Zachary Taylor 12th President, 1849-1850

Birthplace, Montebello, Barboursville, Virginia
A prominent and well-to-do family, the Taylors had lived at Hare Forest, a plantation in Orange County, which is near Culpeper, Virginia. Zachary Taylor’s father, Colonel Richard, Taylor sold Hare Forest in 1784, and set forth with his family and slaves to find a new home. While on their journey, a case of the measles broke out in the party with which the Taylors were traveling, and the Taylor party had to be quarantined immediately. The Taylors managed to secure temporary lodgings on a plantation called Montebello, located near Barboursville, in Orange County, Virginia. It was at Montebello that Zachary Taylor, the third son and third child of Colonel Taylor and Sarah Dabney Taylor, was born on November 24, 1784. It is thought that the Taylors lived in log outbuilding while at Montebello, but the original buildings no longer exist. Leaving his wife and three sons at Montebello, Colonel Taylor journeyed on to Kentucky with his slaves in order to establish the new Taylor home at Springfield, near Louisville, Kentucky.

Boyhood Home, Springfield, Louisville, Kentucky
As an infant, Zachary Taylor first came with his family to “Springfield,” the 400 acre Taylor family farm, in the Beargrass Creek region near Louisville, Kentucky, in the spring of 1785. His father, Colonel, Richard Taylor, originally came to this region in the late fall of 1784. The Springfield property was located in Jefferson County, Kentucky, and was east of the Louisville city limits. In 1785, Colonel Taylor brought his family to Kentucky to make the Springfield farm their new home. The Taylor family, a well established and respected family in Virginia, continued to be well regarded and successful in Kentucky. The Springfield property later expanded to as much as 700 acres, and, according to early nineteenth century tax records, Colonel Taylor came to own about 10,000 acres of property in seven Kentucky counties. Of the nine children of Colonel and Mrs. Taylor, eight survived into adulthood.

Zachary Taylor spent most of the first twenty-three years of his life at Springfield. The original home on this site, built by Colonel Taylor and his slaves, was a log home, which was later moved to the back of the property for slave quarters. It was replaced by the current structure, a large two and a half story Georgia Colonial red brick, Flemish bond house, constructed in a style similar to that of a Virginia plantation home sometime between 1785 and 1790. The bricks used to build the home were fired on the Springfield property. The resulting house was a comfortable manor home for the Taylor family, who lived and prospered there. The home had two rooms on each floor and featured walnut wood and ash flooring. Sometime between 1810 and 1820, a second side of the house was built. It also had two rooms on each floor and featured ash flooring, but had wider mantels and larger fireplaces, and the wood on the newer side of the house was painted, rather than walnut stained, as was the older side of the house.

In 1808, Zachary Taylor, who had lived with his family in the original Springfield house, left Springfield to pursue a career in the U.S. Army. Over the next forty years, Zachary Taylor resigned from the Army on several occasions, but always re-enlisted. He returned to Springfield while on leave in 1810. He was married in Louisville on June 21, 1810 to Margaret Smith, who was from Maryland. The couple had six children, five daughters and one son, all except one, Sarah, were born at Springfield.

Zachary Taylor, the 12th President of the United States, died on July 9, 1850. He was buried in the family cemetery at Springfield in that year. Springfield remained in the Taylor family until 1867, when the property was sold. Like many southern plantations, Springfield had fallen upon hard times after the abolition of slavery made it far more difficult to maintain a farm of its size.

Since the Taylor family sold the property, many changes have been made and the size of the property decreased considerably. The wing of the house containing its large dining room and kitchen dates back to 1790 and is notable for the unpainted wooden wainscoting on the lower portion of its walls. On either side of the hallway, also part of the older wing, are its original doorways. The front and back doorways are parallel, allowing for cross ventilation to cool the house. The newer side of the house dates back to 1820 and did not exist during Zachary Taylor’s residence there, though he did visit the property after the new wing was built. It features a double parlor on the first floor. The front parlor was used for entertaining and the rear as a library, which contains the original bookshelves along the wall and cabinet spaces underneath.

After the property had been sold in 1867, a wraparound porch and gingerbread trim were added to give the house a Victorian appearance. The first major restoration of the interior of the house took place in the 1930s. In 1962, some the Victorian alterations were removed. In 1974, a tornado caused severe damage to the house. Afterwards, the owners decided that the house would be restored to the original Georgia Colonial look it had during President Taylor’s time. The wraparound porch and tin roof were removed and the house began to look more as it did in the early nineteenth century.

The Federal government has made several attempts to acquire the property for use as a national historic site and museum. These proposals have not succeeded due to the necessary demolition of surrounding homes and property needed to make a national historic site.

Gravesite, Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky
President Zachary Taylor died on July 9, 1850. Taylor’s sudden death shocked the nation. After attending Fourth of July orations for most of the day, Taylor walked along the Potomac River before returning to the White House. Hot and tired, he drank iced water and consumed large quantities of cherries and other fruits. The president suffered severe stomach pains for the next five days.

Diagnosed as suffering from “cholera morbus” by his physicians, Taylor ate slivers of ice for relief until his body began rejecting fluids. At about 10:00 in the morning on July 9, 1850, Taylor called his wife to him and asked her not to weep, saying: “I have always done my duty, I am ready to die. My only regret is for the friends I leave behind me.”

His funeral took place on July 12. An estimated 100,000 people thronged the funeral route in the nation’s capital to witness the presidential hearse drawn by eight white horses accompanied by grooms dressed in white and wearing white turbans. The hearse was followed by Washington dignitaries, military units, the president’s beloved horse “Old Whitey,” and the president’s family. Behind them a line of military units, officials, and common citizens stretched in procession for over two miles. His final resting place was to be at Springfield at the family burying site, today known as Zachary Taylor National Cemetery and Monument.

Zachary Taylor left behind a country sharply divided, and a vice president, Millard Fillmore, who supported the Compromise of 1850 that specifically prohibited slavery in the new Western states. In the end, Taylor had little personal impact on the presidency, and his months in office did little to slow the approach of the great national tragedy of the Civil War. He is not remembered as a great president. Most historians believe that he was too non-political in a day when politics, parties, and presidential leadership demanded close ties with political operatives.

Taylor’s “outsider” philosophy kept him out of touch with Congress. He never addressed the legislature with a clear policy statement nor did he use his influence to direct legislation-except on the matter of statehood for California and New Mexico. He thought that the president’s role should be limited to vetoing unconstitutional legislation but otherwise to give in to Congress on matters of domestic concern. He never took a stand on any of the issues on which he had firm opinions, such as revamping the banking system, protective tariffs, or internal improvements. In foreign policy, his treaty with England (Clayton-Bulwer) on Central America is recognized as an important step in scaling down the nation’s commitment to Manifest Destiny as a policy. Yet many of his political contemporaries thought that it went too far in respecting England’s claim to power in the Americas.

Overall, Taylor was something of an anomaly. He was a slave owner who supported the Wilmot Proviso’s ban on the expansion of slavery into the western territories that had been acquired from Mexico. He was the triumphant military conqueror of Mexico who saw little need for Manifest Destiny as a foreign policy. He was an army general who shied away from war as an instrument of state. He was a stern military commander who avoided decisive actions as president. The one thing about him that is clear is that he was committed to preserving the Union even if it meant using force against the secessionists.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Taylor lived and been elected to a second term. On the political front, Taylor had revamped his cabinet on the eve of his death, bringing in men of national prominence that would have given him one of the strongest cabinets ever assembled. More importantly, had he lived, there might not have been a Compromise of 1850 or even the Civil War. Because the South was still too disunited in 1850 to form a viable secession movement, Taylor’s unflinching support (had he lived) for the direct admission to the Union of the western territories might have changed the course of history. He had surprised many when he stamped out Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista. The question remains, if Taylor had survived, would he have been able to stamp out the most burning issue that faced the nation in 1850-the expansion of slavery westward.

Some historians suspected that Taylor’s death may have had other causes, and in 1991 one convinced Taylor’s descendants that the president might have suffered arsenic poisoning. As a result, Taylor’s remains were exhumed from a cemetery in Louisville and Kentucky’s medical examiner brought samples of hair and fingernail tissue to Oak Ridge National Laboratory for study.

In the Chemical and Analytical Sciences Division, Larry Robinson and Frank Dyer headed the Taylor investigation, using neutron activation analysis to measure the amount of arsenic in the hair and nail samples. After placing the samples in a beam of neutrons from the High Flux Isotope Reactor, Dyer and Robinson looked at the gamma rays coming from the samples for the distinctive energy levels associated with the presence of arsenic. Arsenic is among the easier elements to identify through neutron activation and can be detected in a few parts per million. Most human bodies contain traces of arsenic, so the essential issue in the Taylor case was whether the samples from Taylor contained more arsenic than would be normal after 141 years in the crypt.

Working late in the evenings, Dyer and Robinson in a few days calculated the arsenic levels in the samples and sent them to the Kentucky medical examiner for his decision. After reviewing the test results, the examiner announced that the arsenic levels in the samples were several hundred times less than they would have been if the president had been poisoned with arsenic. This finding acquitted several of Taylor’s prominent contemporaries of the suspicion of murder and proved that history and science share a common quest for truth.

Original Gravesite, Congressional Cemetery, Washington, DC
Congressional Cemetery was established by a group of private citizens on April 4, 1807. The founders enclosed the square, appointed a sexton, and began selling sites for $2.00. Free of debt in 1812, it was ceded to the vestry of Christ Church, Washington Parish, and became known as Washington Parish Burial Ground.

From the beginning the cemetery enjoyed a close association with the Capitol and its environs. The first interment – April 11, 1807 – was of William Swinton, regarded as the finest stonecutter in Philadelphia, who had been recruited the previous August by Benjamin Latrobe to work on the Capitol Building. On July 19, 1807, Sen. Uriah Tracy of Connecticut became the first legislator to be buried here.

In 1816, as a gesture of good will, the vestry set aside 100 burial sites for the interment of Members of Congress. Later the privilege was extended to their families. Periodically, other sites were donated to or purchased by the government, eventually totaling 924. Generally, those sites were used for the interment of officials who died in office. Other dignitaries lie in private plots scattered throughout the cemetery.

In 1835, a receiving vault was built to hold remains until either the gravesite could be prepared or transportation arranged to another city. The bodies of Presidents William Henry Harrison, John Quincy Adams, and Zachary Taylor and First Ladies Dolley Madison and Louisa Adams were held here pending removal to their home states. Journals and newspaper articles of the nineteenth century are replete with accounts of funeral processions from the Capitol, which conclude at the Public Vault.

With the increased use of the cemetery by the government, it became more commonly known as Congressional Cemetery. Although unofficial as the resting place for Members of Congress, some Members were reinterred here from other cemeteries as far away as New York. Over each grave the Congress erected a monument designed by Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the Capitol. For those Members who died in office and were buried elsewhere, the Congress erected cenotaphs, or “empty tombs,” of the same Latrobe design to commemorate their service.