An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States of America

Dec 10, 2012 by

Zachary Taylor

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Professor Elder, thank you for agreeing to do this series of interviews to let students all across the United States know a bit more about the men who have led this country for more than 200 years. We are up to the twelfth president of the United States, Zachary Taylor. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events ?)

Zachary Taylor was born November 24, 1784 on his family’s plantation, situated near Barboursville, Virginia. He had some interesting connections to other greats from American History: he was a descendant of the Pilgrim leader William Brewster, and was a second cousin to James Madison. While Taylor’s family had been prominent members of Virginia’s planter class, the soil of their plantation was badly depleted by the time he was born. As a consequence, Taylor’s family moved to Kentucky when he was young. There, his father soon became the largest landholder in the state. Because Kentucky was a frontier state, there were no formal schools for Taylor to attend as he was growing up. He therefore was very deficient in spelling and other formal disciplines, but was regarded by people in his area to possess a natural intelligence. He lived on his family’s plantation until he was 24, at which time he enlisted in the US Army. Most likely because of his family’s connections, he was commissioned as a lieutenant.

Two years later, he was promoted to captain. When the War of 1812 started, he was sent to command Fort Harrison in the Indiana Territory. He successfully defended the installation against an attack by Native Americans in September of 1812, an engagement that is generally regarded as the first American land victory in the War of 1812. Taylor served until the war’s conclusion, and then resigned his commission. A year later, however, he was offered a promotion to major, and he reenlisted in the army. He served at various posts around the nation, earning a promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1819 and full colonel in 1832. Soon after that second promotion, he was assigned to remove the Native America tribal leader Black Hawk and his followers from Illinois. The ensuing conflict is known as the Black Hawk War. He was then sent to Florida, where he conducted a successful campaign against Native Americans in what became known as the Second Seminole War. For this, he was promoted to brigadier general.

Taylor was named the commander of the Western Division in 1841. In that capacity, he was ordered by President Polk to move his army into Texas after it was annexed by the United States in the spring of 1845. As tensions grew between the United States and Mexico, Taylor moved his army to the northern bank of the Rio Grande in March of 1846. One of his detachments was attacked by Mexican forces, and that incident was used by Polk as a justification to ask for a declaration of war against Mexico.

Taylor then defeated Mexican armies at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, and moved his army into northern Mexico. He attacked the city of Monterey and in spite of formidable opposition captured it. By this time the Whig Party was discussing the possibility of running him as their presidential candidate, a potentiality that President Polk wanted to preclude. Polk therefore took Taylor’s veteran troops away from him and ordered him to hold his position in the Monterey area. The Mexicans, learning of Taylor’s weakness, sent an army three times the size of Taylor’s force to attack him in February of 1847. Against these overwhelming odds Taylor managed to defeat the Mexicans at the Battle of Buena Vista. This victory made Taylor a great national hero, and the Whigs did indeed nominate him for president in 1848. He won, and became president in March of 1849.

2)      What was he MOST known for?

Taylor became president as the United States was dealing with a very divisive issue: should slavery be allowed to exist in the territory that Mexico had ceded to the US as a result of the recently concluded conflict between the two nations. Many Americans felt that Taylor would favor an extension of slavery for two reasons.

First, the Taylor family had owned slaves in Virginia and Kentucky. And second, Taylor himself had become a plantation owning-slaveholder during his military career. Indeed, Taylor holds the distinction of being the last president to have owned slaves while in office. But Taylor chose instead to call for slavery to be banned from the newly acquired territory. Pro-slavery Americans were outraged by this stance, and threatened secession. Taylor warned the southern states that if they left the union, he would use military force to suppress their rebellion. The crisis was resolved in 1850 by the passage of the Compromise of 1850, but Taylor’s policy statement had shown the political divide that would lead a decade later to the Civil War.

3)      What would you say were his strengths?

Taylor was totally unflappable under pressure. He inspired confidence, and was decisive.

4)      What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Taylor should have recognized that his policy statement regarding the fate of slavery in the lands ceded by Mexico would be politically explosive. But because of his long service in the military he was used to people simply following his orders (a problem that seems to have beset every American president who had been a career military man).

5)      What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

We will never know the full impact that Taylor would have had as president. While the controversy about the future of slavery in the ceded territory raged in the summer of 1850, Taylor became ill on the evening of July 4th and died five days later. It was thus left to others to solve the national dilemma.

6)      In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Taylor is another president who is much more memorable for his life outside of the presidency. He was clearly a great military leader, one who achieved victories against superior numbers on numerous occasions. Because he died 16 months into his presidency, he didn’t have the time to develop much of a presidential legacy.

7)      What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

For those individuals who live in New Mexico (as I do), Taylor represents a tantalizing “what might have been.” Taylor’s plans would have created two states: a California and a New Mexico. California would have been exactly the same state it is today, but his version of New Mexico would have included all of present-day New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and the part of Colorado that includes Denver. Thus, Taylor could have made New Mexico the greatest state in the union!

8)      Could you provide a summary statement about our twelfth President?

Taylor’s nickname in the military was Old Rough and Ready. This seems to have captured his essence perfectly, both in the army and as president.

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