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.