Zachary Taylor knew from a young age that he wanted a military career and very soon after his enlistment, he realized his dream would come true. For the next four decades, he earned the recognition of a national hero in the United States Army. An effective leader, he earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” for his willingness to get his boots dirty alongside his men even as a military commander.
In 1845, Taylor gained notoriety as an “Indian fighter” in the nation’s battle with Native Americans in present-day Wisconsin, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida and Texas. Although he fought Native Americans, he also wanted to protect their lands from white settlers and believed a strong military presence was the solution to coexistence.
During the Mexican War, he won major victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista, and by early 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war. By this time, Taylor had emerged in Whig circles as a leading candidate for president, although he identified himself as more of an independent or nationalist.
Taylor declared his candidacy just six weeks before the national convention and won the Whig nomination despite the party’s opposition to the Mexican War. The Northerners protested Taylor, who was a slaveholder. Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate, was an advocate of “squatter sovereignty,” so they formed a Free Soil Party and nominated Martin Van Buren. In a close election, the Free Soilers pulled enough votes away from Cass to elect Taylor. He was elected the 12th President of the United States, serving from March 1849 until his untimely death in July 1850.
The major challenge facing Taylor as he took office was the sectional debate over slavery and its expansion into the country’s new western territories, but he wanted to hold the United States together despite the conflict. At times, Taylor acted as though he was above politics and tried to run his administration in the same rule-of-thumb fashion he'd used while fighting the Native Americans.
Though history has viewed him more harshly for his passivity in the face of growing sectional tensions, Taylor was a popular president. After his unexpected death, an estimated 100,000 mourners lined his funeral route in Washington, D.C.
Zachary Taylor’s glasses from the Mercury One historical collection. Photo courtesy of Mercury One.
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Republished with permission from MercuryOne.org.