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Zachary Taylor: A Reformed Slave Owner

Though Zachary Taylor owned slaves, his time in the military changed his perspective.

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Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) was the 12th president of the United States. Born on Nov. 24, 1784 in Orange County, Virginia, he was raised on a plantation and was used to the way of life that involved slavery, but all that would change when he joined the military, and it later became a crucial and contentious point during his presidency.

The Taylor family moved to Louisville, Kentucky when Zachary was an infant. Although he didn’t have much in the way of formal education, he was well schooled in frontier skills such as farming, horsemanship, and using a musket. In 1808, he left home and became a first lieutenant in the Army. Two years later he married Margaret Mackall Smith. They had six children, one of them, Sarah Knox, married future president Jefferson Davis.

Taylor’s home was near Baton Rouge, Louisiana on a 2,000-acre plantation with about 80 slaves. He also owned a second plantation in Mississippi. Before the War of 1812, he helped police the western frontier against Native Americans. He commanded troops in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Second Seminole War in Florida from 1837 to 1840. During the annexation of Texas, which sparked a war with Mexico, he served as brigadier general and the commanding officer of the Army’s First Department at Fort Jesup, Louisiana. As he and his troops won victories, he gained a recommendation from President James Polk and was promoted to major general. Taylor earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” because of his willingness to get his boots dirty alongside his men.

After capturing Monterrey in Mexico, Taylor granted the Mexicans an eight-week armistice against Polk’s wishes. Polk was concerned about Taylor’s growing clout with the Whig Party and canceled the peace agreement, ordering Taylor to stay in Mexico while he transferred the best of Taylor’s troops to General Winfield Scott’s army. But the major general was not happy about that and in Feb. 1847, Taylor disobeyed the president’s orders and marched his troops into Buena Vista, using his artillery to defeat a Mexican force more than three times the size of his.

Taylor took the presidential office in 1849 facing the tenuous issue of slavery and expansion into western territories. Southerners’ feared the abolitionists would gain control of Congress and saw the only way to save their way of life was to extend it into the West. Although a slaveholder, Taylor’s view on the institution changed from his time in the military and he was opposed to creating new slave states. To end the dispute on extending slavery in new territories, he had California and New Mexico skip the territorial phase and be admitted immediately into the Union, outraging slave owners.

In Feb. 1850, some southern leaders threatened secession and Taylor responded by saying he would personally lead the army if it became necessary in order to enforce federal laws and preserve the Union.

On July 4, 1850, Taylor attended a ceremony at the unfinished Washington Monument. The temperature was extremely hot, and the president reportedly only ate raw vegetables, cherries, and milk that day. However, by the next day he became violently ill with stomach cramps and died on July 9 of acute gastroenteritis. Some think the president was poisoned, but an autopsy later debunked that theory. Taylor became the second president to die while in office; William Henry Harrison died only one month after taking his oath.

Two months later, in September, the Compromise of 1850 was adopted by Congress, paving the way for the outbreak of Civil War in 1861. Taylor’s only son, Richard, served as a general in the Confederate Army.


Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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