Book: Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest
Author: K. Jack Bauer
1. Date- Several decades had passed since Holman Hamilton’s mid-20th century classic. When Bauer penned this 1985 update on Zachary Taylor, it was written in the midst of a Reagan presidency. The idea of a strong president was again on the upswing after the hangover of Watergate. For Americans, the president again reclaimed a naiveté that projecting strength was the way to go and an outstretched compassionate hand no longer made sense. In that sense it is in line with its publish date. However, in many ways it sticks out in the era it was written. Unlike typical 1980s and 1990s presidential biographies that sought to spring forth new ground, this is a biography written succinctly with a fact based narrative. Due to a lack of biographies on Taylor, this update simply needed to do much retelling of the story with minimal need to embellish or speculate on ulterior motives. Nevertheless, the Taylor researcher is left with a straightforward and safe look at the 1840s. Since this mid-1980s take on Taylor no other full length cradle to grave biography has graced bookshelves. That leaves this1985 biography the most up to date look at the tweflth president. As minor presidents go, Taylor lucks out.
2. Scope- Seeking to avoid the two volume path of Hamilton, Bauer sought to create a fully scoped single volume that covered all of Taylor’s life. The results are largely effective if too heavy on the military career. This is not surprising given the background of Bauer (see Author). This biography contains many aspects for those that seek the pre-presidency of the chief magistrates. The early life of Taylor with his humble beginnings and military prowess is covered through his political rise. It is given its fair share in the work. Despite a total scope, all parts of the Taylor life are not treated equally. The scope spends entirely too much time on the military portion, not because it was not a crucial biographical note, but because it reads more like a military history than a biography. Despite leading one of only five declared wars in American history, Taylor is swept to the role of just another general in this book. The focus can drift as well. Instead of exclusively following Taylor, Bauer at times chooses to follow the action of war, going large sections without speaking of Taylor at all. After the military engagements, the political rise of Taylor again is covered with him as the main character. However, he is hardly the only protagonist as the activities of the subject get tossed aside for other characters. The brief presidency is when the work finally gets it due as Bauer belatedly chooses to follow his subject through 1849 until his death in 1850. A complete scope for those looking for a Taylor work, but a “biography” that at times lacks a full scale character study.
3. Author- No, L. Jack Bauer is not related to American hero Jack Bauer. He was in fact one of the most respected military authors and minds of the mid to late 20th century. Starting with his dissertation in 1953, Bauer’s look at naval and military operations in antebellum America stretched many topics and biographies. He led a long and successful career for the US Navy and in militarily academic circles. His last decade of life saw a spectacular rise in quality American works. In 1974, his first full scale work was the comprehensive history of the Mexican-American War. In addition to his look at this specific war, Bauer wrote many works on naval operations including his 1980 work of naval secretaries. The U.S. Navy officially recognized his efforts by appointing him to the Secretary of the Navy’s Advisory Committee on Naval History. Despite these other literary successes, it was his 1985 work on Taylor that would be his crowding achievement. It was destined to be his last. He died nearly two years later in 1987 of a heart attack. This was his only biography so it is no wonder that the reader will frequently see him shine in military narrative while lacking in biographical bent. Bauer was a strong military author that was taken too soon.
4. Length- This book checks in at 348 pages making it one of the shortest works included in the Presidents Project. This is not at all surprising. Sometimes the lesser known presidents never get the long biography treatment. Even Hamilton’s combined efforts in 1941 and 1951 barely clock in at 800 pages. When the dust settles this work remains the standard in a short biography of Zachary Taylor. The brevity of the work confines Bauer to a succinct assignment. It contains enough substance to cover the subject without getting too tied down into detail. As with most short biography, there is a sense that this work does miss some important information. Also not uncommon with short biography, this work says little about Taylor the man or seeks his person life. For example, his extended family is largely removed from discussions except in incidental anecdotes. Bauer chose to remove many other delaying blocks leaving the reader a short flyover of a military man with his sudden rise/fall in politics. It is a solid short biography but it is one that feels much shorter than it really is. More meat is needed here in order to get the full story. Without the extended look at his military career, Bauer would never go beyond the surface of Zachary Taylor.
5. Mission- Like most works in academia, the preface of this work clearly sets the tone from the front. The hopes for the author usually are portrayed explicitly from the start. Bauer chooses to use this space to explain his purpose. His 1985 work was an attempt to show Taylor as the enigma he became. For every stereotype and historical assumption, Bauer sought to refute with facts that showed how incredibly unpredictable Taylor would act. Additionally, He sought to show in his work how the expected actions and thoughts of Taylor never panned out or were largely mischaracterized. As mentioned earlier, there is minimal fluff or filler in this work. This was mostly in line with Bauer’s mission to rely solely in known material which is lacking due to poor upkeep and the ravages of the Civil War. His goal of rounding out the character and clarifying Taylor is also stated. Sadly, this is less accomplished subsequently in the pages. In fact, the preface is the highest level of intellect the work gains, discussing such a wide range of topics as cotton, politics and bureaucracy. Overall, the mission has mixed results, with Taylor of the military in clearer focus but Taylor the person foggier than ever. Bauer mentions that “the account is based on Taylor’s own description or on the correspondence that he received.” That is a pretty adept description. There is not much more beyond that for the reader. A mission somewhat accomplished.