If you think 2016 was the only year a political party has nominated a seemingly inexperienced, wealthy candidate with somewhat iffy ties to the party he was running under, you’d be wrong. Add to that a man who liked to say it like it is, and the fact that the candidate was also considered a major celebrity at the time, and you have Donald Trump, right?
You’d be wrong though. Those Trump-esque qualities also perfectly describe our president of the week: Zachary Taylor. The year was 1849. And he was all of the above and then some.
Zachary Taylor was president from 1849-1850. He probably never guessed he’d be president. Neither did anyone else.
If I’ve learned anything from researching the past 11 presidents, it’s that history repeats itself. We like to think that in our modern era, everything is so new and unprecedented, but that’s simply not true.
Most people just don’t know the history. You’re about to learn though.
In the case of Zachary Taylor, his presidential candidacy sounds eerily similar to this past election. I’ll lay it out for you . . . the Whig Party was going through a rough patch and had a hard time narrowing down the field to a single candidate. Of all the completely qualified candidates they had who were interested in the presidential nomination, they ultimately settled on a seemingly inexperienced, super wealthy and outspoken candidate who they never knew what he was going to say or do.
Party extremists were furious that this man was their nominee. So furious, in fact, that ultimately, it led to the end of the Whig party.
So how did such a man get elected? Well, as a war hero, he won the votes of the north. As a slaveholder, he won the votes of the south, which is why the Whigs nominated him in the first place.
But, what was really key was that the other main party (the democrats) nominated someone the party was just “meh” about. That candidate was Lewis Cass (governor of the Michigan territory and Secretary of War for Andrew Jackson). Since no one was too gung-ho about him either, a lot of votes ended up going to the third party candidate who, ironically, was former president Martin Van Buren, who was still mad he hadn’t been re-elected to a second term and wanted to redeem himself. He didn’t get enough votes to be taken seriously but steered enough votes away from Cass to ultimately give Zachary Taylor the presidency.
That’s the story in a nutshell anyway. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Zachary Taylor’s presidential story isn’t a long one. He died after only a year in office. We’ll get more into that later.
The issue that defines his presidency ultimately came down to the new land that was acquired by James Polk. The North wanted the new land set up according to principles they agreed with (i.e. free/no slaves) and the South wanted the same thing (i.e slaves). So much so, that they were threatening to leave over it.
America was at a major crossroads and to guarantee a successful future, it needed an extraordinary leader. Most historians will agree that Zachary Taylor was not that man.
Though when Taylor entered office, he had promised to never use his veto power, he went back on that promise later when he threatened to veto a bill Congress was considering that attempted to compromise with the south on whether California would be a slave-state or not. Not only did Taylor say he’d veto the bill, but he also said he’d hang anyone who left the union over it. Needless to say, after that, the South wasn’t a big fan of Taylor.
Which is why, on July 4th of 1850, when Taylor unexpectedly fell ill after attending a ceremony at the newly dedicated grounds for the Washington Monument (he laid the cornerstone for it), some were suspicious. It’s said that it was scorching outside and that Taylor drank milk and a bowl full of cherries to cool off. Hours later, he was bedridden with extreme stomach cramps, and all the awful stuff that comes with it, and five days later he was dead.
His death was declared due to a bacterial infection in his small intestine. However, more than a century later, the question of whether he was poisoned was on the minds of many historians since his symptoms matched those of arsenic poisoning. So in 1991, with the permission of his ancestors, Taylor’s body was exhumed and analyzed for evidence of arsenic poisoning.
If he died of poisoning, it wasn’t detectable. The results were that it was more likely that he died from either cholera (super common at the time) or gastroenteritis. Since bacteria was present all over the place in those days, often from inadequate sewage systems in the hot and humid city of Washington, it was most likely just an unfortunate result of the bacteria being present in what he ate that day.
Would our country be different had Zachary Taylor lived? Many historians think so, but whether it would have been worse or better off, we’ll never know.
The high point of his presidency was the signing of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with Great Britain. The treaty established joint control of any canal built across Central America, essentially paving the way for the Panama Canal 50 years later.
Whig (kind of). Since he was a military career man, he didn’t really belong to any political party, but the Whigs claimed him as their own to win the election.
Margaret “Peggy” Mackall Smith Taylor. She left most of the “hostess” duties to her daughter Betty Taylor and was rarely seen in public. This created rumors that she was a recluse and mentally ill, but the other reasoning for her staying out of sight could have been that President Taylor had promised her after he’d returned from the Mexican War that she’d never have to “go out” into society again. However, she was willing to greet certain guests in her upstairs bedroom, presided at family dinners in the dining room, and attended church regularly with her husband.
Millard Fillmore (we’ll learn about him next)
Why Zachary Taylor is Cool
This fact definitely makes him unique: “Old Rough and Ready,” as he was known to many (partly named after his fighting style, partly after his disheveled appearance) had never voted. Whether he had even voted in his own election is the subject of debate, but most historians claim that he wasn’t even registered to vote. Seriously! How’d he get away with this? He claimed he hadn’t wanted to vote against a potential commander in chief.
Not only had he not voted, but many historians claim him as the first president with absolutely no knowledge beforehand of the political process. Although he had no political experience, he definitely had political ties. His second cousin, James Madison had been the one to secure his spot in the Army. His son-in-law was Jefferson Davis (who later went on to be the head of the Confederacy) and Robert E. Lee was also a distant cousin.
Also, he was a huge celebrity in his time. He was a major war hero who led men like Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S. Grant. Abraham Lincoln even served under him at one time. People were in awe of him. In fact, it’s said that a portion of his wealth came from major gifts given to him by so many people.
Also, although he was a slave-owner, he was adamantly against the expansion of slavery, never wavering in his stance that California should be a free-state.
Point out the similarities in Zachary Taylor’s presidency to today’s politics. He was viewed as a celebrity and had little political experience. Things today aren’t as different as the past.
Sources: I have this really awesome book I love that I bought in the Mount Rushmore gift shop. It’s a small, easy to read book aptly titled The Presidents of the United States of America. Find it here. It probably has the most thorough, in-depth summary of each president all neatly packaged into a single page for each. I love it!
Also, like I’ve mentioned before, the History Channel has an amazing documentary on the lives of each of our presidents. I’ve been watching it every single week. It is seriously fascinating. You can find it here. It’s a great watch for younger kids and especially any older kids who are learning about our American history. They also have a more condensed and less expensive version that you can find here. Both versions are great because they both have different information about each president.
Other sources are referenced throughout.
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.