General Zachary Taylor
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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 matters."
     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 newspaper.
     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 a week.
     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

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From The American President, by Philip Kundardt, Jr., Philip Kundardt III, & Peter Kundardt, Riverhead Books, New York, 1999.  ISBN 157322149