November 24, 1784 – July 9, 1850
12th President of the United States
In office 1849-1850
Vice President Millard Fillmore
Preceded by James K. Polk
Succeeded by Millard Fillmore
From the painting, by G. P. A. Healy , in the Corcoran Gallery
at Washington, D. C. It is one
of a series of portraits painted by Mealy
for the Royal Gallery at Versailles.
ZACHARY TAYLOR; was born November 24, 1784, in Orange County, Va. He was yet an infant, less than a year old, when
his father made a new home for the family in the Kentucky wilderness, not far from the present city of Louisville.
The settlers were exposed to nightly attacks from the savages, and when young Zachary was old enough to be sent
to school, he went, as did his companions, armed for defense, and a regular company drill formed an important part
of the education of the sturdy lads of the frontier. Among his schoolmates he was noted for his activity and bluntness,
his modesty and intelligence. Accustomed from his earliest years to live in the midst of continual preparations
for war, it was not to be wondered at that this son of a valiant revolutionary colonel should manifest a decided
inclination for a military life. But the great victory of General Wayne on the Maumee, in 1794, completely subdued,
for a time, the tribes of the Northwest, and, during the period of peace which ensued, Zachary found no opportunity
to enter upon the life of a soldier, but diligently pursued the vocation of a farmer. Civilization advanced rapidly,
Louisville attained the rank of a port of entry, and Colonel Taylor was appointed collector. Not until after he
had become of age, and his youthful industry had been rewarded by a goodly accumulation of property, did Zachary
again hear the call to arms.
In 1806, he was enrolled in the Kentucky militia, and his company was held in readiness to resist, if it should
be necessary, the ambitious designs and unlawful enterprises of Aaron Burr. Taylor shared the popular indignation
against Great Britain, when, in the following year, the American frigate Chesapeake was attacked by the Leopard,
in time of peace. It was therefore with pleasure that he learned of his appointment by President Jefferson in May,
1808, as first lieutenant in the seventh infantry. The appointment was in every way a worthy one, for the young
lieutenant possessed, in an eminent degree, the three qualifications which it is said that Jefferson was wont to
insist upon, - honesty, faithfulness and capability. It was some three years before the commencement of hostilities,
and during that time Taylor became proficient in the theoretical parts of a soldier's duties. In 1810 he was married
to a Maryland belle, Margaret Smith. This estimable lady, who usually accompanied her soldier husband except in
time of actual war, lived to see him in the Presidential chair, and only survived him for a brief period.
In 1811, Lieutenant Taylor was ordered to join the forces under General Harrison, and his bravery soon won for
him a captain's commission. He was now placed in command of a fort which had been recently constructed near the
present city of Terre Haute in Indiana, and named after his commander. Here, in September, 1812, he made a gallant
defense against an Indian attack, for which he received the brevet rank of major. After being actively engaged
during". the remainder of the war, he found himself reduced to the grade of captain, and this action on the
part of the War Department led to his temporary retirement from the army; but only long enough, as he is said to
have remarked, for him to get in a crop of corn, as he was reinstated as major in 1816, and ordered to Green Bay.
While at this post an incident occurred which will serve to illustrate the care with which he watched over the
welfare of the troops under his charge. Upon one occasion a paymaster had provided a large amount of almost worthless
"wild-cat" currency wherewith to pay the soldiers. When Taylor made objection to it, the paymaster gave
him slyly to understand that it was only for the men, and that the officers were to be paid in good United States
Bank bills. "Take the stuff away," Taylor ordered; "I will not permit my men to be paid with any
money which I would not take myself."
For the next sixteen years he held command, at different times, of a number of military posts in different parts
of the country, occasionally finding leisure to spend a little time on his farm, and also serving on several important
Boards of Army officers. He was regularly promoted in accordance with the rules of the War Department, being commissioned
lieutenant-colonel in 1819 and colonel in 1832. In 1824, he was detailed on recruiting service at Louisville. From
the promptness with which he obeyed orders, and the ease with which he endured the same hardships with the rank
and file, he acquired the honorable sobriquet of "Rough and Ready." Although a strict disciplinarian,
he was averse to pomp and display, and rarely wore his full uniform. By his soldiers he was at all times held in
the highest esteem.
Colonel Taylor took part in the Black Hawk War of 1832, after which he enjoyed a short period of repose, until
his assignment to Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien, from which he was transferred, in 1836, to Florida, to spend
four years amid the dreadful barbarities of the Seminole War. He won especial renown in the battle of Okeechobee,
which was fought on Christmas Day, 1837, and was brevetted brigadier general. In the following May he assumed the
sole command of the army in Florida, and continued the struggle with the desperate savages until June, 1840, when
he was relieved at his own request. He had long been an owner of cotton lands in Louisiana, which yielded him a
good income, and about this time he purchased, for ninety-five thousand dollars, a plantation with three hundred
slaves near Baton Rouge, where he made a permanent home for his family. After a short retirement, during which
he visited Boston and other Northern cities, he was placed in command of the Military Department of the Southwest.
On the 15th of June, 1845, three days before the annexation resolution was accepted by the revolted Mexican Province
of Texas, General Taylor was ordered to enter Texan territory with his troops, and defend its western borders against
Mexican invasion. He embarked from New Orleans in July and remained at Corpus Christi until the following spring,
meanwhile gathering together a body of regulars and volunteers which became known as the Army of Occupation, but
declining to make any aggressive movement without express orders from Washington. These orders having been received,
he advanced in March, 1846, to the Rio Grande, and established Fort Brown, opposite Matamoras. Taylor had marched
with the greater part of his force to defend his base of supplies at Point Isabel, when Fort Brown was attacked
by the enemy, May 3. Four days later he left Point Isabel with twenty-one hundred men to relieve the fort; but
on the following day, May 8, he found himself confronted by six thousand Mexicans at Palo Alto. After a struggle
of five hours in the long grass of the prairie, the enemy was forced to retire, the Americans having suffered but
slightly. The next day Taylor found his march again obstructed by the Mexicans, who, this time, occupied an entrenched
position at Resaca de la Palma. Though outnumbered nearly four to one, skilful generalship and bravery once more
gave the victory to the Americans. On the 18th of May General Taylor entered Matamoras on the Mexican side of the
river Rio Grande. His brilliant victories were hailed with delight throughout the United States; he was the hero
of the hour, and was raised to the rank of major-general.
At Matamoras he received large reinforcements; but was delayed several months by the lack of means of transportation.
In August, he advanced with over six thousand men to attack the city of Monterey, which surrendered September 24th
after a stubborn resistance. The terms of surrender included a cessation of hostilities for six weeks, and General
Taylor established his headquarters at Monterey while awaiting orders from Washington. The armistice having been
disapproved of by the President, active operations were resumed in November, and many important posts in Northern
Mexico were captured. In January, 1847, General Scott arrived in Mexico, and, of course, assumed the supreme command.
Much to Taylor's regret he was now called upon to part with a large number of his troops, who were drawn off to
support the Commander-in-chief in his projected advance upon the city of Mexico by way of Vera Cruz; but, like
a good soldier, he bowed to the commands of his superior.
With his army reduced to less than five thousand, General Taylor found himself in February, 1847, exposed to the
attack of twenty thousand Mexicans, under the most celebrated of their generals, Santa Anna. When, upon the birthday
of the Father of his Country, the bluff old veteran was summoned to surrender to this overwhelming force, he returned
to Santa Anna the laconic reply, "I decline acceding to your request." He had posted his army in an advantageous
situation, and as he rode along his lines, he was greeted with unbounded enthusiasm. The action which followed,
and which lasted during the greater part of two days, was one of the most glorious in our annals - Buena Vista.
At the close of the second day, the Americans rested on their arms, ready to renew the fight; but morning disclosed
that our army had won a great victory, and that the enemy had disappeared, after losing twenty-five hundred of
their men. This celebrated achievement was a fitting close to General Taylor's military career. The operations
in Northern Mexico were at an end, and in September he obtained leave of absence, and returned home, to be received
with marked demonstrations of joy and respect.
The hero of Buena Vista was now brought forward as a candidate for the presidency, and in June, 1848, he received
the Whig nomination for that office. In November of that year he was elected, receiving one hundred and sixty-three
votes to one hundred and twenty-seven for Mr. Cass. He was somewhat distrustful of his ability to fill the high
office thus gratefully bestowed upon him; but recognizing the will of the people as supreme, he entered upon his
duties March 5, 1849, with a determination to execute the laws impartially, without regard to party or section.
The recent discovery of gold in California had given to that immense territory an importance wholly unlooked for
by the Southern politicians who had instigated the war for its conquest. With dismay they beheld its rapid settlement
by Free State men, and when, in September, 1849, the Californians, with remarkable unanimity, formed a State Constitution
excluding slavery, and applied for admission, the rage of the baffled slaveholders found vent in open threats of
rebellion. President Taylor, although as has been said, himself the owner of a large number of slaves, heard these
threats with unconcealed indignation, and, with a touch of the old Jacksonian spirit, declared himself ready to
head an army to crush out treason. The following winter was made memorable by the violent debate in Congress, upon
the all engrossing question of slavery; and by the ingenious attempts on the part of weak-kneed Northern statesmen
to reconcile the South to the admission of free California, by a series of unworthy concessions. The discussion
was continued into the spring and summer of 1850; but, at its very height, President Taylor died, after a brief
illness, July 9, 1850, sincerely lamented by a vast majority of his countrymen, to whom he left the legacy of an
[Source: Biographical Sketches of Preeminent Americans, Volume 2; By Frederick G. Harrison; Publ. 1892; Transcribed
and submitted by Andrea Stawski Pack.]