Zachary Taylor The American Presidents Series: The 12th President, 1849-1850

The American Presidents

John S. D. Eisenhower; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

Times Books




192 Pages



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Zachary Taylor was a soldier's soldier, a man who lived up to his nickname "Old Rough and Ready." Having risen through the ranks of the U.S. Army, he achieved his greatest success as a rough-hewn general in the Mexican War, propelling him to the nation's highest office in the election of 1848. He was the first man to have been elected president without having held a lower political office.

John S. D. Eisenhower, the son of another soldier-president, shows how Taylor rose to the presidency, where he confronted the most contentious political issue of his age: slavery. The political skirmishes reached a crescendo in 1849, when California, newly populated after the Gold Rush, applied for statehood with an anti-slavery constitution, an event that upset the delicate balance of slave and free states and pushed both sides to the brink. As the debate intensified, Taylor stood his ground in favor of California's admission—despite being a slaveholder himself—but in July 1850 he unexpectedly took ill, and within a week he was dead. During his truncated presidency, the rift that would lead to the Civil War was exposed.


Praise for Zachary Taylor

"Zachary Taylor is one of our former presidents who has been relegated to a mere footnote in most contemporary history books. Eisenhower, a retired brigadier general and son of Dwight Eisenhower, has written an interesting biography of a man who was swept into the White House as a result of his heroism in the Mexican-American War . . . In this latest volume in the Times Books' American Presidents series, Taylor is portrayed as a man who—if he lived—might have prevented the Civil War. Taylor, a Southerner and slave holder, was opposed to the expansion of slavery, which gave him credibility on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. As Eisenhower points out, the American landscape might have been dramatically different if Taylor, not Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, had been at the helm of state during the critical seven-year period that began in 1850 . . . Eisenhower's book is rich in detail and accessible to readers, even those who have little knowledge of this period in our nation's history."—Larry Cox, Tucson Citizen

"Taylor was 'first and foremost a soldier,' writes Eisenhower. He worked his way through the ranks without a formal education, earning a reputation for being responsible and reliable in skirmishes during the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War and the Second Seminole War. The war with Mexico in 1846 brought him into the national spotlight as commander of the American forces aggressively driving back the enemy . . . Returning a hero, Taylor was chosen over fellow general Winfield Scott as Whig candidate for president in 1848, running with Millard Fillmore. He became the 12th president at age 64. Outgoing President Polk's assessment was that Taylor was 'a well-meaning old man [but] uneducated, exceedingly ignorant of public affairs, and I should judge of very ordinary capacity.' He wasn't polished, but the new president wasn't a fool either. As debate raged about whether the new territories of California and New Mexico should be slave or free states, Taylor, opposed to the institution in principle, stood by the sovereignty of the states' citizens to decide. In foreign affairs, he will be remembered for signing the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which disallowed exclusive British or American dominion over Central America. He was also the first to call the president's wife 'First Lady,' in a eulogy for Dolly Madison, who died shortly after he was inaugurated in 1849. Taylor served only 16 months before dying of an untimely illness. Had he lived, Eisenhower notes, the Compromise of 1850 would probably not have become law, and Taylor would certainly have vetoed the Fugitive Slave Act: 'What would have happened then must remain as one of those imponderable might-have-beens of history.'"—Kirkus Reviews

"A pithy and readable history, providing a good introduction to the life of a forgotten president. Retired brigadier general Eisenhower provides a balanced yet lively view of 'Old Rough & Ready,' from Taylor's early life to his untimely death in office . . . Generally considered a man of limited intellectual abilities and a stubborn, petulant, and naive politician, Taylor is here shown to be a thoughtful and more complex figure. For instance, although he was a slaveholder, he opposed the expansion of slavery. While Taylor will likely remain a mysterious and misunderstood figure, as limited scholarly work has been devoted to him and very few of his personal papers survived the Civil War, Eisenhower's account is a very good starting place for students and general readers."—Lisa A. Ennis, Library Journal

"Eisenhower, a military historian and retired army general, has a secure mastery of his subject and his era in this addition to the American Presidents series of nutshell biographies. Taylor's career, in Eisenhower's retelling, had two principal foci. First, he was a general in the American incursion into Mexico in 1846, and his campaign, crisply recounted here, was perceived as a success by the American populace, catapulting Taylor to national prominence. Second, Eisenhower spotlights Taylor's equivocal relationship to slavery. A lifelong slave owner himself, he opposed abolishing slavery where it existed to preserve the Union. Yet Taylor claimed to oppose slavery on principle as well as its spread to California, New Mexico and other new states. Taylor lived only 16 uneventful months after his inauguration in March 1849, so Eisenhower's treatment of his presidency necessarily deals more with congressional debates on slavery than with Taylor himself. Eisenhower takes a nuanced view of the 12th president, finding Taylor gentle in civilian life, something of a disappointment as a soldier, but most fundamentally a man who aimed to preserve the Union."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Early Career

Zachary Taylor was a man whose looks deceived those who met him for the first time. One glance at that rough physiognomy could convince the casual viewer that here was a son of a poor family, a man of the soil....

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  • John S. D. Eisenhower; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

  • John S. D. Eisenhower is a retired brigadier general, a former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, and the author of numerous works of military history and biography, including General Ike: A Personal Reminiscence; They Fought at Anzio; Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I; and So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846–1848. He lives in Maryland.

  • Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Dominique Nabokov