November 24, 1784 – Birth of Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States

Zachary Taylor was born on this day in history in Virginia into a prosperous family, who moved to Kentucky near Louisville in his youth. He was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army in 1808. Tylor was a career officer in the Army, rising to the rank of major general.

Zachary Taylor

He fought in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Second Seminole War, with his success in the Second Seminole War attracting national attention and earning him the nickname “Old Rough and Ready.” In 1845, during the annexation of Texas, President James K. Polk sent Taylor to the Rio Grande in anticipation of a battle with Mexico over the disputed Texas–Mexico border. After the Mexican–American War broke out in April 1846, Taylor drove Mexican troops out of Texas and led his soldiers into Mexico, where they defeated Mexican troops at the Battle of Monterrey. Defying orders, Taylor then led his troops further south and, despite being severely outnumbered, dealt a crushing blow to Mexican forces at the Battle of Buena Vista. Taylor’s troops were transferred to the command of Major General Winfield Scott, but Taylor remained a national hero for his military successes.

Political clubs sprung up to draw him into the upcoming 1848 presidential election. The Whig Party convinced the reluctant Taylor to lead their ticket in the 1848 presidential election, despite his unclear political positions. With Millard Fillmore as his vice presidential candidate, he won the general election, becoming the first president to be elected without having served in a prior political office.

While president, partisan tensions over slavery threatened to divide the Union. Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not push for the expansion of slavery, and sought sectional harmony above all other concerns.

Taylor died suddenly at age 65 of a stomach disease on July 9, 1850, with his administration having accomplished little. Fillmore served the remainder of his term. Historians and scholars have ranked Taylor in the bottom quartile of U.S. presidents, owing in part to his short term of office (16 months), and he has been described as “more a forgettable president than a failed one.”

On his legacy, Michael Holt, Emeritus Professor of History, University of Virginia, wrote for the Miller Center (the nonpartisan affiliate of the U. Of Va. specializing in presidential history):

Taylor’s “outsider” philosophy kept him out of touch with Congress. He never addressed the legislature with a clear policy statement, nor did he use his influence to direct legislation—except on the matter of statehood for California and New Mexico. He thought that the President’s role should be limited to vetoing unconstitutional legislation and that otherwise he should give in to Congress on matters of domestic concern. . . . In foreign policy, his treaty with England on Central America, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty [designed to harmonize contending British and U.S. interests in Central America, including the provision that the two countries should jointly control and protect the canal that they expected soon to be built across the Isthmus of Panama] is recognized as an important step in scaling down the nation’s commitment to Manifest Destiny as a policy. Yet many of his political contemporaries thought that it went too far in respecting England’s claim to power in the Americas.”

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