Bridges: Despite today's obscurity, Zachary Taylor was once famous figure
War hero and president are how Zachary Taylor is usually remembered, if at all. Though obscure today, he was at one time one of the most famous figures in the country. A Texas resident for a time, “Old Rough and Ready,” as his troops affectionately called him, stirred the nation’s imagination.
Taylor was born into a wealthy plantation family in central Virginia in 1784. As a youth, his family left Virginia for Kentucky. The area was still largely a wild frontier region, and Taylor received little formal education. However, he was known for being a quick thinker and for a sense of curiosity about the world.
In 1808, he enlisted in the army as a lieutenant. Along the way, he started buying property in Kentucky and Mississippi, making a tidy profit in the process. After compiling an honorable record in the War of 1812, he was assigned to command a garrison in western Louisiana in 1821. After a transfer to Baton Rouge in 1824, he bought a plantation in Louisiana, expanding his real estate holdings. Along the way, he developed a reputation for problem solving and for bravery in the field and also wearing rumpled civilian clothes in combat.
President John Tyler assigned him to command the garrison at Fort Smith, Arkansas in May 1841. He stayed in Arkansas for several years, quietly maintaining the peace between settlers and the tribes across the state line in the Indian Territory.
By 1844, with Texas annexation looming, Taylor was again sent to Louisiana to prepare for the admission of Texas. Mexico had sworn retaliation against the United States if Texas were annexed. However, with Mexico weakened by internal upheavals and a near-constant stream of political crises, there was little that Mexico could do. Once Texas was firmly a part of the Union by 1845, Taylor entered Texas to enforce the American claim.
Mexico claimed Texas only had a boundary at the Nueces River instead of the Rio Grande. While stationed at Corpus Christi, Taylor was ordered by the newly inaugurated President James K. Polk to the Rio Grande to enforce America’s border claim. In May 1846, fighting broke out between U. S. and Mexican troops north of the Rio Grande, prompting the United States to declare war on Mexico. With war now a reality, Taylor charged into Mexico, sweeping aside larger Mexican forces to a series of resounding American victories. By the fall of 1847, an American victory was secure with troops occupying Mexico City, and Taylor returned to the United States.
Across the nation, voters were now talking of nominating Taylor for the presidency. Ironically, Taylor had been very quiet about his political leanings, believing that as an army officer, he should avoid any appearance of conflict with the elected civilian government. Before 1848, he had never even voted in an election. The Whig Party looked to take advantage of his celebrity status and nominated him as their candidate.
Texas voted against the one-time resident, preferring Democratic Sen. Lewis Cass of Michigan by a margin of 70% to 30%. Nevertheless, Taylor won the election nationally, relying on support from the eastern states.
Taylor’s presidency, however, would be short and tumultuous. His administration was consumed with the political fallout from the Mexican War and rising tensions between North and South over slavery. Territory from California to Texas had been won from Mexico, and slaveholders wanted to expand slavery into these new areas while abolitionists firmly objected. Texas insisted on claiming New Mexico east of the Rio Grande as part of the state in spite of objections from New Mexicans. Taylor, though a slaveholder and a southerner, surprised everyone by opposing the Texas claim and opposing the spread of slavery. Taylor would not live to see the resolution of the crisis that was tearing America apart. He died suddenly on July 9, 1850.
Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at email@example.com.