The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Taylor, Zachary

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886022The Encyclopedia Americana — Taylor, Zachary

TAYLOR, Zachary, 12th President of the United States: b. Orange County, Va., 24 Sept. 1784; d. 9 July 1850. His father, Col. Richard Taylor, served under Washington and be held a number of important offices in Kentucky where he migrated soon after the birth of Zachary. Young Taylor grew up in the vicinity of Louisville in the midst of its exciting frontier life. In 1808 aroused by the Chesapeake outrage, Taylor asked for a commission in the army and in May was commissioned first lieutenant in the Seventh United States infantry, In 1812 he was made a captain and in the War of 1812 gained distinction in defeating an Indian attack on Fort Harrison, for which success he was breveted a major. In May 1814 he received a regular commission as major but left the service at the close of the war on being reduced to the rank of captain. He re-entered the army in 1816 and in 1819 was promoted to a lieutenant-colonelcy. For the next few years he was stationed at different frontier posts but in 1832 during the Black Hawk War, as colonel, received the surrender of the Indian chieftain. In 1832 he was ordered to Florida in the Seminole campaign and at the battle of Okeechobee (25 Dec. 1837) won a decisive victory over the Indians, for which he was breveted a brigadier-general. Taylor spent the next four years in Florida and was then given command of the First Department of the army with headquarters at Fort Jessup, La. On 28 May 1845 Taylor, in command of the army of the Southwest, was ordered to hold himself in readiness to defend Texas from a possible invasion should the latter State accept the terms of annexation. On 30 July 1845 he was ordered to “occupy, protect and defend Texas,” and to approach the Rio Grande which was “claimed to be the boundary between the two countries” (Texas and Mexico). At the same time he was cautioned to keep away from the Mexican settlements and posts. In August, Taylor selected a position at Corpus Christi on the Nueces. Then followed a series of ambiguous orders from the War Department commanding him to check any Mexican army endeavoring to cross the Rio Grande or any attempt to do so. Taylor reported there was no concentration of Mexicans on the Rio Grande nor any signs of war; but, beginning to understand what the administration desired of him, asked for definite orders to advance. This the War Department refused to give and for a few months a delay ensued while the administration renewed its negotiations with the Mexican government. At last, in obedience to instructions from Washington, on 11 March 1846 Taylor began his advance from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande. On the 28th he arrived opposite the Mexican town of Matamoras and began the construction of Fort Texas, afterward called Fort Brown, upon the present site of Brownsville. Taylor blocked the mouth of the Rio Grande with a view of cutting off all supplies from Matamoras and thus forcing the Mexican troops stationed there either to withdraw or to assume the offensive. On 12 April General Ampudia summoned him to retire beyond the Nueces, and with Taylor's refusal do so the first conflict occurred on 24 April when a party of dragoons were ambushed by the Mexicans. President Polk at once sent a message to Congress recommending a declaration of war, asserting that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.”

The war on Mexico began with the advance of Taylor's forces. On 8 and 9 May, Taylor defeated the Mexicans at the battle of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and forced them to cross the Rio Grande. Following in quick pursuit, Taylor occupied Matamoras (18 May). With the refusal of Mexico to negotiate, Polk determined to conquer the northern provinces and in August, Taylor resumed his advance and after a three days' battle captured the city of Monterey (21-23 September). By this time Polk began to distrust Taylor on account of his supposed Whig affiliations. It was embarrassing for a Democratic administration to have a Whig general reaping all the glory, and with a view toward checking his operations Polk detached most of Taylor's experienced troops for the intended advance upon Vera Cruz under Gen. Winfield Scott. Santa Anna, the Mexican commander-in-chief, learning of Taylor's weakened condition rapidly concentrated 20,000 men and marched northward to crush him. To retire to the Rio Grande meant a loss of all the prestige so far gained and, therefore, Taylor decided to fight. He took a position at the hacienda Buena Vista, five miles south of Saltillo. Here after three unsuccessful attempts by Santa Anna, Taylor gained the most decisive victory of the whole war and remained in undisputed possession of the region. Taylor's brilliant victory, handicapped as he had been by the authorities in Washington, suggested him as a possible Presidential candidate to the Whig politicians. Thurlow Weed learned from the “general's brother that Taylor had always been an admirer of Clay and preferred home-made goods to foreign importations.” Taylor meetings became the fashion throughout the country; he was nominated at public assemblies in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and although he had never even voted and had no views on political topics, supported by Weed, Crittenden and Stephens, he gained the nomination at the Whig Convention (May 1848) over the claims of Webster and Clay. In the succeeding campaign Taylor carried eight slave States while his opponent secured seven. The one all-absorbing question after the inauguration of Taylor was the question of what should be done with slavery in the Territories. Both parties in the campaign had side-stepped the issue, the Whigs having adopted no platform and the Democrats having trusted to the well-known views of their candidate, Lewis Cass. President Taylor, although master of a plantation in Louisiana, admitted anti-slavery leaders in the Whig party to his counsel and William H. Seward became his confidential adviser. The Wilmot proviso, the question of the organization of the Territory of Oregon and the admission of California already had demanded immediate attention. Accordingly the first message of the President was awaited with interest. Taylor already had made up his mind to recommend the admission of California as a free State and his fatherly message breathed with devotion to the Union. But Clay and Webster determined to take matters into their own hands and in January Clay offered his plan of compromising the sectional issue. Taylor characterized the Territorial portion of Clay's measures as the “Omnibus Bill” and was preparing to oppose them when he died on 9 July 1850.

Bibliography. — Stoddard, W. O., ‘Zachary Taylor’; Howard, O. O., ‘Zachary Taylor’ (in ‘Great Commanders Series,’ 1892).

R. C. McGrane.