Zachary Taylor, 12th president of the United States, died on this date in 1850. Normally I reserve dates of death for saints, or other religious figures, because they are more generally honored on those dates than on their birthdays. Taylor hardly qualifies as a saint, or a religious figure of any sort, but his death was noteworthy in several ways, so I will celebrate it here. I will also look at his presidency which was short and undistinguished, but came at a watershed time in US history when the nation was rapidly evolving, and still in the process of defining itself and its boundaries. A key issue as the nation pushed its boundaries west over the Appalachians, and also acquired a large parcel of territory in the southwest and west following war with Mexico, had to do with the status of slavery in the newly forming states. The split between the northern and southern states in the east over slavery was already evident, and the secession of the South was on the cards. Taylor’s chief task in office was holding the Union in place as it expanded and diversified.
Taylor was born into a prominent family of planters who migrated westward from Virginia to Kentucky in his youth. He was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army in 1808 and made a name for himself as a Captain in the War of 1812. He climbed the ranks establishing military forts along the Mississippi River and entered the Black Hawk War as a Colonel in 1832. His success in the Second Seminole War attracted national attention and earned him the nickname “Old Rough and Ready”. In 1845, during the annexation of Texas, President James K. Polk dispatched Taylor to the Rio Grande in anticipation of a battle with Mexico over the disputed Texas–Mexico border. The Mexican–American War broke out in April 1846, and Taylor defeated Mexican troops commanded by General Mariano Arista at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and drove his troops out of Texas. Taylor then led his troops into Mexico, where they defeated Mexican troops commanded by Pedro de Ampudia at the Battle of Monterrey. Defying orders, Taylor led his troops further south and, despite being severely outnumbered, dealt a crushing blow to Mexican forces under Antonio López de Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista. Taylor’s troops were transferred to the command of Major General Winfield Scott, but Taylor retained his popularity.
The Whig Party convinced the reluctant Taylor to lead their ticket in the 1848 presidential election, despite his unclear political tenets and lack of interest in politics. At the 1848 Whig National Convention, Taylor defeated Scott and former Senator Henry Clay to take the nomination. He won the general election alongside New York politician Millard Fillmore, defeating Democratic Party candidates Lewis Cass and William Orlando Butler, as well as a third-party effort led by former president Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, Sr. of the Free Soil Party. Taylor became the first president to be elected without having served in a prior political office.
As president, Taylor kept his distance from Congress and his cabinet, even though partisan tensions threatened to divide the Union. Debate over the status of slavery in the Mexican Cession dominated the political agenda and led to threats of secession from Southerners. Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not push for the expansion of slavery, and sought sectional harmony above all other concerns. To avoid the issue of slavery, he urged settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood, setting the stage for the Compromise of 1850, which was not reached until after his death.
As president-elect, Taylor kept his distance from Washington, not resigning his Western Division command until late January 1849. He spent the months following the election formulating his cabinet selections. He was deliberate and quiet about his decisions, to the frustration of his fellow Whigs. While he despised patronage and political games, he endured a flurry of advances from office-seekers looking to play a role in his administration. While he would not appoint any Democrats, Taylor wanted his cabinet to reflect the nation’s diverse interests, and so apportioned the seats geographically. He also avoided choosing prominent Whigs, sidestepping such obvious selections as Clay.
Taylor began his trek to Washington in late January, a journey rife with bad weather, delays, injuries, sickness—and an abduction by a family friend. Taylor finally arrived in the nation’s capital on February 24th and soon met with the outgoing President Polk. The incumbent Democrat held a low opinion of Taylor, privately deeming him “without political information” and “wholly unqualified for the station” of president. Taylor spent the following week meeting with political elites, some of whom were unimpressed with his appearance and demeanor. With less than two weeks until his inauguration, he met with Clayton and hastily finalized his cabinet.
Taylor’s term as president began Sunday, March 4th, but his inauguration was not held until the following day out of religious concerns. His inauguration speech discussed the many tasks facing the nation, but presented a governing style of deference to Congress and sectional compromise instead of assertive executive action. His speech also emphasized the importance of following president Washington’s precedent in avoiding entangling alliances. During the period after his inauguration, Taylor made time to meet with numerous office-seekers and other ordinary citizens who desired his attention. He also attended an unusual number of funerals, including services for former president Polk and Dolley Madison. According to Eisenhower, Taylor coined the phrase “First Lady” in his eulogy for Madison. Throughout the summer of 1849, Taylor toured the northeastern U.S., to familiarize himself with a region of which he had seen little. He spent much of the trip plagued by gastrointestinal illness and returned to Washington by September. The fact that he was prone to stomach problems is important for what occurred the next year.
As Taylor took office, Congress faced a battery of questions related to the Mexican Cession, land acquired by the U.S. after the Mexican War and divided into military districts (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/treaty-of-guadalupe-hidalgo/ ). It was unclear which districts would be established into states and which would become federal territories, while the question of their slave status threatened to bitterly divide Congress. Additionally, many in the South had grown increasingly angry about the aid that northerners had given to fugitive slaves. While a southern slaveowner himself, Taylor believed that slavery was economically untenable in the Mexican Cession, and as such he opposed slavery in those territories as a needless source of controversy. His major goal was sectional peace, preserving the Union through legislative compromise. As the threat of Southern secession grew, he sided increasingly with antislavery northerners such as Senator William H. Seward of New York, even suggesting that he would sign the Wilmot Proviso to ban slavery in federal territories should such a bill reach his desk.
In Taylor’s view, the best way forward was to admit California as a state rather than a federal territory, as it would leave the slavery question out of Congress’s hands. The timing for statehood was in Taylor’s favor, as the Gold Rush was well underway at the time of his inauguration, and California’s population was exploding.] The administration dispatched Rep. Thomas Butler King to California, to test the waters and advocate on behalf of statehood, knowing that the Californians were certain to adopt an anti-slavery constitution. King found that a constitutional convention was already underway, and by October 1849, the convention unanimously agreed to join the Union—and to ban slavery within their borders.
The question of the New Mexico–Texas border was unsettled at the time of Taylor’s inauguration. The territory newly won from Mexico was under federal jurisdiction, but the Texans claimed a swath of land north of Santa Fe and were determined to include it within their borders, despite having no significant presence there. Taylor sided with the New Mexicans’ claim, initially pushing to keep it as a federal territory, but eventually supported statehood so as to further reduce the slavery debate in Congress. The Texas government, under newly instated governor P. Hansborough Bell, tried to ramp up military action in defense of the territory against the federal government, but was unsuccessful.
The Latter Day Saint settlers of modern-day Utah had established a provisional State of Deseret, an enormous swath of territory which had little hope of recognition by Congress. The Taylor administration considered combining the California and Utah territories, but instead opted to organize the Utah Territory. To alleviate the Mormon population’s concerns over religious freedom, Taylor promised they would have relative independence from Congress despite being a federal territory.
Taylor sent his only State of the Union report to Congress in December 1849. He recapped international events and suggested several adjustments to tariff policy and executive organization, but such issues were overshadowed by the sectional crisis facing Congress. He reported on California’s and New Mexico’s applications for statehood, and recommended that Congress approve them as written and “should abstain from the introduction of those exciting topics of a sectional character”. The policy report was prosaic and unemotional, but ended with a sharp condemnation of secessionists. It had no effect on Southern legislators, who saw the admission of two free states as an existential threat, and Congress remained stalled.
That is how things stood when Taylor became mortally ill. On July 4th, 1850, Taylor reportedly consumed copious amounts of raw fruit and iced milk while attending holiday celebrations during a fund-raising event at the Washington Monument, which was then under construction. Over the course of several days, he became severely ill with an unknown digestive ailment. His doctor diagnosed the illness as cholera morbus, a flexible mid-nineteenth-century term for intestinal ailments as diverse as diarrhea and dysentery but not related to Asiatic cholera, the latter being a widespread epidemic at the time of Taylor’s death. The identity and source of Taylor’s illness are the subject of historical speculation (including a longstanding conspiracy theory that he was poisoned), although it is known that several of his cabinet members had come down with a similar illness. Fever ensued, and Taylor’s chance of recovery was small. On July 8th, Taylor remarked to a medical attendant:
I should not be surprised if this were to terminate in my death. I did not expect to encounter what has beset me since my elevation to the Presidency. God knows I have endeavored to fulfill what I conceived to be an honest duty. But I have been mistaken. My motives have been misconstrued, and my feelings most grossly outraged.
Despite constant treatment, Taylor died at 10:35 p.m. on July 9th, 1850. He was 65 years old. After his death, vice president Fillmore assumed the presidency and completed Taylor’s term, which ended on March 4th, 1853. Soon after taking office, Fillmore signed into law the Compromise of 1850, which settled many of the issues concerning statehood, territorial boundaries, and slavery that faced the Taylor administration. Taylor was interred in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., from July 13th, 1850, to October 25th, 1850. (It was built in 1835 to hold remains of notables until either the grave site could be prepared, or transportation arranged to another city.) His body was transported to the Taylor Family plot where his parents were buried on the old Taylor homestead plantation known as “Springfield” in Louisville, Kentucky.
It would certainly be more than a little morbid to have a feast of fresh fruit and milk on this date, although it would fit with my common practice of celebrating kings of England who are reputed to have “died of a surfeit” of something or other — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/king-john/ Much better to honor with Taylor with a known favorite dish. Taylor, as a Southerner, is known to have preferred Southern dishes, and a particular favorite were calas, a kind of beignet made with rice flour. Calas and beignets originate in New Orleans, but what they evolved from is a source of debate. Some claim they were brought from Africa by slaves, others, that they are from French recipes. In the 19th century they were common breakfast food sold on the streets of New Orleans, but writers in the first decade of the 20th century refer to the increasing rarity of calas as street food. Though not widely sold, calas continued to be made at home using leftover rice, and they were a typical breakfast food in early 20th-century New Orleans. After World War II, while the beignet remained popular, the calas became more and more obscure. From a breakfast food they evolved into a Mardi Gras and First Communion treat among Catholic African-American families.
In early recipes for calas, rice was boiled and cooled, then yeast added to make a sponge that was allowed to proof overnight. From this a batter was made by adding eggs, sugar and a little flour for binding. Rice flour was preferable but difficult to obtain. A dash of salt might be included, and a grating of nutmeg was a typical addition. The batter was dropped by the spoonful into deep, boiling lard and fried until browned. Modern recipes reflect changes in available ingredients, cooking practices, and tastes.
½ cup uncooked medium-grain rice
½ cup warm water
1 ¼ tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp granulated sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the rice and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring often, for 25 to 30 minutes until the rice is soft and the mixture is thick. Remove from the heat and drain well. Place 1 ½ cups of the cooked rice in a bowl, and reserve the rest for other uses. Mash the rice with a potato masher, then let cool until it is lukewarm.
Stir together the warm water, yeast, and 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar in a large cup. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir the mixture into rice. Cover with plastic wrap, and let stand in a warm place (around 80°F), 8 to 12 hours.
Stir the eggs into rice mixture. Then stir in the flour, sugar and nutmeg, plus a pinch of salt. Combine well, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand in a warm place for 30 minutes.
Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 350°F. Drop the dough by rounded tablespoons into the hot oil, and fry, in batches, for 3 to 5 minutes, turning with a slotted spoon, until golden brown. Drain on wire racks, sprinkle with powdered sugar, and serve immediately.