Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) served in the army for some four decades, commanding troops in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War (1832) and the second of the Seminole Wars (1835-1842). He became a full-fledged war hero through his service in the Mexican War, which broke out in 1846 after the U.S. annexation of Texas. Elected president in 1848, Taylor entered the White House at a time when the issue of slavery and its extension into the new western territories (including Texas) had caused a major rift between the North and South. Though a slaveholder, Taylor sought to hold the nation together–a goal he was ready to accomplish by force if necessary–and he clashed with Congress over his desire to admit California to the Union as a free state. In early July 1850, Taylor suddenly fell ill and died; his successor, Millard Fillmore, would prove more sympathetic to the interests of southern slaveholders.

Zachary Taylor’s Early Life and Military Career

Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, in Orange County, Virginia. The descendant of a long line of prominent Virginia planters, he was raised on a tobacco plantation outside Louisville, Kentucky, where his parents moved around the time of his birth. He received only a rudimentary education but was well schooled in the frontier skills of farming, horsemanship and using a musket. In 1808, the young Taylor left home after obtaining a commission as a first lieutenant in the army. In 1810, he married Margaret Mackall Smith, and they went on to have six children. (Their second daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, would marry Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, in 1835; she died three months later.) Taylor made his home near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on a 2,000-acre plantation with some 80 slaves. He owned a second plantation in Mississippi.

In the years leading up to the War of 1812, Taylor helped police the western frontier of the United States against the Native Americans. He went on to command troops in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Second Seminole War in Florida from 1837 to 1840. When the U.S. annexation of Texas sparked war with Mexico, Taylor served as brigadier general and commanding officer of the army’s First Department at Fort Jesup, Louisiana. Taylor’s men quickly won victories at the Battle of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, garnering him a recommendation from President James K. Polk and a promotion to major general.

Zachary Taylor: From War Hero to President

As a military commander, Zachary Taylor earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” for his willingness to get his boots dirty alongside his men. He led his men across the Rio Grande and advanced into Mexico, capturing the heavily fortified stronghold of Monterrey by late September. Taylor then granted the Mexicans an eight-week armistice against the wishes of President Polk, who was conscious of the general’s growing political clout within the opposition Whig Party. Polk canceled the peace agreement and ordered Taylor to remain in northern Mexico while he transferred the best of Taylor’s troops to the army of General Winfield Scott. In February 1847, Taylor disobeyed these orders and marched his troops south to Buena Vista, using his artillery to defeat a Mexican force more than three times the size of his.

By the time the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War in early 1848, Taylor had emerged in Whig circles as a leading candidate for president. Declaring his candidacy just six weeks before the national convention, Taylor won the Whig nomination despite the party’s opposition to the Mexican War. His military record undoubtedly appealed to northerners, while his slaveholding status captured southern votes, helping him win a victory in the general election over the Democratic candidate Lewis Cass and former president Martin Van Buren, the candidate of the Free Soil Party.

Zachary Taylor, 12 President

The central challenge facing Zachary Taylor as he took office in 1849 was the sectional debate over slavery and its expansion into the country’s new western territories. The emergence of the antislavery Free Soil Party had intensified southerners’ fears that the abolitionist North would gain control of Congress, and they saw slavery’s extension in the West as the only way of maintaining a balance. Gold had been discovered in California in 1848, kicking off the Gold Rush and there was tremendous pressure to resolve the issue of the territory’s statehood as its population expanded. Though a slaveholder himself, Taylor was primarily driven by a strong nationalism born of years in the army, and by 1848 had come to oppose the creation of new slave states. To end the dispute over slavery in the new territories, he wanted settlers in both California and New Mexico to draft constitutions and be admitted immediately into the Union, skipping the territorial phase. Slavery advocates were outraged, as neither state was likely to allow slavery, and many in Congress felt Taylor was taking away their legislative power.

In February 1850, after some incensed southern leaders threatened secession, Taylor angrily informed them that he personally would lead the army if it became necessary in order to enforce federal laws and preserve the Union. He became increasingly unwilling to appease southern slave owners and opposed a compromise bill proposed by Henry Clay that would combine California’s admission to the Union with the abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C. (supported by abolitionists), and a strong fugitive slave law (supported by southerners) while allowing New Mexico and Utah to be established as territories. Taylor’s brief time in the White House was also marred by a financial scandal involving several members of his administration, including Secretary of War George Crawford.

Zachary Taylor’s Sudden Death

On July 4, 1850, Zachary Taylor attended a ceremony at the unfinished Washington Monument; temperatures were blistering, and he reportedly ate only raw vegetables, cherries and milk. He took ill with violent stomach cramps the following day and died on July 9 of acute gastroenteritis. (Conspiracy theorists later suggested that Taylor may have been poisoned, but his remains were exhumed in 1991 and this speculation was disproved.) Taylor became the second president to die while in office (after William Henry Harrison). In a boon for pro-slavery forces, the more moderate Millard Fillmore succeeded him.

Taylor was a popular president, though history has viewed him more harshly for his passivity in the face of growing sectional tensions. With Fillmore’s support, Congress adopted the Compromise of 1850 that September; its inconsistencies paved the way for future discord in Kansas and ultimately for the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Taylor’s only son, Richard, would serve as a general in the Confederate Army during that conflict.

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1845–1900 Edit

Construction of the fort began in 1845 as part of a mid-19th century plan to defend the southeast coast through a series of forts after the War of 1812. Thompson Island, at the southwest tip of Key West, was selected as the site for the fort in 1822 and plans for the fort, drawn up by Simon Bernard and Joseph G. Totten, were approved in 1836. Two supporting batteries, Martello Towers, provided additional coverage, one of which exists today as the Martello Gallery-Key West Art and Historical Museum. The fort was named for United States President Zachary Taylor in November 1850, a few months after President Taylor's sudden death in office. The fort's foundation consists of oolitic limestone and New England granite. Its five-foot thick walls rose 50 feet above mean low water, and included two tiers of casemates plus a terreplein or barbette at the top. Three seaward curtains 495 feet between bastions, each containing 42 guns on three levels, were augmented by a land facing gorge. Troop barracks were built into this gorge with a capacity for 800 men. At either end of the barracks was a large gunpowder magazine while a Sally port was located in the center, connected to land by a 1200-foot causeway. Rainwater was collected in underground cisterns along the perimeter of the fort. Yellow fever epidemics and material shortages slowed construction of the fort, which continued throughout the 1850s. The Pensacola, Florida firm of Raiford and Abercrombie provided the bricks for Fort Zachary Taylor and Fort Jefferson, which was also under construction at the same time. [3]

At the outset of the U.S. Civil War on January 13, 1861, Union Captain John Milton Brannan, moved his 44 men of the First U.S. Artillery from Key West Barracks to Fort Taylor. His orders were to prevent the fort from falling into Confederate hands. The fort then became a key outpost to threaten blockade runners. Major William H. French arrived in April with his artillery unit. [4]

In 1898, the fort was reduced down to the second floor and Battery Osceola was added to the south casemate. The battery consisted of two 12 inch artillery pieces. The Civil War-era pieces were used as fill, being buried within the new battery to save on materials. Battery Adair was added to the west casemate and included four 3-inch, 15-pounder Rapid Fire rifles. [3]

The fort was heavily used again during the 1898 Spanish–American War, World Wars I and II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

1900–present Edit

In 1947, the fort, no longer of use to the U.S. Army, was turned over to the U.S. Navy for maintenance. In 1968, volunteers led by Howard S. England excavated Civil War guns and ammunition buried in long-abandoned parts of the fort, which was soon discovered to house the nation's largest collection of Civil War cannons. Fort Taylor was therefore placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973. Due to the filling in of land around the fort, including the creation of an attractive stretch of beach, the park now occupies 87 acres (352,000 m²).

Truman Annex Edit

The fort's land that is closer to downtown Key West became part of the Truman Annex to Naval Air Station Key West. The annex was originally a separate major installation known as Naval Station Key West and, until its closure in 1974, included a submarine base.

President Harry S. Truman used Naval Station Key West for his Winter White House for 175 days in 11 visits. The Secret Service had a private beach built on the land for the president's security, but he reportedly only visited it once, preferring the public beaches. The beach name is called "Truman Beach." The fort, along with its related support buildings, was later renamed for Truman.

Naval Station Key West was decommissioned in 1974 as part of post-Vietnam War force reductions because the U.S. Navy had decommissioned nearly all of their diesel-electric submarines and contemporary nuclear powered submarines were too large for the station's existing port. Most of the then-former naval station became an annex (e.g., Truman Annex) to the remaining Naval Air Station Key West and served as the landing point for many during the 1980 Mariel boatlift of Cuban refugees. Those buildings in the Truman Annex and associated real estate not retained by the U.S. Navy as part of NAS Key West were sold to private developers. There is a museum for the Truman White House and the U.S. Navy continues to own and maintain the piers and that portion of the former Naval Station Key West property to the south of Fort Taylor, primarily in support of Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S). The site also supported Naval Security Group Activity Key West (NAVSECGRUACT KEY WEST) until NAVSECGRUACT's decommissioning in 1996. [5]

In addition to the role of the fort and its adjacent beach as tourist attractions, Fort Taylor is also the location of a number of annual events, including week-long Civil War reenactments.

Union troops took control of Fort Zachary Taylor early in the Civil War and maintained it through the duration of the war. They made use of the fort's impressive artillery, including 10-inch Rodman and Columbiad cannons to detain blockade-running ships seeking to supply the Confederacy.

In 1968, a large supply of Civil War-era guns and ammunition were discovered in the Fort's buried arsenal. In fact, Fort Zachary Taylor held the largest collection of Civil War-era cannons in the United States.

Whig Party Candidate and Presidency

Though Taylor was a member of the Whig Party, he identified himself more as an independent or nationalist. He appealed to Northerners for his long military record and was popular with Southerners for owning slaves. The Whig Party positioned him as a war hero, a platform that allowed him more leeway when it came to sidestepping controversial issues.

In November 1848, Taylor won the election and became the nation’s 12th president, replacing President James K. Polk. Taylor narrowly defeated the Democratic Party, led by Michigan’s Lewis Cass, and the Free-Soil Party, led by former President Martin Van Buren. Thrown into the middle of the slavery debate, Taylor took on an anti-slavery slant. He urged California and New Mexico residents to write constitutions and apply for statehood, knowing that both would likely bar slavery. He was correct in his assumptions, and in doing so angered Southerners who viewed his actions as a betrayal.

In February 1850, Taylor’s heated session with Southern leaders led to their threat of secession. To daunt their efforts, Taylor told them that those “taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang . with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.”

Whig Nomination

In June 1846 Taylor had written that he would decline the presidency even "if preferred and I could reach it without opposition." In August 1847 he stated, "I do not care a fig about the office." Yet by the late fall of 1847 he was becoming interested and writing his views on political issues. He said that the Bank of the United States was a dead issue, that he favored internal improvements, and that he would use the veto to protect the Constitution. His political backers, appalled at such statements, preferred that his views remain unknown.

The Whigs nominated Taylor on the fourth ballot, passing over Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Winfield Scott, even though Taylor had never even voted in a presidential election. The Democrats chose Lewis Cass. Because of a split in the Democratic party, Taylor carried New York State and thereby won the election. People voted for him in the North because he was a war hero in the South he was admired as a slave owner.

Family Life

Two years after being commissioned as a lieutenant in the United States Army, in May 1810 Taylor married Margaret Mackall Smith in Louisville. He purchased his first land that year in Jefferson County, Kentucky. He and Margaret had a total of six children (see below).

Margaret and their children sometimes accompanied Taylor to assignments at forts under his command. At other times, they lived on the plantation in Louisville. In the 1820s, following his purchases of land in Louisiana, the family moved to establish a new home in Baton Rouge. Through the years, Taylor speculated in land and bought many slaves to develop his properties the Deep South was becoming the cotton kingdom.

The Enslaved Households of President Zachary Taylor

It does not speak well, either for the independence of the United States, or for the civic virtues of its leading men, that none by soldiers or slaveholders are deemed worthy of its presidential chair…sometimes they have united them in the same person, as in the cases of George Washington and Zachary Taylor.

— The Anti-Slavery Reporter, Vol. III, No. XXXVI, December 1, 1848

Born in 1784, Zachary Taylor grew up on a plantation in Virginia. His father, Richard Taylor, was an officer in the Continental Army and a southern planter. About six years later, Colonel Taylor purchased a plantation and moved his family to Springfield, Kentucky, and by 1800, Taylor had expanded his slaveholdings to twenty-six enslaved people. 1 Zachary Taylor lived at his father’s plantation until he left to join the military in 1808. Two years later, he married Margaret Mackall Smith, daughter of wealthy tobacco plantation owner Walter Smith, from Calvert County, Maryland. 2

Taylor Home in Springfield, Kentucky—built and maintained by enslaved labor.

The Presidents of the United States, 1789-1914 by James Grant Wilson

When Richard Taylor died in 1829, Zachary inherited two enslaved men, Charles and Tom, who remained with him until his death in 1850. 3 In 1842, Taylor purchased Cypress Grove, a plantation in Rodney, Mississippi, though he already owned plantations farmed by enslaved labor elsewhere in Mississippi, as well as in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 4 In addition to the acreage, crops, and resources deeded to Taylor in his purchase of Cypress Grove, he also bought the following eighty-one enslaved men, women, and children:

Nelson, Milley, Peldea, Mason, Willis, Rachel, Caroline, Lucinda, Ramdall, Wirman, Carson, Little Ann, Winna, Jane, Tom, Sally, Gracia, Big Jane, Louosa, Maria, Charles, Barnard, Mira, Sally, Carson, Paul, Sansford, Mansfield, Harry Oden, Harry Horley, Carter, Henrietta, Ben, Charlotte, Wood, Dick, Harrietta, Clarissa, Ben, Anthony, Jacob, Hamby, Jim, Gabriel, Emeline, Armstead, George, Wilson, Cherry, Peggy, Walker, Jane, Wallace, Bartlett, Martha, Letitia, Barbara, Mathilda, Lucy, John, Sarah Bigg Ann, Allen, Tom, George, John, Dick, Fielding, Nelson or Isom, Winna, Shellod, Lidney, Little Cherry, Puck, Sam, Hannah or Anna, Mary, Ellen, Henrietta, and two small children. 5

Taylor gained national prominence after several key victories in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). He went on to win the election of 1848 and assumed the presidency as the country was heading toward another crisis over the issue of slavery. A slave owner himself, President Taylor adopted some antislavery political positions. He opposed the spread of slavery to new U.S. territories. However, he also vacillated over supporting the Wilmot Proviso, a rider which prohibited slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico following the Mexican-American War. 6 Although he was considered more of an antislavery president by his contemporaries, Taylor had no qualms arguing against slavery’s expansion while owning hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children. 7 He continued to own and manage his Cypress Grove plantation in Mississippi during his short tenure as president, and he is believed to be the last president who brought enslaved men and women to live and work at the White House.

A depiction of one of Zachary Taylor's plantations.

Henry Lewis, Das illustrirte Mississippithal (1857)

Like other slaveowning presidents, Taylor brought enslaved individuals to the White House to provide labor. However, Taylor owned so many individuals, spread across several plantations in the South that it is challenging to discern the exact identities or number of enslaved workers Taylor actually brought with him to the White House. 8 In addition, few of Zachary Taylor’s papers survive. In 1862, his plantation, Fashion, inherited by his son after his death, was confiscated and emptied by Union troops. Almost all of the personal papers and artifacts documenting Taylor’s life were lost during Union occupation. 9 These factors, coupled with Taylor’s relatively short tenure as president, make it difficult to uncover the extent of slavery in the White House during his administration.

Despite these obstacles, records point to some individuals that likely accompanied Taylor to the White House. One confirmed individual was Charles Porter, who was a “body servant” to Taylor. In 1849, newspapers reported that Porter, “who accompanied him during the war with Mexico, died suddenly on Sunday morning at the Executive Mansion.” 10

In his will, Taylor left six enslaved people to First Lady Margaret Taylor, perhaps suggesting these individuals were favored by the couple, and therefore likely to have worked in the White House. These enslaved individuals include Charles Porter, as well as Tom, Dicey, Jane, William and Caroline. 11 Military pay vouchers from the Mexican-American War indicated that Charles, Tom, Jane and William (or Will) also accompanied Taylor during military encampments prior to his presidency. 12 The consistent appearance of their names in these documents suggests that they likely would have accompanied him to the White House.

This is a newspaper clipping from the August 1, 1849 issue of the Alexandria Gazette, detailing the death of Charles, President Taylor's enslaved body servant.

In 1862, Jane is again mentioned alongside two other enslaved individuals named Nancy and Henrietta in petition forms filed by Taylor’s daughter, Ann Wood. These forms, which allowed slave owners to claim compensation for enslaved individuals after the passage of emancipation in Washington, D.C., recorded that Ann Wood: "inherited Jane Webb from her late mother Mrs. Margaret Taylor relict of General Z Taylor…Henrietta Evans under the same circumstances (by inheritance)…she came into possession of Nancy Reed by a deed of gifts and by inheritance from her late father Genl. Zachary Taylor." 13

In this petition, Wood described them as “first class family servants…always having been employed in that capacity in the family of your petitioner…Jane is an excellent cook… all three are good seamstresses.” 14 The domestic nature of these tasks is the type of labor that would have been required in the Taylor White House.

Betty Bliss, Taylor’s daughter, and her husband, William Wallace Smith Bliss, also lived in the White House during the Taylor administration and may have brought their enslaved workers to assist with the household labor. In 1849 and 1850, while Bliss worked for and lived with Taylor, he submitted army pay vouchers for enslaved individuals named Lawrence Smith, Eliza Smith, and Eli. 15 Lawrence, Eliza, and Eli very likely worked and lived at the White House under Bliss’s management.

Taylor is depicted in this political cartoon attempting to balance southern rights and the Wilmot Proviso.

While living in Washington, D.C., Taylor was an absentee but active plantation owner. He frequently visited Cypress Grove in Mississippi and constantly wrote to his hired overseer, Thomas W. Ringgold, to ensure the estate’s smooth operation while he was away. In these letters, Taylor often mentioned enslaved laborers at Cypress Grove. He wrote about the livelihood of what he called his “servants,” once telling Ringgold “Let your first consideration be the health of the servants,” and instructing that $5 be distributed to each enslaved laborer on Christmas Day. 16 These narratives of the “benevolent slaveholder,” repeated in biographies and articles about Taylor since his death, have veiled his striking contribution to and perpetuation of slavery as an institution, and should be interpreted as such—especially because “fair” treatment of enslaved populations ensured smooth plantation operations and men and women better equipped for labor. 17 Feeding the enslaved well or keeping morale high was a shrewd business choice on the part of Taylor, rather than an act of paternalism or compassion.

Zachary Taylor died only sixteen months into his presidency, and as such the American populace celebrated his memory as a military leader and president. However, he also left behind a legacy of plantations maintained by enslaved labor. In fact, Taylor purchased a plantation for his son, Fashion in Louisiana, just before his death in 1850, and bought an additional sixty-four enslaved people to work the land. 18 Maintaining slavery was one of his final acts in life. In his will, approximately 131 enslaved men, women, and children, ranging in age from infants to the elderly, were left to Taylor’s wife Margaret daughters Ann and Betty and his son Richard. Taylor also noted in his will: “I wish the servants only moderately worked and kindly treated and the old men taken good care of and made comfortable, which I hope my children will have attended to.” 19 Despite this paternalistic tone, Zachary Taylor failed to free any of these enslaved individuals after his death. Instead, he prolonged their bondage and suffering, designating in his will that these men, women, and children were to be “slaves for life.” Thankfully, this would not be the case for all of the individuals held in bondage by the Taylor family. Nancy, Henrietta, and Jane are verifiable examples of eventual emancipation, and after the confiscation and ransacking of Taylor’s plantation during the Civil War, many of the men and women held in bondage by Taylor’s descendants escaped to freedom.

Time Periods:

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

K. Jack Bauer, &ldquoTaylor, Zachary,&rdquo Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2021,

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The Crisis and Compromise of 1850

When they learned of Taylor’s actions, Southern expansionists were livid because California was coming into the Union at the same time as the large slave state of Texas. Thus, California’s influence in Congress could offset Texas’s.

California’s sudden statehood application triggered the Crisis of 1850. The outline of the crisis was simple, pro-slavery Southerners wanted Texas in the Union, preferably as two or three states and slavery in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Meanwhile, the Free Soilers’s demand was stark: “no new slave states.”

Congress polarized along regional lines. Northern Free Soilers opposed all efforts to bring Texas into the Union. Southern Democrats opposed California’s admission. Three of the era’s greatest Congressional leaders including Daniel Webster (W-Massachusetts), Henry Clay (W-Kentucky), and John C. Calhoun (D-South Carolina), could not diffuse the situation.


On a hot day in July, Taylor ate only raw vegetables, cherries, and milk. He contracted gastroenteritis soon after, along with violent cramps. He died on July 8, 1850, at the White House, and Vice President Millard Fillmore was sworn in as president the next day. Some believed that Taylor might have been assassinated by poison. His body was exhumed in 1991, and testing concluded there were no signs of arsenic present in his remains (though it's possible that other poisons could have caused his death).