President Rough and Ready

I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day.

Zachary Taylor is the first of the forgotten presidents of that decade of forgotten presidents, the 1850s.  He was our last President to be older than the Constitution, Taylor having been born in 1784.  The second President to die in office, he served from March 4, 1849 to July 9, 1850.  The second elected Whig President, he was also the second elected Whig President to die in office and the last Whig to be elected President.  His early death in office left a raft of might have beens in his wake.

Taylor was born on November 24, 1784 to Richard and Sarah Taylor.  His father had served in the Continental Army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  Born into an aristocratic Virginia family, Taylor spent his childhood on the Kentucky frontier where his parents immigrated in 1785,  his father owning 8000 acres in the dark and bloody ground.  His formal education was sparse, with his mother teaching him to read and write.

In 1808 he joined the Amy as a Second Lieutenant in the Seventh Infantry.  In 1810 he married Margaret Smith.  They would remain together until Zachary Taylor’s death and have six children.  Taylor’s military career was not meteoric but it was steady, with him participating in America’s conflicts from the War of 1812 to the Mexican War.  He was something of a military Zelig, always showing up where the tiny US Army saw fighting.  He developed a reputation as a solid officer and a good commander of troops.  In the casual way of the Army during the period, Taylor had substantial periods of leave during the frequent periods of peace time, spending it buying and developing plantations in Kentucky, the Mississippi Territory and Louisiana.  Like most men of this period in American history, the children of veterans of the Revolution, Taylor was an ardent patriot and nationalist, although he avoided politics and did not vote.

During the War of 1812 he fought successfully aginst the Indian allies of the British and received a brevet promotion to Major, perhaps the first brevet promotion in the history of the US Army.

In 1819 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.  In 1832 he was promoted to Colonel and took command of the First Infantry Regiment, which he led in the Black Hawk War.

The Black Hawk War gained Taylor a son in law. Young Lieutenant Jefferson Davis escorted Black Hawk to prison, and Black Hawk noted in his memoirs how kind Davis had been to him, and how he shielded him from curiosity seekers.

Marrying the daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, of Zachary Taylor, who opposed the marriage, he resigned his commission in the Army in 1835. With the help of his brother Joseph he became a planter in Mississippi on 1800 acres owned by Joseph.  The land was called Brierfield, because it was covered with briers and brush.  Tragedy struck the newlyweds immediately with both of them contracting yellow fever.  Both sick in bed, Davis summoned up the energy to walk to his wife’s room, just in time to see her die. She was 21.  He barely survived, and the bout with yellow fever began his life long struggle with ill health.  A much more sober and serious Jefferson Davis emerged from this terrible crucible.  Taylor blamed Davis for the early death of his daughter and the two men were estranged for years.

From 1837-1840 Taylor participated in the Seminole War.  After the Battle of Lake Okeechobee, Taylor was promoted to Brigadier General, although his claims to victory in that fight were belied by his heavier casualties than the badly outnumbered Seminole force.  He also earned the nickname of Old Rough and Ready for his prowess on the battlefield and his casual garb, Taylor often wearing civilian clothes.  As one admiring soldier said, he looked like an old farmer.

After the treaty of annexation with Texas, Taylor was placed in command of what he named the Army of Occupation, which was sent to the disputed border of Texas and Mexico.  He jumped over the heads of other more senior generals, because these generals were Whigs and Taylor was known to be apolitical, a factor important to President Polk, a Democrat.  In the initial battles of Palo Alta and Resaca de la Palma, on May 8 and 9, 1846, Taylor and his small force emerged victorious, and he became a household name throughout the US, receiving a promotion to Major General.  He rejected any notion of his running for political office as an insane idea.  His force reinforced by volunteer regiments he moved on Monterrey.

Taylor was victorious in the hard fought siege of Monterrey in September of 1846. Grant who served under Taylor during this period of the Mexican War wrote this assessment of him decades later:

General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given to him. He felt his responsibility as going no further. If he had thought that he was sent to perform an impossibility with the means given him, he would probably have informed the authorities of his opinion and left them to determine what should be done. If the judgment was against him he would have gone on and done the best he could with the means at hand without parading his grievance before the public. No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage. General Taylor never made any great show or parade, either of uniform or retinue. In dress he was possibly too plain, rarely wearing anything in the field to indicate his rank, or even that he was an officer; but he was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all.


The war in northern Mexico then entered a quiet phrase which was shattered in February of 1847 by a Mexican offensive.


On February 23, 1847  Taylor and his Army of 4500 men were assaulted by Santa Anna, the Mexican dictator leading a force of 16,000 troops.  The battle was a see-saw affair with the larger Mexican force launching assault after assault against the smaller American Army at the mountain pass of Buena Vista.  Jefferson Davis and his men of the Mississippi Rifles broke an attacking Mexican column under General Ampudia by launching a flank attack during which Davis was wounded in the foot.  A second attack was beaten off by the Mississippians and the 3 Indiana forming an inverted V.  The Mexican force, 2000 men, charged into the V and were shattered by the murderous cross-fire.

At the end of the day the Mexicans had enough and left the field of battle to the victorious Americans.  Davis and his Mississippians were national heroes after Buena Vista.  In his official report Taylor wrote:   The Mississippi riflemen, under Colonel Davis, were highly conspicuous for their gallantry and steadiness, and sustained throughout the engagement the reputation of veteran troops. Brought into action against an immensely superior force, they maintained themselves for a long time unsupported and with heavy loss, and held an important part of the field until reinforced. Colonel Davis, though severely wounded, remained in the saddle until the close of the action. His distinguished coolness and gallantry at the head of his regiment on this day, entitle him to the particular notice of the government.  The highest accolade for Davis no doubt was when General Taylor came to him after the battle and said, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”

The last major action fought by Taylor during the War, the against the odds victory at Buena Vista, cemented Taylor’s reputation as a national hero, the greatest since Andrew Jackson.

Taylor’s resistance to running for office was worn down by the establishment of political clubs throughout the nation supporting him.  That support was only enhanced by the fact that he said little on the political issues of the day, but eventually it became clear that his beliefs were those of a moderate Whig.  Although a slave holder, he thought that it was folly to attempt to spread slavery into lands in the West which were not suited for the plantation system, and the very idea of secession was anathema to him.

At the Whig national convention in 1848,   Taylor,  was nominated for the presidency.  The Whigs had won the presidency in 1840 with a war hero of the War of 1812, William Henry Harrison, and they suspected they could repeat this formula of victory with Taylor, a war hero of the Mexican War.  Millard Fillmore was placed on the ticket for balance.  Taylor was a slave holder and a Southerner.  Fillmore was a New Yorker and assumed to be anti-slavery because he had opposed admission of Texas as a slave state when he was serving in Congress.  Ironically, Taylor, a slave holder, believed that the territories taken from Mexico were not suited for slavery, and wanted the states formed from this area to be free states.  Fillmore was much more willing to make concessions to the South on this and other points.

Taylor and Fillmore beat Democrats Cass and Butler in the fall, by five percentage points and an electoral vote tally of 163-127.  Fillmore delivered the state of New York with its 36 votes to the Whigs, which made the difference between victory and defeat.

The issue that would dominate the presidencies of both Taylor and Fillmore was slavery.  The victorious war with Mexico had brought in vast new territories, and the question of whether slavery should be allowed in this new portion of the Union threatened to destroy the Union.  Taylor held to his position that slavery was not suited for these new territories and that Congress should grant admission to new states that wished to be admitted as free states.  When talk of secession arose Taylor made clear that to preserve the Union he would raise an army, lead it and hang any secessionist that he caught with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.

On July 4, 1850 Taylor had a busy day attending several Independence Day celebrations and a fund raising event for the Washington Monument.  The day was hot and Taylor drank a lot of ice milk and ate a great deal of raw fruit.  Unsurprisingly he came down with a gastric ailment thereafter.  Physicians treated him with the best medicine of the time, which often weakened or finished off the poor patients subject to it:  Taylor was dosed with ipecac, calomel, opium, and quinine at 40 grains per dose (approximately 2.6 grams), and bled and blistered.  Several of Taylor’s cabinet members came down with similar symptoms.  The 65 year old Taylor died on July 9, 1850.

In hindsight an analysis of Taylor’s death is pretty straightforward.  The White House had a tainted water supply with raw sewage running into it.  This probably killed three presidents:  Harrison, Polk (who died shortly after his term in office) and Taylor.  Cholera was the big killer in 19th century urban centers until sewers were installed, and Taylor likely died of some variant of that bacterial infection.

As President Fillmore was immediately confronted with the crisis over slavery.  He embraced the compromise of 1850, which Taylor had rejected, which involved admitting California as a free state, allowing New Mexico to organize as a territory, abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia and passage of a new Fugitive Slave Act to be enforced by Federal marshals.  The Fugitive Slave Act was immensely unpopular in the North.  Fillmore was accused of betraying the anti-slavery cause, and Northern Whigs coined the phrase, “God save us from Whig Vice-Presidents!”, a reference to the fact that the only other elected Whig president, William Henry Harrison, had died in office and John Tyler of Virginia who succeeded him had  been anathema to the Northern Whigs.

Since Taylor had opposed what became known as the Compromise of 1850, some abolitionists claimed, without any evidence, that pro-slavery advocates had poisoned the president.  Although rumors abounded, no official investigation ever took place.  With Taylor’s death, the Compromise of 1850 postponed the Civil War for a decade.  Whether the Civil War could have been avoided or been successfully fought by Taylor, are two of many might have beens caused by the death of Taylor.   His death had a significant impact on the history of the country, although how much of an impact will reside forever in the realm of speculation.

In the 1980s the late Clara Rising, a former University of Florida professor, became convinced that Taylor had been poisoned with arsenic.  She obtained consent from a descendant of Taylor to have Taylor’s body exhumed to test for arsenic.  Armed with that consent Rising convinced a Kentucky court in 1991 to order the exhumation of Taylor’s body from its resting place at the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Lousville, Kentucky.  The tests were duly performed and came back negative for arsenic poisoning.  Old Rough and Ready’s remains were returned to their resting place and conspiracy theorists attacked the results, hard-core conspiracy theorists being ever immune to concepts like facts and evidence.


A nationally obscure politician in Illinois, although one of the most important Whigs in that Democrat state, Abraham Lincoln, gave a lengthy eulogy to the deceased President:

At Chicago, July 25th, 1850

GENERAL ZACHARY TAYLOR, the eleventh elected President of the United States, is dead. He was born Nov. 2nd, [2] 1784, in Orange county, Virginia; and died July the 9th 1850, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, at the White House in Washington City. He was the second [3] son of Richard Taylor, a Colonel in the army of the Revolution. His youth was passed among the pioneers of Kentucky, whither his parents emigrated soon after his birth; and where his taste for military life, probably inherited, was greatly stimulated. Near the commencement of our last war with Great Britain, he was appointed by President Jefferson, a lieutenant in the 7th regiment of Infantry. During the war, he served under Gen. Harrison in his North Western campaign against the Indians; and, having been promoted to a captaincy, was intrusted with the defence of Fort Harrison, with fifty men, half of them unfit for duty. A strong party of Indians, under the Prophet, brother of Tecumseh, made a midnight attack on the Fort; but Taylor, though weak in his force, and without preparation, was resolute, and on the alert; and, after a battle, which lasted till after daylight, completely repulsed them. Soon after, he took a prominent part in the expedition under Major Gen. Hopkins against the Prophet’s town; and, on his return, found a letter from President Madison, who had succeeded Mr. Jefferson, conferring on him a major’s brevet for his gallant defence of Fort Harrison.

After the close of the British war, he remained in the frontier service of the West, till 1818. He was then transferred to the Southern frontier, where he remained, most of the time in active service till 1826. In 1819, and during his service in the South, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1826 he was again sent to the North West, where he continued until 1836. In 1832, he was promoted to the rank of a colonel. In 1836 he was ordered to the South to engage in what is well known as the Florida War. In the autumn of 1837, he fought and conquered in the memorable battle of Okeechobee, one of the most desperate struggles known to the annals of Indian warfare. For this, he was honored with the rank of Brigadier General; and, in 1838 was appointed to succeed Gen. Jessup in command of the forces in Florida. In 1841 he was ordered to Fort Gibson to take command of the Second Military department of the United States; and in September, 1844, was directed to hold the troops between the Red River and the Sabine in readiness to march as might be indicated by the Charge of the United States, near Texas. In 1845 his forces were concentrated at Corpus Christi.

In obedience to orders, in March 1846, he planted his troops on the Rio Grande opposite Mattamoras. Soon after this, and near this place, a small detachment of Gen. Taylor’s forces, under Captain Thornton, was cut to pieces by a party of Mexicans. Open hostilities being thus commenced, and Gen. Taylor being constantly menaced by Mexican forces vastly superior to his own, in numbers, his position became exceedingly critical. Having erected a fort, he might defend himself against great odds while he could remain within it; but his provisions had failed, and there was no supply nearer than Point Isabel, between which and the new fort, the country was open to, and full of, armed Mexicans. His resolution was at once taken. He garrisoned Fort Brown, (the new fort) with a force of about four hundred; and, putting himself at the head of the main body of his troops, marched forthwith for Point Isabel. He met no resistance on his march. Having obtained his supplies, he began his return march, to the relief of Fort Brown, which he at first knew, would be, and then knew had been besieged by the enemy, immediately upon his leaving it. On the first or second day of this return march, the Mexican General, Arista, met General Taylor in front, and offered battle. The Mexicans numbered six or eight thousand, opposed to whom were about two thousand Americans. The moment was a trying one. Comparatively, Taylor’s forces were but a handful; and few, of either officers or men, had ever been under fire. A brief council was held; and the result was, the battle commenced. The issue of that contest all remember—remember with mingled sensations of pride and sorrow, that then, American valor and powers triumphed, and then the gallant and accomplished, and noble Ringgold fell.

The Americans passed the night on the field. The General knew the enemy was still in his fort; and the question rose upon him, whether to advance or retreat. A council was again held; and, it is said, the General overruled the majority, and resolved to advance. Accordingly in the morning, he moved rapidly forward. At about four or five miles from Fort Brown he again met the enemy in force, who had selected his position, and made some hasty fortification. Again the battle commenced, and raged till toward nightfall, when the Mexicans were entirely routed, and the General with his fatigued and bleeding, and reduced battalions marched into Fort Brown. There was a joyous meeting. A brief hour before, whether all within the fort had perished, all without feared, but none could tell—while the incessant roar of artillery, wrought those within to the highest pitch of apprehension, that their brethren without were being massacred to the last man. And now the din of battle nears the fort and sweeps obliquely by; a gleam of hope flies through the half imprisoned few; they fly to the wall; every eye is strained—it is—it is—the stars and stripes are still aloft! Anon the anxious brethren meet; and while hand strikes hand, the heavens are rent with a loud, long, glorious, gushing cry of victory! victory!! victory!!!

Soon after these two battles, Gen. Taylor was breveted a Major General in the U.S. Army.

In the mean time, war having been declared to exist between the United States and Mexico, provisions were made to reinforce Gen. Taylor; and he was ordered to march into the interior of Mexico. He next marched upon Monterey, arriving there on the 19th of September. He commenced an assault upon the city, on the 21st, and on the 23d was about carrying it at the point of the bayonet, when Gen. Ampudia capitulated. Taylor’s forces consisted of 425 officers, and 9,220 men. His artillery consisted of one 10 inch mortar, two 24 pound Howitzers, and four light field batteries of four guns—the mortar being the only piece serviceable for the siege. The Mexican works were armed with forty-two pieces of cannon, and manned with a force of at least 7000 troops of the line, and from 2000 to 3000 irregulars.

Next we find him advancing farther into the interior of Mexico, at the head of 5,400 men, not more than 600 being regular troops.

At Agua Nueva he received intelligence that Santa Anna, the greatest military chieftain of Mexico, was advancing after him; and he fell back to Buena Vista, a strong position a few miles in advance of Saltillo. On the 22nd of Feb., 1847, the battle, now called the battle of Buena Vista, was commenced by Santa Anna at the head of 20,000 well appointed soldiers. This was Gen. Taylor’s great battle. The particulars of it are familiar to all. It continued through the 23d; and although Gen. Taylor’s defeat seemed to be inevitable, yet he succeeded by skill, and by the courage and devotion of his officers and men, in repulsing the overwhelming forces of the enemy, and throwing them back into the desert. This was the battle of the chiefest interest fought during the Mexican war. At the time it was fought, and for some weeks after, Gen. Taylor’s communication with the United States was cut off; and the road was in possession of parties of the enemy. For many days after full intelligence of it, should have been in all parts of this country, nothing certain, concerning it, was known, while vague and painful rumors were afloat, that a great battle had been fought, and that Gen. Taylor, and his whole force had been annihilated.

At length the truth came, with its thrilling details of victory and blood—of glory and grief. A bright and glowing page was added to our Nation’s history; but then too, in eternal silence, lay Clay, and Mc’Kee, and Yell, and Lincoln, and our own beloved Hardin.

This also was Gen. Taylor’s last battle. He remained in active service in Mexico, till the autumn of the same year, when he returned to the United States.

Passing in review, Gen. Taylor’s military history, some striking peculiarities will appear. No one of the six battles which he fought, excepting perhaps, that of Monterey, presented a field, which would have been selected by an ambitious captain upon which to gather laurels. So far as fame was concerned, the prospect—the promise in advance, was, “you may lose, but you can not win.” Yet Taylor, in his blunt business-like view of things, seems never to have thought of this.

It did not happen to Gen. Taylor once in his life, to fight a battle on equal terms, or on terms advantageous to himself—and yet he was never beaten, and never retreated. In all, the odds was greatly against him; in each, defeat seemed inevitable; and yet in all, he triumphed. Wherever he has led, while the battle still raged, the issue was painfully doubtful; yet in each and all, when the din had ceased, and the smoke had blown away, our country’s flag was still seen, fluttering in the breeze.

Gen. Taylor’s battles were not distinguished for brilliant military manoeuvers; but in all, he seems rather to have conquered by the exercise of a sober and steady judgment, coupled with a dogged incapacity to understand that defeat was possible. His rarest military trait, was a combination of negatives—absence of excitement and absence of fear. He could not be flurried, and he could not be scared.

In connection with Gen. Taylor’s military character, may be mentioned his relations with his brother officers, and his soldiers. Terrible as he was to his country’s enemies, no man was so little disposed to have difficulty with his friends. During the period of his life, duelling was a practice not quite uncommon among gentlemen in the peaceful avocations of life, and still more common, among the officers of the Army and Navy. Yet, so far as I can learn, a duel with Gen. Taylor, has never been talked of.

He was alike averse to sudden, and to startling quarrels; and he pursued no man with revenge. A notable, and a noble instance of this, is found in his conduct to the gallant and now lamented Gen. Worth. A short while before the battles of the 8th and 9th of May, some questions of precedence arose between Worth, (then a colonel) and some other officer, which question it seems Gen. Taylor’s duty to decide. He decided against Worth. Worth was greatly offended, left the Army, came to the United States, and tendered his resignation to the authorities at Washington. It is said, that in his passionate feeling, he hesitated not to speak harshly and disparagingly of Gen. Taylor. He was an officer of the highest character; and his word, on military subjects, and about military men, could not, with the country, pass for nothing. In this absence from the army of Col. Worth, the unexpected turn of things brought on the battles of the 8th and 9th. He was deeply mortified—in almost absolute desperation—at having lost the opportunity of being present, and taking part in those battles. The laurels won by his previous service, in his own eyes, seemed withering away. The Government, both wisely and generously, I think, declined accepting his resignation; and he returned to Gen. Taylor. Then came Gen. Taylor’s opportunity for revenge. The battle of Monterey was approaching, and even at hand. Taylor could if he would, so place Worth in that battle, that his name would scarcely be noticed in the report. But no. He felt it was due to the service, to assign the real post of honor to some one of the best officers; he knew Worth was one of the best, and he felt that it was generous to allow him, then and there, to retrieve his secret loss. Accordingly he assigned to Col. Worth in that assault, what was par excellence, the post of honor; and, the duties of which, he executed so well, and so brilliantly, as to eclipse, in that battle, even Gen. Taylor himself.

As to Gen. Taylor’s relations with his soldiers, details would be endless. It is perhaps enough to say—and it is far from the least of his honors that we can truly say—that of the many who served with him through the long course of forty years, all testify to the uniform kindness, and his constant care for, and hearty sympathy with, their every want and every suffering; while none can be found to declare, that he was ever a tyrant anywhere, in anything.

Going back a little in point of time, it is proper to say that so soon as the news of the battles of the 8th and 9th of May 1846, had fairly reached the United States, Gen. Taylor began to be named for the next Presidency, by letter writers, newspapers, public meetings and conventions in various parts of the country.

These nominations were generally put forth as being of a noparty character. Up to this time I think it highly probable—nay, almost certain, that Gen. Taylor had never thought of the Presidency in connection with himself. And there is reason for believing that the first intelligence of these nominations rather amused than seriously interested him. Yet I should be insincere, were I not to confess, that in my opinion, the repeated, and steady manifestations in his favor, did beget in his mind a laudable ambition to reach the high distinction of the Presidential chair.

As the time for the Presidential canvass approached, it was seen that general nominations, combining anything near the number of votes necessary to an election, could not be made without some pretty strong and decided reference to party politics. Accordingly, in the month of May, 1848, the great Democratic party nominated as their candidate, an able and distinguished member of their own party, on strictly party grounds. Almost immediately following this, the Whig party, in general convention, nominated Gen. Taylor as their candidate. The election came off in the November following; and though there was also a third candidate, the two former only, received any vote in the electoral college. Gen. Taylor, having the majority of them was duly elected; and he entered on the duties of that high and responsible office, March 5th, 1849. The incidents of his administration up to the time of his death, are too familiar and too fresh to require any direct repetition.

The Presidency, even to the most experienced politicians, is no bed of roses; and Gen. Taylor like others, found thorns within it. No human being can fill that station and escape censure. Still I hope and believe when Gen. Taylor’s official conduct shall come to be viewed in the calm light of history, he will be found to have deserved as little as any who have succeeded him.

Upon the death of Gen. Taylor, as it would in the case of the death of any President, we are naturally led to consider what will be its effect, politically, upon the country. I will not pretend to believe that all the wisdom, or all the patriotism of the country, died with Gen. Taylor. But we know that wisdom and patriotism, in a public office, under institutions like ours, are wholly inefficient and worthless, unless they are sustained by the confidence and devotion of the people. And I confess my apprehensions, that in the death of the late President, we have lost a degree of that confidence and devotion, which will not soon again pertain to any successor. Between public measures regarded as antagonistic, there is often less real difference in its bearing on the public weal, than there is between the dispute being kept up, or being settled either way. I fear the one great question of the day, is not now so likely to be partially acquiesced in by the different sections of the Union, as it would have been, could Gen. Taylor have been spared to us. Yet, under all circumstances, trusting to our Maker, and through his wisdom and beneficence, to the great body of our people, we will not despair, nor despond.

In Gen. Taylor’s general public relation to his country, what will strongly impress a close observer, was his unostentatious, self-sacrificing, long enduring devotion to his duty. He indulged in no recreations, he visited no public places, seeking applause; but quietly, as the earth in its orbit, he was always at his post. Along our whole Indian frontier, thro’ summer and winter, in sunshine and storm, like a sleepless sentinel, he has watched, While we have slept for forty long years. How well might the dying hero say at last, “I have done my duty, I am ready to go.”

Nor can I help thinking that the American people, in electing Gen. Taylor to the presidency, thereby showing their high appreciation, of his sterling, but unobtrusive qualities, did their country a service, and themselves an imperishable honor. It is much for the young to know, that treading the hard path of duty, as he trod it, will be noticed, and will lead to high places.

But he is gone. The conqueror at last is conquered. The fruits ofhis labor, his name, his memory and example, are all that is left us—his example, verifying the great truth, that “he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted” teaching, that to serve one’s country with a singleness of purpose, gives assurance of that country’s gratitude, secures its best honors, and makes “a dying bed, soft as downy pillows are.”

The death of the late President may not be without its use, in reminding us, that we, too, must die. Death, abstractly considered, is the same with the high as with the low; but practically, we are not so much aroused to the contemplation of our own mortal natures, by the fall of many undistinguished, as that of one great, and well known, name. By the latter, we are forced to muse, and ponder, sadly.

“Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud”

So the multitude goes, like the flower or the weed,

That withers away to let others succeed;

So the multitude comes, even those we behold,

To repeat every tale that has often been told.

For we are the same, our fathers have been,

We see the same sights our fathers have seen;

We drink the same streams and see the same sun

And run the same course our fathers have run.

They loved; but the story we cannot unfold;

They scorned, but the heart of the haughty is cold;

They grieved, but no wail from their slumbers will come,

They joyed, but the tongue of their gladness is dumb.

They died! Aye, they died; we things that are now;

That work on the turf that lies on their brow,

And make in their dwellings a transient abode,

Meet the things that they met on their pilgrimage road.

Yea! hope and despondency, pleasure and pain,

Are mingled together in sun-shine and rain;

And the smile and the tear, and the song and the dirge,

Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.

‘Tis the wink of an eye, ’tis the draught of a breath,

From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.

From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud.

Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

A few thoughts on this eulogy:

  1.  It is striking how the vast majority of the eulogy was taken up by Lincoln’s account of Taylor’s military accomplishments.  Well, but for his success as a general, no one would have considered Taylor for the White House.  Lincoln had to lavish attention and praise on the aspect of his life that made Taylor a national figure.
  2. Some political calculation may have played into Lincoln’s reciting the martial accomplishments of Taylor.  Lincoln had opposed the Mexican War while in Congress, an unpopular stance in Illinois.  Celebrating a victorious general of that war was perhaps Lincoln’s way of running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds.
  3. For a non-military man Lincoln showed some insight into his assessment of Taylor.  “Gen. Taylor’s battles were not distinguished for brilliant military manoeuvers; but in all, he seems rather to have conquered by the exercise of a sober and steady judgment, coupled with a dogged incapacity to understand that defeat was possible. His rarest military trait, was a combination of negatives—absence of excitement and absence of fear. He could not be flurried, and he could not be scared.”  It is striking that a similar assessment could have been made later about Ulysses S. Grant, the General chosen by Lincoln to win the  Civil War.  Perhaps Lincoln was reminded of Taylor in picking Grant, Grant of course vastly admiring Taylor, down to Taylor’s informality in military dress, a trait Grant copied.
  4. Lincoln’s eulogy comes to a sudden halt after Taylor was elected president.  For a eulogy of a president this seems odd, until one recalls that for most Whigs the Taylor administration was a vast let down.  Taylor had been resolutely non-political throughout his life, never casting a ballot until 1848.  He announced prior to his nomination by the Whigs, that his unspoken political beliefs had been those of the Whig Party throughout most of his adult life, but that he in some sense remained a Jeffersonian Democrat-Republican.  After he was elected, Taylor was completely indifferent to the economic policies supported by the Whigs.  He regarded it as a waste of time to revive a National Bank, he thought the tariff should be for revenue rather than to protect native industries, and he would not fight for federal funds for state internal improvements.  Economics were always the binding force of the Whig party, and once Taylor turned his back on these policies, Whigs had nothing to acclaim about the administration.
  5. In light of his future career it is stunning that Lincoln said nothing about Taylor’s, a slave holder, opposition to extending slavery into southwestern lands seized from Mexico and his willingness to use military force against secession, and his threat to hang every secessionist he could get his hands on.  Of course Lincoln’s hero, Henry Clay, was busily now patching together the Compromise of 1850 that Taylor could no longer oppose, and Lincoln was in favor of these efforts.
  6. Lincoln turns the eulogy into a meditation on death at the end.  A commonplace theme for a eulogy for his time of course, but also reflective of the melancholy that was never far from Lincoln.  Lincoln ends the eulogy with a poem written by William Knox, who died at age 36, a gloomy, turgid poem that Lincoln was so fond of reciting that some students of Lincoln mistakenly thought he had written it, although it has not a scintilla of Lincoln’s style.

We give the last word to Lincoln, the man who would finish the unfinished work of President Taylor who was determined to maintain the Union.



Published in: on February 21, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on President Rough and Ready  
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