Term: March 4, 1849 – July 9, 1850
Vice President: Millard Fillmore
Home State: Louisiana
Wife: Margaret “Peggy” Mackall Smith
Children: Ann Mackall, Sarah Knox, Octavia Pannill, Mary Smith, Mary Elizabeth, & Richard
Zachary Taylor served as the 12th President of the United States before dying in office after leading our nation for only 16 months. Having spent only one Christmas in the White House (1849), there is no information as to how the President and his family celebrated the holidays or whether they exchanged White House Christmas cards with friends and acquaintances.
Indeed, First Lady Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor cared so little about performing the traditional social duties of a president’s wife that she would not have had a hand in sending out White House Christmas cards anyway. In fact, President Taylor was empathetic to his wife’s feelings of not wanting to take on the role of presidential spouse since his wife had endured a life of hardships as the spouse of a career military man. One of their daughters, newly-married Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Taylor Bliss, assumed her mother’s role at official functions and carried on in that capacity during President Taylor’s short term in office. Whether Betty Taylor Bliss had a hand in overseeing the exchange of White House Christmas cards is unknown as well.
As a 40-year military officer, Zachary Taylor had never held any political office prior to becoming President of the United States. Reportedly, he had never spoken publicly about his political beliefs, nor had he ever voted. Ironically, he did not even vote in his own election since his constant moving precluded him from ever establishing legal residency in any one place.
Taylor was born in Orange County, Virginia, and was one of nine children. His father, Richard, served in the American Revolution under General George Washington. A second cousin to James Madison and a distant relative to Robert E. Lee, he lived on the Kentucky frontier and never went to a formal school. Instead, he was taught by tutors hired by his father. In 1808, at the age of 23, young Taylor joined the U.S. Army, something he had envisioned for himself even as a child. He began his career as a first lieutenant and was subsequently promoted to the ranks of major, captain, lieutenant colonel, and colonel while serving first in the Indiana Territory and in the War of 1812, as well as in a succession of Indian uprisings at frontier areas during the 1820s and 1830s.
In 1837, just before the Christmas season, Taylor was ordered to report to the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida to help put down the Seminole Indians. The Battle of Lake Okeechobee, fought on Christmas Day, was a hard-fought battle from which Colonel Taylor’s forces emerged overwhelmingly victorious. Certainly, 12 years later, President Taylor – if he was inclined to send out White House Christmas cards to those he vanquished – would only need to send out a few since there were only a few survivors of the bloody battle. It was during this horrific skirmish that the stocky and muscular Taylor earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” – a moniker which became popular later during his years in politics.
It was also during this period of his life that Taylor was seldom at home and had to rely on family members and friends as well as acquaintances to help Margaret Taylor manage his lands and plantations. He knew that his military career made family life difficult, fervently hoping that neither of his daughters (two other daughters had died in infancy) would choose to marry a military man. In fact, when daughter Sarah was to marry Lieutenant Jefferson Davis (future president of the Confederate States of America) in 1835, Taylor exclaimed, “I’ll be damned if a daughter of mine will marry into the army!” Indeed, Davis resigned from the army prior to the wedding. Unfortunately, the marriage lasted only three months due to Sarah’s death from malaria.
In 1845, serving as commander of the southern division of the U.S. Army, General Taylor was ordered by President James K. Polk to redeploy to the Texas-Mexico border to defend disputed land Mexico had lost during the clashes involving the Texas territory nine years earlier. It was during the subsequent successful war with the United States’ southern neighbor that Taylor gained the notoriety which had him compared to two other hero generals, George Washington and Andrew Jackson, and propelled him in the minds of the Whig party as a viable candidate to occupy the White House as President of the United States.
Taylor had written numerous letters to peers indicating his non-candidacy. But just before Christmas of 1847, he wrote to his son-in-law, Major William W.S. Bliss, that “if the people call upon him he would serve.” Taylor, in effect, was stating informally his intentions to run. It is not unknown whether he sent Christmas cards to colleagues that year. Following his election to the presidency in November of 1848, Taylor and his family spent that year’s Christmas awaiting the move into the White House. Upon his inauguration the following March, they became occupants of the “people’s house.”
The overriding issue during Taylor’s stint in the White House involved the sectional dispute over slavery and the issue of keeping the North-South slave dispute from boiling over. Although Taylor had slaves at his Louisiana plantation, he wanted both California and New Mexico to be admitted to the Union as free states. In a message to Congress on Christmas Eve, he reminded them that he felt their first obligation was not to the cause of slavery but to the interests of their country. This stance angered southerners and ensured that the White House would not be receiving any Christmas cards from them that year!
By the summer of the following year, during the final stages of the eventual agreement on the issue which became known as the Compromise of 1850, President Taylor died. At a ceremony on the 4th of July connected with the building of the Washington Monument and celebrating the 74th birthday of our country, the President drank a large amount of cold water along with cherries and iced milk to help overcome the high temperatures. After contacting gastroenteritis and suffering from a high fever that night, Taylor passed away four days later from a reported coronary thrombosis. After a eulogy given by future president Abraham Lincoln, President Taylor was buried in Louisville, Kentucky, at a location which is now known as the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. His Vice President, Millard Fillmore, became the 13th President of the United States.
Taylor’s death, however, has been clouded in controversy. Being a robust man in good health, historians have surmised that perhaps because of the controversy surrounding the country at that time, certain people upset with Taylor’s stance on slavery might have had reason to do him harm. In 1991, acting on the idea that Taylor was possibly poisoned, the former president’s body was exhumed, and hair and fingernail samples were taken. After testing, it was determined that there was arsenic present but the levels were too low to consider that Taylor – rather than Abraham Lincoln – had been the first president of the United States to have been assassinated.