era.
For Harrison’s quick successor John Tyler, this led to problems when Tyler differed from Clay’s position on Whig party issues. Similarly, Zachary Taylor ended up sharing more ideals with the Democrat party than his own party was aware of when he was elected. It appeared to be a case of both the Whig party as well as the American voters not learning their lesson when electing a former military commander without first forcing the candidate to declare their position on issues. Taylor’s position (as well as Harrison’s) called for limited involvement by the chief executive, which mitigated the fallout during Taylor’s time as Commander in Chief. Of course, the final similarity is the tragic end of both men. Harrison’s legacy in the history books is his death just months after being elected. Were it not for him, Taylor would be in for the similar distinction of dying two years into his term. Here’s how Taylor scores in my presidential rating rubric.
Born Into – If you’re ever looking to read a quick history of America, you can probably just grab a Virginia history book and get most of the same information. The twelfth President has the same distinction as six of his predecessors in being born in Virginia. Similarly to Polk and Jackson (who were not born in Virginia), Taylor’s family moved west and transplanted him to Kentucky at a young age. The third son of a wealthy family (not Madison wealthy, but closer to Madison’s wealth than Jackson’s humble beginnings), Taylor had access to land and slaves and even a possible military commission through his family and name. 2/5
Pre-President – The bulk of this book is spent on Taylor’s military career prior to being elected president. However, unlike William Henry Harrison, Andrew Jackson or George Washington, Taylor’s military career was fairly unremarkable. Beginning with the War of 1812, Taylor’s troops were involved in some small Indian skirmishes, but his only involvement significant enough to warrant discussion was the his defense of Fort Harrison from Indian attack. Taylor was successful in fighting off the intruders and utilized the civilians present to fight fires and load muskets, but the numbers were on the small side and it did not play a significant role in Taylor’s advancement in command.
Between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War (1816 to 1846) Taylor’s military record is very uneventful with one exception. Bauer does a nice job showing Taylor’s character during these thirty years, and the result is not flattering to the subject. Much of Taylor’s surviving writings (most of his letters were destroyed by the boys in blue during the Civil War) are letters sent during this period in which he showed continued frustration at slow advancement in army (brevet commissions were detailed heavily in contributing to this problem). Bauer described Taylor as suffering from “30 year old syndrome,” which boiled down to the future president having a bad attitude about his station in life. Taylor was routinely quick to lose his temper and committed himself to two duels, but neither took place. When not requesting promotion in the army, he was often involved in petty arguments and grudges with other officers, or taking leave for vacations to his new home in Baton Rouge, LA.
The only real action or excitement during this time was the Battle of Lake Okeechobee in the Florida Seminole conflicts, which ended up being the bloodiest battle of 19th Century Indian Warfare. Taylor’s troops took heavy losses, particularly his volunteer militia (which Taylor was never fond of using). Taylor was criticized for sacrificing his volunteer militia in his battle plan, but still got a promotion to Brigadier following the battle and became leader of the Army of the South in dealing with the Florida Indian problem. During this period he earned his nickname, Old Rough and Ready, but like all the other commanders dealing with defending Florida was not able to solve the problems. I’ll give Taylor credit for trying some innovative ideas (establishing a grid of outposts for quick responses, using bloodhounds to track Indians (unsuccessfully)) which stood out in contrast to his conservative leadership in the Mexican American War.
Bauer repeatedly made the point that Taylor was not a great tactician and also lacked a killer instinct to pursue enemy and end conflicts. As part of four battles in the Mexican American War, all were victories but each was criticized by historians for Taylor’s decision making. Taylor comes across as a presence for the army more than a tactician or motivator. Dressed as a farmer on all but two occasions (according to another officer), Taylor would often play jokes on new arrivals and pretend to be somebody other than the General. He would later run his cabinet as he did his command, allowing those under him to make decisions on strategy and command, and rather than take over should they fail, he would withdraw and replace the individual later on. His most famous battle is certainly Buena Vista; again Bauer goes to great lengths to minimize Taylor’s actual planning and even presence (Taylor mistakenly believed the battle was over prematurely and left to inspect a hospital at one point) with two officers (Wool and Worth) doing more of the leading. With the War still ongoing, Taylor requested six months leave shortly after Buena Vista, and left for home before it was even granted. 2/5
Presidential Career – I will be interested to find out if any President ever takes the office being as underqualified as Zachary Taylor. Not holding political offices or being involved with political associates is one thing, but Taylor’s political naivety far exceeded that. As an illustration, when Taylor was elected, about 83% of those that could legally vote, did; that was also a low turnout for that year. Taylor, by contrast, had NEVER voted before. If you also read Merry’s Polk biography, there is an argument to be made that Taylor was confused on which political party even represented his own personal views. Despite identifying himself as a Jefferson democrat, he would run as a Whig candidate. On the few occasions Taylor would disclose his views on any given topic, they would often be diametrically opposed to the party he was running for and he would be advised to cease commenting on issues. With that background, what exactly did he bring to the office? Regardless, he ended up defeating both Martin Van Buren of the Free Soil Party and Lewis Cass in the Democratic Party
Taylor’s political views ended up being easy to summarize in the abstract, and harder to pinpoint on specific issues of the time. He opposed using the veto, preferring laws to come from the legislature. He opposed protective tariffs, and didn’t believe the national bank was feasible, while also favoring internal improvements. Most significantly, he believed slavery should be protected but not extended, and he was not committed to the Monroe Doctrine. When assembling his cabinet, Taylor focused more on geography than skill or merit, trying to represent the country. The possibility exists that he was trying to form his own political party but I’m skeptical he was ambitious or intelligent enough to have actually taken steps toward this. The result of his weak cabinet was there was no implementation of any domestic policies during Taylor’s term in office, and his relationship with Congress was poor.
The two main issues of Taylor’s presidency were the slavery issue in new American territories and a proposed canal in Nicaragua. It is through these two issues that we must judge Taylor’s presidency, as so little was accomplished by his administration. Complicating this is that Taylor died before the Compromise of 1850 was even reached, leaving the biographer (and reader) to speculate on what little information can be verified. Negotiating a potential Nicaraguan canal with Britain (who had an interest in their Moskito Islands protectorate) seems minor in the abstract but should certainly be considered the major legacy of the Taylor Administration. The resulting Clayton-Bullwer treaty was reached and has been praised and criticized for its two results. First, the concessions by both Great Britain and America to not expand further into Central America ended manifest destiny to the South. Taylor’s non-agreement with the Monroe Doctrine also shows as Great Britain was allowed to remain in Central America. This latter effect would be minimized due to a number of economic and political factors which would later lead to British withdrawal from the Moskito protectorate, no thanks to Taylor.
Following the Mexican American War, the new territories of California, Utah, New Mexico and Texas posed the greatest question to American leadership since Independence. The southern states were well aware that the North would continue to have advantages in the House of Representatives for the future, so the admission of new states and territories was of vital importance in determining the strength of the Senate. All parties also became aware that Utah, California and New Mexico were not interested in having slavery be a part of their new state Constitutions. A number of proposals came forth to allow Northern and Southern agreement on this, but each required concessions from both sides. Taylor surprised many by actually siding with the Northern Whigs proposal. The reason for this is unclear, as it’s possible Taylor was preferring to save the larger number of northern votes for a possible second term, or it’s possible that Taylor viewed preserving the Union as tantamount to any sectional interests. The ultimate resolution would be saved for Millard Fillmore, but Taylor’s passivity and eventual position do not harm him in the eyes of his historian.