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zachary taylor

24 july 2008

Four years before he was elected President of the United States, Zachary Taylor was a career Army general in his late 50s, stationed in the quiet frontier post of Fort Smith, Arkansas. He was used to taking frequent leaves of absence to look after his large plantations near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A nice pension and a patriarchal autumn of life seemed to be his long-term upside. He was perhaps a Whig, but had never expressed much interest in politics; legend has it he had never voted. Of all the Presidents, he made the most unlooked-for rise to the White House.

But in a nation that loves military celebrities, lightning is always capable of striking. John S.D. Eisenhower notes that "only five" professional generals (Washington, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, and the author's father Dwight Eisenhower) have become President. But only 42 people have ever become President, after all: career generals account for 12% of the Presidents and 15.5% of the years served by Presidents. (And that's not counting other Presidents with substantial military resumés: the "political" generals Pierce, Hayes, Garfield, and both Harrisons, or Rough Rider Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.)

Taylor served only 16 months as President before he was felled by a bowl of cherries and a quart of cold milk. One result of this truncated term is that Eisenhower's study of Taylor spends as much time on his early military career as on his White House months. The American Presidents series is designed to illuminate Presidencies, but in Taylor's case there isn't much to shine light on.

Eisenhower considers Taylor "a great American" (140), but doesn't really adduce much evidence for this conclusion. Taylor's management of the Rio Grande and Monterrey campaigns during the U.S.-Mexican War was brisk. Taylor made little strategic impression on Mexican leader Santa Anna – the war would effectively be won by Winfield Scott's Mexico City campaign – but Taylor proved that an American army could occupy key cities in northern Mexico and operate there at will. And win battles: "Zachary Taylor, executer of strategic maneuvers near Monterrey" would never have become President, but "Old Rough & Ready, Hero of Buena Vista" was a shoo-in.

Zachary Taylor is someone we like to pin retrospective and hypothetical hopes on. He died as fierce debates were raging in Congress over what would become the messy Compromise of 1850, which ended up merely postponing, not preventing, the Civil War. Could his leadership have held the Union together longer and with more stability – even have led to gradual emancipation? One doubts it, but as a slave-holding Southern Whig who opposed the expansion of slavery and had no trouble making executive decisions, one imagines that Taylor would have shaped events more powerfully than his successors Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce. But Eisenhower concludes merely that history might have been different, eschewing the position that Taylor would have made things different.

Eisenhower sees Taylor's greatest achievement as being the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer treaty, which headed off a struggle between the U.S. and the U.K. over possible canal routes across Nicaragua. The agreement between Britain and the United States not to seek exclusive control of such a canal led, in fact, to no such canal ever being built. But if no cooperation ensued, at least no conflict took place. Taylor knew something about imperialist conflicts in Latin America. He had followed orders, vigorously, in one such war, but he knew better than to embark on another. That's one definite point to like about this somewhat enigmatic, largely obscure President.

Eisenhower, John S.D. Zachary Taylor. New York: Times Books, 2008.