America’s 12th president, Zachary Taylor, was a walking contradiction who came into power at a pivotal moment in American history, and his untimely demise may have cost the US a chance to avoid its devastating civil war.
A career military man, Taylor had little interest in politics and had never voted in a presidential election until he became a candidate himself in 1848. The son of a veteran of America’s Revolutionary War, Taylor joined the army in 1808 and served in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War(1835) and the 2nd Seminole War(1837), rising to the rank of Brigadier General, although the defining moments of his career would occur during the Mexican-American War.
After the United States annexed Texas in 1845, it inherited the problem of a disputed border with Mexico — the US also had designs on the sparsely populated Mexican territory in what was now the American southwest. In 1846, President James K. Polk, who ran for office on a promise of “Manifest Destiny” sent Taylor and his men into the disputed land between the Rio Grande and Nueces River to extract territorial concessions from the Mexican government.
Mexico responded by shooting at Taylor’s men, killing 11 and triggering the Mexican-American War.
The war went disastrously for Mexico, and Taylor distinguished himself by winning a string of battles at Palo Alto, Buena Vista and Monterrey. By early 1848, Mexico surrendered and ceded roughly half of its territory to the United States.
“No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he,” Ulysses S. Grant, who served under Zachary during the Mexican-American war, said of his former commander. “ He was known to every soldier in his army, and respected by all.”
The war created several new political realities: the careful balance of power between slave states and free states was called into question by the acquisition of so much new territory, and Zachary Taylor became a national hero.
“The political balance stood precariously at 15 free states and 15 slave states,” Joseph Fornieri, Professor of Political Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology explained. “Any additional states would tip the balance one way or the other… If anyone was in a position to resolve it, Taylor seemed to be that man.”
President Polk, a Democrat, declined to seek reelection despite his own wide popularity due to failing health and a previous campaign promise to only serve a single term. The Whigs, who had seen great electoral success with war hero William Henry Harrison in 1840 and saw a Taylor presidential ticket as an ideal means of replicating that success, and courted him as their nominee. Taylor, himself not a particularly strong partisan of any kind, agreed.
Taylor was born in Virginia and was a wealthy landowner who controlled several plantations and over 300 slaves — he also opposed to slavery’s expansion into America’s newly acquired territories and was a firm supporter of the Union. During his presidency, he went so far as to threaten to hang potential secessionists.
Taylor would ultimately die 16 months into his first term – the precise cause is disputed but the historical consensus is that the cause was some sort of stomach infection, and none of the sources suggest any kind of foul play. Nevertheless, he was unable to forge any meaningful compromise, and his successor, Millard Fillmore, would oversee the Compromise of 1850, which was so loathed that it largely set into motion the series of events that would a cataclysmic Civil War that would kill more than 600,000 Americans to finally put an end to the abominable institution of slavery.