US Consitution, Bill of Rights, and the Amendments
Article I Liked
General Zachary Taylor
The Hero of Buena Vista
Ol' Rough 'n' Ready
In 1849 there rose to the nation's highest
office a sixty-four-old fighting man who was so politically inexperienced
he had never even voted. As had been true for John Adams, his presidency
offers a cautionary tale about bringing too much independence into the
White House, for Zachary Taylor's crusty independence and complete disdain
for the maneuvering of politicians would eventually put him in conflict
with almost everyone in the government. "On the subject of the presidency...
I do not care a fig about the office," he once said. "I would be...
as well contented in a cabin as in the White House."
He had grown up in a log cabin, even though
he sprang from one of Virginia's most aristocratic families, which boasted
the famous Lees and Madisons as relatives. After the Revolutionary
War his father had emigrated to the Kentucky wilderness, where he hacked
a plantation out of the Kentucky badlands, then known as the "Dark and
Bloody Ground." At night "Little Zach" helped barricade the front
door against Indians. By day he played soldier, devising mock maneuvers.
Taylor entered the U.S. Army in 1808 and not
long after was ordered west into Indiana Territory where he would assume
command of Fort Harrison. During the War of 1812 his qualities of
leadership became evident. Standing just five feet eight inches and
weighing 170 pounds, he was self-reliant and decisive and completely fearless,
with a deep loyalty to his men and concern for their safety.
Once he repulsed a massive Shawnee attack with only a handful of soldiers.
"Although the Indians continued to pour in... an innumerable quantity of
arrows," he reported, "during the whole time the attack lasted... I had
but [two men] killed."
But it was in the late 1830's, during the
Second Seminole War, in Florida, that he earned the nickname "Old Rough
and Ready." There, during the ferocious battle of Lake Okee-cho-bee,
Taylor's toughness helped him prevail against severe attacks.
He became known as the finest Indian fighter in
the Army, and the fairest--meticulously sticking to treaties and preventing
whites from spreading into Indian lands. When he captured runaway
slaves who were fighting alongside the Seminoles, Taylor angered his fellow
Southerners when he refused to return them to their owners. But all
his life he was a man of contradictions and he remained, like his son-in-law
Jefferson Davis, an ardent supporter of slavery. "So far as slavery
is concerned," he said in the 1840's, "we must... defend our rights...
to the last... [with] the sword, if necessary."
In 1846, President James K. Polk ordered Zachary
Taylor and a small army to enter territory disputed between Texas and Mexico.
This led to the outbreak of the Mexican War, where decisive victories won
by Taylor turned him into a national hero. It was the first time
the telegraph was used to report day-to-day battle progress to newspapers,
and the American public was entranced. Even before the war was over,
Zachary Taylor was being mentioned as a presidential candidate.
"My repugnance for being a candidate has been frankly
made known," Taylor responded, "My... thought... are now occupied in bringing
this war to a speedy and honorable close."
But at the White House, the general's sudden
popularity was perceived as a political threat. President Polk wrote,
"Taylor is no doubt brave and will fight, but he is a man made giddy with
the idea of the presidency. He wholly unfit for the chief command."
And in 1846, Polk transferred most of Taylor's troops to another general.
"I [have] been stripped of nearly the whole
of the regular force & more than one half of the volunteers," Taylor
reported. "It seems to me the greatest object... is to keep me as
much in the dark... as... possible."
But nothing could stop Taylor from fighting.
Outnumbered four to one at Buena Vista, Mexico, Old Rough and Ready refused
to surrender. Through pure grit and determination, he pulled off
one of the most astonishing military victories in America's history.
"By pursuing the course I did," Taylor wrote, "I saved the administration,
[and] preserved... the national honor and our glorious flag from being
trailed in the dust."
The imagination of the people back home was
fired by newspaper accounts of the stocky general who did things his own
way--how he wore civilian clothes and an old straw hat in action, took
bullets through his sleeve, and fought on the front line alongside his
men. In Washington, a "Taylor for President" club was formed, led
by a group of Whig congressmen that included a young Abraham Lincoln.
An in an age when generals were more revered than politicians, Taylor was
actively pursued by three national parties. "I was nominated by...
Whigs, Democrats, and Natives, in separate and mixed meetings," he explained.
"I resisted them all."
Part of Taylor's appeal lay in the fact that
no one knew what political party he belonged to, or where he stood on any
major issue. Persuaded that he had to be connected with a specific
party, Taylor finally announced that he was a Whig, but then cautioned,
"not an ultra Whig."
"Near forty years of my life have been passed
in the military," Taylor wrote, "in the camp, in the field or... in the
INdian country. I... have had but little time to... investigate political
In November 1848, Zachary Taylor's independent
spirit and ambiguous politics helped get him elected the country's twelfth
president. "My triumphs and trials have commenced," Taylor wrote.
"In the discharge of my duties, my guide will be the constitution."
In the White Hose, Taylor looked as disheveled
as he had in the field. Neither a drinker nor a smoker, he was a
confirmed tobacco chewer, and visitors said he had perfect spitting aim,
never missing a sand-filled box across his office. "I will commit
many blunders there can be no doubt," he once exclaimed. "But I flatter
myself they will... be attributed to the head and not to the heart."
From the start, Taylor seemed to go out of
his way to alienate fellow Whigs. He virtually ignored his own cabinet
members, as well as such influential senators as Henry Clay and Daniel
Webster. And determined to communicate with all political parties,
he by passed the established Whig press and set up his own administration
Just twelve years before the Civil War, the
major issue of Taylor's presidency centered on the institution of slavery.
By the Mexican War, the United States had gained vast new Western territories
including what would become the states of California and New Mexico.
The issue now was whether they would become slave states or free.
Everyone assumed the slaveowning president would see to it that the institution
of slavery was extended. "I was represented as a southern slaveholder...
in the favor of the extension of slavery," Taylor wrote, "[and as a man
who] trafficked in human flesh."
But in his annual message to Congress, Taylor
revealed that above all else he was a confirmed Unionist, and was in favor
of the admission of the new states even if they first banned slavery.
Southerners were stunned, and called the President a "turncoat."
Speaking on behalf of his fellow Southern congressmen, an exasperated Alexander
Stephens confronted Taylor in the White House and threatened secession
if e didn't change his policy. The old general grew furious.
"I informed [him] that f they were taken in rebellion against the Union,
I would hang then with less reluctance that I had hung [sic] deserters
and spies in Mexico!"
With the country hurtling toward civil war,
a national debate now raged in Congress, attempting to find a compromise
between North and South. But in the White House, Zachary Taylor dug
in his heels, refusing to cooperate with anyone. Threatening to veto
any congressional compromise, even if that meant risking civil war, he
said he would personally take charge of the Army if necessary, and that
he was determined to do what he thought right, no matter what the consequence.
"I esteem the President," bemoaned fellow Whig Daniel Webster, "but the
administration is doomed and the Whig Party with it."
This was the chaotic state of affairs in America
when the country paused to celebrate its seventy-fourth Independence Day.
Just sixteen months into office, an exhausted President Taylor sat under
a roasting sun for hours during a Fourth of July observance. Then
he downed large quantities of tainted milk [*] and raw fruit and vegetables.
Stricken by acute gastroenteritis, the invincible hero was confined to
his bed--eating ice, taking quinine, being bled. His condition, made
worse by the efforts of his doctors, would lead to his death in less than
On July 9, 1850, Vice President Millard Fillmore
prepared to assume office and inherit the unresolved crisis Taylor wa leaving
behind. And for one brief moment the entire nation, both Northerners
and Southerners, united in sorrow. It was a fitting tribute to a
man who had stubbornly clung to his independence throughout a mounting
political storm. Taylor's last words were to his family, grouped
around his bed. "The storm, in passing, has swept away the trunk...
I expect the summons soon... I regret nothing."
Some Taylor quotations
to the Biographies
From The American President, by Philip Kundardt,
Jr., Philip Kundardt III, & Peter Kundardt, Riverhead Books, New York,
1999. ISBN 157322149