Zachary Taylor (1784-1850)

Figure 1.--.

Zaccary Taylor was the 12th president of the United States. He was the first military hero elected without previous elected office. He may in fact have been the only President not to have voted for himself. The Whigs, desperate for a presidential electoral victory, nominated Taylor without any idea of his views on key issues. He was a firm Union man and threatened to hang Southern secessionists as high as he hung traitors in Mexico. He died in office of food poisoning after serving only 16 months. He is regared as an honest, stright forward man. Confederate President Jeffereson Davis was his son in law. His son was to become a Confederate General.


Zaccary Taylor was born into a distinguished Virginia family. His father owned a plantation and served in the Kentucky state legislature. He was related to President James Madison's great grandfather. His mother's discendents were on the Mayflower.


Zaccary came from a large family with seceral brothers and sisters:
Hancock: Hancock was an elder brother.
James: One of Zachary's younger brothers was James P. Taylor who served in the Union Army during the Civil War as the Quarter-master General.


Zaccary Taylor was born in Virginia during 1784. He was taken as an infant to Kentucky and raised on a plantation. He grew up in near Louisville, Kentucky. The family moved in 1785, building a small log cabin which evolved into a plantation. Little is known about his childhhod.

Childhood Clothing

I have little information on how Zaccary or his brothers were dressed as children.


Taylor's political enemies accussed him of being an ignorant, uneduacated backwoods general. This was totally inaccurate. It is true that he had little formal early schooling. Presumably he had private tutors as he wrote well and clearly had a solid basic education.

Military Career

Taylor was a career officer in the Army. He had little preparation, but was promoted because he was such an effective leader. He spent a quarter of a century policing the frontiers against Indians. Actually he spent much of the time defending the Indiansd against incroachments by the settlers. He believed that the treaties that the U.S. Government signed with the Indian nations should be honored. He objected to instructiions received by President Madison in that regard. In the Mexican War he won major victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista. President Polk, disturbed by General Taylor's informal habits of command and perhaps his Whiggery as well, kept him in northern Mexico and sent an expedition under Gen. Winfield Scott to capture Mexico City. Taylor, incensed, thought that "the battle of Buena Vista opened the road to the city of Mexico and the halls of Montezuma, that others might revel in them."


He had an abiding interest in cotton raising. His home was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and he owned a plantation in Mississippi. He was reportedly a very kind slave holder and carefully chose the overseares. He would even distribute money to the slaves after a good crop. Taylor did not defend slavery or southern sectionalism; 40 years in the Army made him a strong nationalist.

The 1848 Campaign

The Whigs nominated Taylor without his permission. He didn't find out about it until 1 month later. The letter had been sent postage due and Taylor had refused it. (He had been receiving a lot of fan mail with postage due and had decided to refuse all postage due letters.) Taylor's opponents criticised him for never voting. It is true that he never voted, but this was primarily because he was usually out on the frontier defending settlers or defending Indians. Defending Indians was not popular with the settlers who wanted their land. Taylor believed the U.S. Government should obey the treaties it signed with the Indians. As a young officer, he had objected to President Madison's instructions on this issue. "Old Rough and Ready's" military legend and homespun ways were political assets. His long military record appealed to northerners; his ownership of 100 slaves would lure southern votes. He had not committed himself on troublesome issues. The Whigs nominated him to run against the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, who favored letting the residents of territories decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery. In protest against Taylor the slaveholder and Cass the advocate of "squatter sovereignty," northern abolitionists who opposed extension of slavery into territories formed a Free Soil Party and nominated Martin Van Buren. In a close election, the Free Soilers pulled enough votes away from Cass to elect Taylor.


Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in the Americas. Slavery in earlier epochs had no racial connotations. With the growth of the African slave trade, slavery in the Western mind became associated with race as with the collapse of Native American populations, it was Africans who were enslaved in huge numbers. European Christian who would not have tolerated the enslavement of other Europeans found little objection to enslaving black Africans. Slavery as an issue had been avoided at the Contitutional Convention. Many thought that slavery in the South would gradually fade away because of the greater efficency of free labor. The invention of the cotton gin and the resulting economic importance of cotton, however, created a southern economy based on slavery. Slavery periodically as an issue arose in the first half 19th century, but was again defused by the Misourri Compromise in 1820. With the acquisition of new western territories in the Mexican War, slavery reemerged and became the center of a growing and increasingly shrill nationalmdeabate througout the 1850s.


Taylor was the first career soldier to attain the Presidency. The issue of slavery and possible Southern succession dominated the short Taylor presidency. As a result of the Mexican War, the issue of slavery had been kindled as never before. Growing abolitionist feeling in the North made the issue increasingly volitile. Northerners and Southerners disputed sharply whether the territories wrested from Mexico should be opened to slavery, and some Southerners even threatened secession. Standing firm, Zachary Taylor was prepared to hold the Union together by armed force rather than by compromise. It is likely without the leadership of Taylor and Fillmore that the Union ould have divided or the Civil War would have begun at this time.

The Whig Party

Although Taylor had subscribed to Whig principles of legislative leadership, he was not inclined to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress. He acted at times as though he were above parties and politics. As disheveled as always, Taylor tried to run his administration in the same rule-of-thumb fashion with which he had fought Indians.

State constitutions

Slavery was accepted in Texas which at the time of the Mexican War was an independent country. The situation in the rest of the territory gained from Mexico was more complicated. Traditionally, people in the western territories decided whether they wanted slavery when they drew up new state constitutions. Therefore, to end the dispute over slavery in new areas, Taylor urged settlers in New Mexico and California to draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing the territorial stage.

Other slavery issues

Southerners were furious, since neither state constitution was likely to permit slavery; Members of Congress were dismayed, since they felt the President was usurping their policy-making prerogatives. In addition, Taylor's solution ignored several acute side issues: the northern dislike of the slave market operating in the District of Columbia; and the southern demands for a more stringent fugitive slave law.

Suport for the Union

In February 1850 President Taylor had held a stormy conference with southern leaders who threatened secession. He told them that if necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would lead the Army. Persons "taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang ... with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico." He never wavered.

Unexpected death

Then events took an unexpected turn. After participating in ceremonies at the Washington Monument on a blistering July 4, Taylor fell ill. He had been eating cherries and milk at the ceremony at the Washington Monument. Within five days he was dead. He was only the second president to die in office up to that time. That brought to office his Vice President--Millard Fillmore. Fillmore without Taylor's firmidable national stature was left to contend with the incendiary issues of slavery and rebellion. Under Fillmore's leadership, the forces of compromise triumphed, but the war Taylor had been willing to face came 11 years later.

First Lady

Margaret Mackall "Peggy" Smith

Margaret Mackall Smith was born in Calvert County, Maryland (1788). She was known as "Peggy" and is to date the only First Lady born in Maryland. Her parents were Walter Smith and Ann Mackall. Smith was a according to family sources a major in the Revolutionary War. Peggy visited a sister in Kentucky (1809). While there she met a dashing 24-year old army Lieutenant--Zachary Taylor. He literally swept her off her feet. Tghey had a June wedding the next year in Louisville (1810). While Taylor was soldering, Peggy styed on a farm Zachgary's father presented them as a weeding gift. Their first child was born on the farm. Peggy did not like being separated from Zachary and began living on the army posts where he was assigned. These mostly frontier garrisons were both remote and basic. Some were even dangerous. Peggy was by all accounts willing to bear the hardships with her cheerful personality. Taylor was in the Army for 38 years after their mairrage. Peggy most of the time was at his side. One individual at the time described her as one of the "delicate females ... reared in tenderness" who had to educate "worthy and most interesting" children at a fort in Indian country." The Taylors lost two small girls (1820). Taylor called the sickness "a violent bilious fever" which also weakened their mother's health impaired. Three girls and a boy survived to adulthood. Taylor was impressed with Peggy's stamina, but advised his daughters not to marry military men. Each decided to marry soldiers anyway. Growing up on military based surronded by handsome young men probably made the choices inevitable. Knox, their second daughter, married of all people, Lt. Jefferson Davis. Her lettwers home provide emotive descriptions of home life. In one letter she describes how much she misses hedr psrents and has loving images of her mother skimming milk in the cellar or going out to feed the chickens. Knox died of malaia only 3 months after the marriage. Taylor was not pleased with the marriage in the first plasce and was furious when he learned of Peggy's death. The two were finally reconciled when they fought together in Mexico, Both men retuned home war heros. Mrs. Taylor after years of dutifully following her husband from one dreary frintier post to another was looking forward to a comfortable retirement together with her husband. They planned to settlediwn in Baton Rouge, Lousiana. Then came the news that the Whig Party had nominated her husband for President (1848). The Whigs hoped to replicate their preseidential victory with Harrison. Taylor was emensely popular as a result of his victories in the Mexica War. She was stuned and absolutely refused to participate in the election campaign. After the election of 1848, a passenger on a Mississippi riverboat struck up a conversation with easy-mannered Gen. Zachary Taylor, not knowing his identity. The passenger remarked that he didn't think the general qualified for the Presidency--was the stranger "a Taylor man"? "Not much of one," came the reply. The general went on to say that he hadn't voted for Taylor, partly because his wife was opposed to sending "Old Zack" to Washington, "where she would be obliged to go with him!" It was a truthful answer. Moreover, the story goes that Margaret Taylor had taken a vow during the Mexican War: If her husband returned safely, she would never go into society again. In fact she never did, though prepared for it by genteel upbringing. She in fact was a dedicated wife to the the young Zachary Taylor as he moved up the Army's chain of command. She steadfastly refused, however, to perform her duties as the President's wife. She accompanied him to Washington, but absolutely refused to fill any official duties as First Lady. She essentially retired to an upstairs sitting room. There she would receive friends and family. Peggy presided at the family dining table, met a few special groups at her husband's side, and worshiped with him at St. John's Episcopal Church. She resolutely refused , howerver, to took any part in formal social functions. A factor here was that she was in poor health and walked with dufficulty. She spent most of her husbnd's relatively short presidency in her secluded upstairs room. Jefferson Davis also came to Washington. He was elected to Congress from Mississippi. Davis second wife made friends with Mrs. Taylor and would call on her at the White House. This might qualify her as the worst First Lady, but a mnore accurate desriptiion is that she refused to be First Lady.

Mary Elizabeth Taylor Bliss

Peggy relegated all the First Lady duties of official hostess to her youngest and recently married daughter, Mary Elizabeth. She was at the time 25 years old and had recently married Lt. Col. William W.S. Bliss, adjutant and secretary to the President. Betty Bliss by all accounts filled her role admirably. One observer at the time thought that her manner blended "the artlessness of a rustic belle and the grace of a duchess."


Zacary's children loved him dearly. Peggy gave him six children, one son and five daughters. Two tragically died in infancy and only three grew to adulthood. While he had little formal education, he strongly believed in educating his children, including his daughters. They were sent to Eastern schools. His son Richard was even sent to European schools.

Anne Margargaret Mackall (1811-1875)

Anne married army doctor Robert C. Wood. They had four children. Her husband remained in the Union Army during the Civil War, but did not survive it. Two of their sons, however, fought for the Confederacy, as did Zacary's own son Richard. After the War Anne lived in Germany with a daughter that had married a baron.

Sarah (1814-35)

Sarah was known as Knox. She somehow survived malaria in childhood while her father was posted in the Mississippi Delta. Two of her younger sisters did not. She fell in love with a handsome young officer--Jefferson Davis. She married him despite her parents' objections. He took her back to his home state of Mississippi. She died from another bout with Malaria a few months later while still on her honeymoon.

Octavia Pannel r (1816-20)

Octavia contacted malaria and died when she was only 3 years old while her father was posted in the Mississippi Delta.

Margaret Smith (1819-20)

Margaret also contacted malaria and died a few months after Octavia.

Mary Elizabeth (1824-1909)

Mary was called Betty. She became her father's official White House hostess because her mother refused to participate in social functions. She was a beautiful young woman and proved ememsely popular. She married twice. First to Major William Bliss, but he died in 1853. Her second husband was Philip Dandridge. They lived in Winchester, Virginia where their hiouse became known as the "Salon of the Shenandoah Valley". There were no children.

Richard (1836-1879)

Richard grew up on frontier army posts. I have no information on how he was dressed as a boy. As an older boy, Richard was sent to study in Paris and Edinburgh and finally Yale University. He acted as his father's aide-de-camp during the Mexican War and his private secretary during his presidency. He never attempted to gain peronally from his family heritage. His father was a noted Union man and didn't want a military career for his son. Richard pursued a different direction in his life. He became a Confederate general during the Civil War. He served under Stonewall Jackson in the Valley Campaign. He was reportedly the last Confederate General to surrender east of the Mississippi River. He was also a plantation manager, politician, and author. He died of congestion aggrevated by rheumatoid arthritis. He was destitute.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis, who was to become the Confederate President, served under Taylor on the frontier. Davis at the time was a young lieutenat and fell in love with one of his commanding offier's daughters. Given the rough life his wife endured, he discouraged the mairrage. Davis was irate and thought about challenging Taylor to a duel, not the brightest idea. Taylor eventually gave in but, but his daughter died shortly after in Mississippi. Taylor and Davis were eventually reconsilded. Davis fought with bravery during the Mexican War. They ultimately disagreed over the looming sectionlist issues, but Taylor said there differences would not affect their relationship.


Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Familirs (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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Created: June 25, 1999
Last changed: 12:44 AM 7/7/2010