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July 9th- Oh Where Have You Gone, Zachary Taylor?

Posted by on July 10, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) 12th President Tuesday, July 9, 1850 dawned hot and humid in Washington D.C. . A worried public gathered outside the White House seeking information about the ailing President. Five days earlier, President Zachary Taylor, our 12th President, attended the dedication ceremonies to the Washington Monument on a scorching hot summer day. During the festivities, he enjoyed large quantities of iced milk and chilled cherries. He arrived home from the presentations already feeling under the weather and drank several glasses of ice water. By bedtime, he already began his long, slow demise, suffering from cramping, severe diarrhea, and dehydration. Doctors prescribed, calomel, morphine and gave him ice chips until his body began rejecting fluids. Over the next four days he suffered horribly. The doctors diagnosed him with “cholera morbus” which was a common ailment caused by bacteria that could have been in the iced milk, the cherries or even the water that the president consumed that 4th of July day. On the 9th,around 10am, as a anxious nation awaited news, President Taylor called his wife Margaret into his room. He told her not to cry and said “ I have always done my duty, I am ready to die. My only regret is for the friends that I leave behind me.” The funeral took place on the 13th and over 100,000 people thronged through the city to catch a glimpse of the presidential hearse pulled by eight white horses. Taylor was the second president to die in office (the first was William Henry Harrison in 1841) and although he served the third shortest term in presidential history (March 5, 1849 to July 9, 1850) , he is significantly under praised as a president and as a heroic American character. Zachary Taylor was born in Orange County, Virginia. His father,Colonel Richard Taylor, was a Revolutionary war veteran and fairly well-to-do at least in land holdings. When Zachary was just a year old, his father moved the family to Kentucky territory where the elder Taylors land holdings reached 10,000 acres. Additionally, the Taylor family owned slaves and later in life, Zachary Taylor would follow suit, although his personal belief in the morals of slavery were in opposition to his actions. In 1808, Taylor received a commission from President Thomas Jefferson to join the 7th US Infantry. During the War of 1812, he distinguished himself in Indiana territory, fighting along with another future president (the previously mentioned William Henry Harrison). After the war and a brief demotion, Taylor left the army only to return several months later. He would serve our country right up to the time of his presidential nomination in 1848, a total of 40 years bravely and gallantly serving his nation. He led the troops and personally accepted the surrender of the Indian warrior Blackhawk during the 1830‘s . He was extremely well travelled for a man of his time, covering posts in modern day, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. In 1846, at the request of President James K. Polk, Taylor went to handle the growing conflict between the U.S. and Mexico. Within the next two years, Taylor repeatedly won battles at Palo Alto, Monterrey and Buena Vista against Mexican general Santa Anna despite inferior troop numbers. Because he lacked the flourish of General Winfield Scott, he was held in northern Mexico, while Scott went to Mexico City to accept final surrender of the Mexican army. Both parties wanted to have the most popular man in America, as Taylor was considered in 1848, as their Presidential candidate. Eventually, the Democrats selected Lewis Cass of Michigan and the Whigs selected Taylor. Not only did Taylor not seek out the nomination, he never even had voted in an election ( nor did he in his own election). A third party candidate, former President Martin Van Buren of the Free Soil or Know-Nothing party, stole enough votes from Cass to allow for the election of Zachary Taylor as the 12th President. Although Taylor did not spend long in office, there are a few things he did that deserve some attention and regard from us today. First, compared to the milquetoast presidencies that succeeded him ( Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan), Taylor threatened with hanging any southern state leader who voted to secede from the Union. He also promised to lead the National Army personally to quell any split of the country. His strong words led Senate leaders Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun and later Jefferson Davis to design the Compromise of 1850, which Taylor opposed vehemently. The Compromise eventually passed after Taylors death and held off the Civil War for another eleven years. Secondly, although Taylor owned slaves, he did not support the further spread of slavery and had he lived would have probably worked towards its abolishment. With California and New Mexico contemplating statehood, Taylor encouraged leaders in those territories to form their own constitution outlawing slavery , and then applying for statehood rather than letting Congress decide. Third, he rose above party politics, pledging to do what was best for the country without regard to party politics. Many modern politicians would be wise to follow Zachary Taylors lead in this area. He warned Texas against taking lands rightfully belonging to the New Mexico territory, again threatening to lead the charge himself if armed persuasion was needed. In foreign affairs, Taylor was most known for the Clayton-Bulwer treaty which brought a peaceful conclusion to a conflict that the United States and Britain were having over building a canal in Nicaragua. The conciliatory tone of this treaty helped the Anglo-American alliance when eventually, in the early 1900‘s a canal was built through Panama. There are many what if’s to be asked had President Taylor lived. He certainly brought to the office a determined aire that fit the nickname given to him by the soldiers that adored him “Old Rough and Ready”. He lacked polish and was often unkempt in appearance, but he loved his country and even at age 65, was ready to put the uniform back on to protect the Constitution that he loved. This reminds me of George Washington, who more than once during his presidency, while in his 60‘s had the old uniform laid out for action if necessary. Zachary Taylor, incidentally was also a family man, who lived through more than his share of parental pain. He met his wife Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor in 1809 and married her a year later. Together, they had six children, five girls and one boy. Tragically in 1820, three of their girls contracted malaria while they were stationed deep in the Mississippi delta. Two of the girls, Octavia and Margaret died of the fever within months of each other at the age of 3 and 1 respectively. The third, Sarah survived the ordeal, only to contract the disease again 15 years later during her honeymoon with future Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Sarah was only 21 when she died in 1835. A year later, another child died during childbirth. Their daughters Anne and Betty would survive their parents and live long lives, with Betty serving as her fathers First Lady and hostess during his short term in office. The Taylors only son, Richard, became a wealthy southern land owner, combining his own wealth by marrying into a wealthy family and during the Civil War became one of Jefferson Davis’ most trusted soldiers. His surrender in May of 1865 of his western army is considered by many southerners as the real end to the Civil War instead of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April. In all, Taylors short Presidential life, shouldn’t overshadow his 40 years of military service to our country and his willingness to give his all to the nations top office. Recognition of that service is displayed in the fact that Zachary Taylor is one of only 6 Presidents who has received the Congressional Gold Medal ( in fact he is the ONLY person with three). An interesting side note to the story of Zachary Taylor has to be his 1991 exhumation, (yes you read that right) after 141 years, a long lingering rumor that Zachary Taylor might have been poisoned with arsenic were, depending who you talk to, dispelled or reinforced. DNA samples were taken from his hair and although trace amounts of arsenic were found, it was determined to be insufficient to have killed him. It is definitely worth googling “zachary taylor death rumors” to read the varying accounts. As for me, I will go on admiring Zachary Taylor as a patriot, a leader and by all accounts a good family man.

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