National Geographic : 1965 Jan
TWELFTH PRESIDENT 1849-1850 ACHARY TAYLOR, acclaimed for his military victories in the Mexican War, was elevated to the White House in 1849, and as President had to grapple with the acute political problems these victories had helped create. Northerners and southerners disputed sharply whether the vast lands wrested from Mexico should be opened to slavery, and some southerners even threatened secession. Standing firm, "Old Rough and Ready" was prepared to hold the Union together by armed force rather than promote a compromise of which he disapproved. In the summer of 1850, as he faced this issue, he suddenly died. From his background, Taylor would have seemed likely to become a southern sympa thizer. Born in Virginia in 1784, he was taken as an infant to Kentucky and raised on a plan tation. He was a career officer in the Army, but his talk was most often of cotton raising. His home was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and he owned a plantation in Mississippi. Being a slaveholder did not make Taylor a defender of slavery or of southern sectional- Rno Irn ANID ItE nA ENGRAViNGBY ILBEERTAND GI HON, LIBRARY O CONGRESS; PAINTING BY JOSEPH H. BUSH, WHITE HOUSE COLLECI ON © N.6.S. 106 ism; rather, his forty years in the Army im bued him with a strong nationalist spirit. He received a commission in the Regular Army in 1808 and spent decades policing the fron tiers against Indians, during the War of 1812, in the Indiana Territory during the Black Hawk War, and in Florida during the long struggle against the Seminole Indians and escaped Negro slaves. In the Mexican War, using much the same direct offensive tactics he had employed against the Indians, he won victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista. Polk Restricts Field of Battle President Polk, disturbed by Taylor's in formal habits of command (and perhaps by his Whiggery as well), regarded him as a "narrow-minded bigotted partisan, without resources, and wholly unqualified." Restricting Taylor to northern Mexico, Polk sent an expedition under Gen. Winfield Scott (also a Whig) to capture Mexico City. Taylor, incensed, thought that his victory in "the battle of Buena Vista [had] opened the road to the city of Mexico and the halls of Montezuma, that others might revel in them." While not a remarkable general, Taylor did possess very solid merits that U. S. Grant, who served under him, pointed out years later: "No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage ... General Taylor never Battered straw hat helped give Zachary Taylor his nickname: "Old Rough and Ready." His sloppy dress increased with rank; as a general in the Mexican War, he wore old farm clothes. Taylor treated bullets as trifles and never lost a battle. He had legs so short that an orderly had to assist him in mounting his horse. First professional soldier in the White House, tobacco-chewing Taylor had never voted and lacked political experience. The question of slavery expansion threatened the Union which Taylor, a southerner, staunchly upheld. He fell ill and died, a bitter man. "My motives have been misconstrued," he said, "and my feelings grossly betrayed."