American history, biographies, John Eisenhower, K Jack Bauer, presidential biographies, Presidents, Zachary Taylor
My first encounter with Zachary Taylor came when I discovered a historical marker by the side of the road indicating his birthplace in a lovely part of north-central Virginia, just thirty miles from my home. How exciting- yet another Virginia president! Only recently did I learn his parents whisked him off to Kentucky soon after his birth.
I was even more disappointed to learn that in mid-life he chose to make Louisiana his home. As a native Texan, I’m well aware there are only two reasons to voluntarily move to the Bayou State: to raise crawfish or to enjoy a brief but glorious life full of extravagantly rich – and extremely unhealthy – food. Curiously, neither seems to have been a factor in Taylor’s case.
As a career military officer Zachary Taylor was almost always a man on the move. He joined the army in 1808 as a lieutenant and for the next four decades moved from place to place (usually fort to fort) as his job required. He spent much of the War of 1812 in the territories of Indiana and Illinois but only saw limited action.
His military career eventually took him to Missouri, Louisiana, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida and Arkansas. In 1846 and 1847, Taylor led US forces during the Mexican-American War, fighting along the Texas-Mexico border and later as far south as Monterrey.
Shortly after the war ended, General Zachary Taylor was nominated as the Whig party candidate for president (in the fashion of General William Henry Harrison several years earlier) and was soon elected the twelfth president of the United States. Unfortunately, he died just 16 months into his presidency (apparently of an intestinal ailment, though conspiracy theories suggest he was poisoned).
You might reasonably expect that a life this full of action and adventure would be tailor-made for a great biography. But apparently you would be wrong.
It’s premature for me to declare his life dull, or his biographies uninteresting. But I’m two-thirds of the way through my first book on Taylor and I’m not sure which would be worse: to be stuck in the waiting room of a dentist’s office with nothing to read, or to be stuck in the waiting room with just Taylor’s life to review. Your child’s pet hamster probably sees more action in an average day than Taylor saw in his first sixty years…
The first biography of Taylor I’m reading (and which I’ve almost completed) is “Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest” by Jack Bauer. Published in 1985, this is the most comprehensive biography of Taylor I could find. It was written by a former history professor and author of several books on American military history. This seems to be the “definitive” Taylor biography but lacks a large following of satisfied and delighted readers.
The second (and final) biography of Taylor I’m reading is “Zachary Taylor” by John S. D. Eisenhower. The author, who died less than a month ago at the age of ninety-one, is the son of former president Dwight Eisenhower. This will be the second book from The American Presidents series I have read; the first (on John Tyler) worked out surprisingly well, so I’m hopeful this one exceeds expectations as well.
Kim Strohmeier said:
If you can find it, (may require an inter-library loan,) consider the two volume bio by Holman Hamilton. It was written in the 1940’s or 50’s. Hamilton was a Univ of Ky historian. I read this book as a college student at UK for a history class book report, (almost 40 years ago,) and I remember that I really enjoyed it. (I was fascinated by the presidents even then- I’ve been working on my nerdiness for many years now!!) I don’t recall why I chose that book. I do recall that I earned some brownie points with my professor with that choice, as he was personal friends with Hamilton! I did not know that until after I turned in the report. (Professor’s name was Dr Charles Roland.)
Excellent – I will definitely see if I can turf up the two-volume set. My local library has access to a pretty wide network, so even though I haven’t found Hamilton’s series available for sale maybe I can at least get my hands on it for purposes of reading & reviewing.
The Holman double-volume bio does a good job of focusing a lot of attention on the other political figures of the era, including a lengthy treatment of the debates over the Compromise of 1850.
Billy Watson said:
I looked on Amazon for the Holman books. It looks like there was re-issue in 2012. It is quite pricey. $35-40. Sadly(for me) there is no Kindle version that I saw. That is my preferred method of reading these days. I did see a Kindle book by that author called “The Three Kentucky Presidents: Lincoln, Taylor, Davis”. I am not a big fan of multi person biographies unless it is a husband – wife type of deal.
Somehow I missed the books on Amazon – I’ll recheck (though that sounds pricey for a series on a president who isn’t all that exciting). I think I’m the only person left on the planet who prefers the physical book to the Kindle version. For some reason I need to see the book sitting on my shelf…