So far on this journey of twelve presidents and fifty-six biographies I’ve been surprised at how interesting I have found the lives of our former presidents. From the most-revered (Washington and Jefferson) to the unsuccessful (John Tyler comes to mind) to the infamous (that’s you, Andrew Jackson) I have never been disappointed. Until now.
Unlike several earlier presidents such as John Quincy Adams and Old Hickory, Zachary Taylor’s life was not tailor-made for a great movie, or an exciting biography. I should have known something unsatisfying loomed when biographer K. Jack Bauer wrote in his introduction that “Taylor’s career…was not only unexciting, but mundane and boring.” That appears to be the understatement of the year.
Note-to-self: when an author warns that his subject’s life was boring…time to fertilize the lawn or re-caulk the bathtub.
Nevertheless, Taylor’s life is instructive for what it can mean to find one’s self in the right place at the right time. He dedicated nearly his entire adult life to the U.S. Army (tolerating decades of drudgery, accented with a few moments of excitement) and was asked to lead American troops in the Mexican War. Having succeeded – or at least persevered – in that effort, the Whig party selected him as their presidential nominee. This seems to have been due to the fact that his narrative resembled that of successful Whig candidate General William H. Harrison eight years earlier rather than his finely-honed policy positions or political instincts.
Like Old Tippecanoe, Taylor was a patriot and an apparent American hero, and that was enough to get elected president in 1848. But it wasn’t enough to escape the death curse of Whig party soldier-presidents. General Harrison, of course, had died just one month into his presidency. General Taylor managed to last sixteen months.
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* The first Taylor biography I read was K. Jack Bauer’s 1985 classic “Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest.” This seems certain to remain the definitive biography of Taylor based on its breadth and depth of insight. Unfortunately, the author’s efforts are applied against a sixty-five year life which was more often dull than dynamic. The fact Taylor seems not to have been particularly charismatic or lively doesn’t help. But Bauer’s compulsion for providing details on matters both great and small slows the books pace and causes it to be no more exhilarating than the life it covers. (Full review here)
The next, and final, biography of Taylor was John S. D. Eisenhower’s “Zachary Taylor.” Published in 2008, this is a brief and less exhaustively-detailed examination of Taylor’s life. Fortunately, it seems to contain more than its fair share of thoughtful judgments and conclusions, and it hold the reader’s attention more effectively than Bauer’s biography. But while it is far more efficient with the reader’s time, it is not nearly as scholarly or complete. (Full review here)
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For the casual reader of presidential biographies (or someone looking to read something about Zachary Taylor), Eisenhower’s book will prove both interesting and more-than-adequate. But anyone requiring a more intensive exploration of Taylor’s life will find Bauer’s biography the preferred route of study.
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Best (Definitive) Biography of Taylor: “Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest” by Jack Bauer
Best (Efficient) Biography of Taylor: “Zachary Taylor” by John S. D. Eisenhower