Born in Orange County, Va., on Nov. 24, 1784, Zachary Taylor, the future 12th president of the United States and the seventh from Old Dominion, claimed as an ancestor Mayflower immigrant and theocratic Puritan leader William Brewster.
Religion, however, mattered little to the aristocratic Taylor family that moved to present-day Louisville, Ky., a frontier area on the verge of settlement. There Zachary’s father enlarged his wealth by buying cheap land and acquiring slaves.
Zachary’s religious upbringing is unknown, and he received little formal education on the Kentucky frontier, his handwriting later described as “that of a near illiterate.”
With college out of reach, the young man joined the U.S. Army in 1808 as a first lieutenant of the 7th Infantry Regiment. Serving in Louisiana, he soon attained the rank of captain.
Marriage offered opportunities for advancement, and in 1810 Taylor wed Margaret Mackall Smith, the daughter of a prominent Louisville planter family. Thereafter he purchased plantations in Louisville and Mississippi, acquiring more than 200 slaves.
Military service took Taylor to Indiana Territory, where during the War of 1812 he successfully defended Fort Harrison against an Indian attack commanded by Shawnee chief Tecumseh. More skirmishes followed, as did a promotion to major and two years of service in Michigan Territory, after which Taylor returned to his family in Louisville.
For the career military officer and planter, a second stint in Louisiana led to the purchase of a third plantation, this time in Baton Rouge, where he moved his family.
Later, Taylor garnered national attention in Florida’s Second Seminole War, emerging victorious in the 1837 Battle of Lake Okeechobee, among the largest 19th-century U.S.-Indian engagements. Promotion to brigadier general followed, and in 1838 Taylor assumed command of all American troops in Florida.
An 1841 administrative appointment as commander of the Second Department of the Army’s Western Division enabled Taylor to devote his spare time to land speculation and a growing interest in politics.
Deployed again during the Mexican-American War, he won critical battles that contributed to victory over Mexico. Returning to Louisiana in 1847 as a national hero, Taylor numbered among the most popular men in the nation.
His nuanced political sentiments proved timely amid escalating and complicated slavery tensions. A wealthy planter, he nonetheless opposed the westward expansion of slavery, believing the dry western lands unsuitable for growing cotton or sugar.
Although a southerner, his nationalist convictions harbored anti-secession views. Yet he quietly supported states rights and opposed protective tariffs and federal infrastructure, positions favored by southern planters.
Northern abolitionists, meanwhile, opposed the slave-owning Taylor.
Both major national political parties, the Whigs and Democrats, courted Taylor. Opting for the Whigs, he became their 1848 presidential candidate. Seeking to unite opposing internal factions, the party selected anti-slavery, prominent New York politician Millard Fillmore as its vice-presidential nominee.
The Taylor-Fillmore ticket won the election. But upon taking his seat in the White House, Taylor pursued his own initiatives independently of the party platform. Although passively supporting key policies friendly to southern slave owners, in hopes of achieving sectional compromise he stopped short of advocating for the extension of slavery westward.
Exhibiting no religious sentiments prior to his presidency, Taylor surprisingly refused to be inaugurated on the traditional date of March 4 due to the day’s falling on a Sunday. Perhaps desiring not to upset the nation’s Christians, he nonetheless closed his inaugural address with the vaguest of deistic-like references that, while prioritizing national reconciliation, could not have pleased the religiously devout:
In conclusion I congratulate you, my fellow-citizens, upon the high state of prosperity to which the goodness of Divine Providence has conducted our common country. Let us invoke a continuance of the same protecting care which has led us from small beginnings to the eminence we this day occupy, and let us seek to deserve that continuance by prudence and moderation in our councils, by well-directed attempts to assuage the bitterness which too often marks unavoidable differences of opinion, by the promulgation and practice of just and liberal principles, and by an enlarged patriotism, which shall acknowledge no limits but those of our own widespread Republic.
Deistic sentiments aside, a summer cholera epidemic posed a dilemma. Unlike Andrew Jackson during an 1832 outbreak, Taylor succumbed to public pressure and issued a formal appeal to God for healing. On July 3, 1849 he proclaimed August 3 a national day of “fasting, humiliation and prayer.”
Asking “persons of all religious denominations to abstain, as far as possible, from secular occupations, and to assemble in their respective places of public worship” on the designated day, Taylor hoped that “the Almighty, in His own good time” would “stay the destroying hand which is now lifted up against us.”
The following day, July 4, the president attended a local Sabbath school celebration. Although he rarely if ever attended church services, on this occasion Taylor voiced inclusive support of religion and morality:
“The only ground of hope for the continuance of our free institutions is the proper moral and religious training of the children, that they may be prepared to discharge aright the duties of men and citizens.”
When the epidemic subsided, however, Taylor followed a precedent set by many former presidents in refusing to designate a day of national thanksgiving to God.
“While uniting cordially in the universal feeling of thankfulness to God for his manifold blessings, and especially for the abatement of the pestilence which so lately walked in our midst,” Taylor noted in a letter, “I have yet thought it most proper to leave the subject of a Thanksgiving Proclamation where custom in many parts of the country has so long consigned it, in the hands of the Governors of the several States.”
A month later in his State of the Union address Taylor returned to deistic language, thanking “a kind Providence” and “the Almighty” for ending “a dreadful pestilence” and restoring an “inestimable blessing of general health.”
Slavery, though, remained the real pestilence in the land. Taylor stayed opposed to the western expansion of slavery, his resistance paradoxically thwarting efforts for a political compromise.
However, his sudden and unexpected death in July 1850, possibly from cholera, set in motion the Compromise of 1850, a set of bills designed to alleviate sectional tensions over slavery. California was admitted as a free state, the citizens of Utah and New Mexico territories were allowed to determine the status of slavery within their borders, and the slave trade was banned in the District of Columbia.
Taylor’s passing thus brought an end to an unusual presidency whereby one of the secular nation’s most secular leaders proved more responsive to civil religious pressures than his mostly ambivalent to minimally religious predecessors. NFJ
By Bruce Gourley