Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

Book: Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic

Author: Holman Hamilton

1. Date- In a span of a decade, Holman Hamilton crafted and delivered a two volume work uncovering the unheralded twelfth president. This first volume, covering Zachary Taylor, the military hero, was published just months before America’s foray into WWII. He covers his humble beginnings in frontier 1780s through his pinnacle of military glory in 1847. For most military works set in the backdrop of yet another military engagement, military successes can be a bit tempered. Strangely, little of the trepidation of American power on the doorstep of war seeps into the first volume. Also atypically for the period, Hamilton equally delves into Taylor’s personal life and military successes to recreate an America a century in the past. For the modern reader, this is an invaluable first draft of Taylor after years without a scholarly work. One look at the bibliography reveals that no other full scale biography on Taylor had been attempted since Taylor’s death in 1850. While more colorful leaders came and went, it was obvious that even contemporary historians failed to appreciate the historical significance of Taylor. A military giant surely lost to the all consuming Civil War, gets his first due in over 90 years. For that alone, the now aged classic provides a tremendous service to the man and military hero.

Grade: A-

2. Scope- When crafting the first volume of this Taylor biography, Hamilton sought to center on the military career of Harrison. In relation to biographical volumes on military heroes that become presidents, authors often are tempted to cover blow by blow on the battlefield. While that works quite well in military history or for thrill seekers the biographical detail often falls by the wayside. It creates a gap in the reader’s experience seeking a complete account. Make no mistake; this work definitely delves deeply into the four military campaigns for Zachary Taylor. However, it does not get bogged down in military detail. Hamilton keeps it extremely Harrison-centric, at times skirting the battlegrounds completely and pointing to the personal anguish or family struggles a lifetime of war imposed. He even puts aside an entire chapter to focus on his wife’s marriage to the marginally popular Jefferson Davis. In total, Hamilton covers the beginning years right up until 1847 where his second volume will shift from military to political. He gets tremendous credit for keeping this military biography as unmilitary as possible. After completing two of the most renown biographies on Harrison, it appears that the readers will never truly get an extremely detailed Zachary Taylor outside of the war and political arena. Not for lack of a scope.

Grade: A-

3. Author- Holman Hamilton was born during the progressive era in 1910 and died 70 years later at the peak of liberal malaise of 1980. In between, Hamilton had a fruitful career as both a journalist and historian. He rarely wasted time. Just months after his college graduation in 1933, Hamilton was employed by the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette raising the ranks as a Northeast Indiana reporter. Turning his focus from reporting to historical research, Hamilton soon spent the late 1930s on his first biography on the twelfth president. The effects of The Lost Cause of the Confederacy were most prominent in American biographies at the time. For reference, early 20th century antebellum biographies frequently glossed over the unseemly aspects of agrarian slavery and instead glorified prominent statesmen. This work is stuck in the times in that regard. It appears in this work with almost a total whitewashing of Harrison’s life as the last American President to own slaves. During Taylor’s lifetime, it would certainly be a minor biographical point. However, the first full scale work a century later surely would have understood the dubious feat of the subject as the last slaveholding President. Hamilton’s America continued to reflect his subject after the publication of the first volume. After the 1941 release, Hamilton himself went to the battlefield, reaching the rank of Captain and at times serving under General Douglas MacArthur during WWII. After the end of the war, Hamilton continued his late 1930s career by working as an editor and biographer for the next several decades. In 1951, the second volume on Taylor appeared, capping a multi-decade scholarly journey to tell an unsung tale of the twelfth president.

Grade: B+

4. Length- The look at Zachary Taylor is a tale of two volumes. In the leaner 335 page first volume, the author moves quickly covering Zachary Taylor from his birth to the precipice of political prowess. At this brisk pace, Hamilton covers 60+ years of life while the second and lengthier volume clocks in hundreds of pages longer. This length is a manageable and digestable length for a pre-Civil War historian or casual reader on Zachary Taylor. Never seeking to be a political biography or a political statement of the era, this is simply a shorter length biography detailing the life of an American hero. There are a helping of moments when Hamilton digs deeper but as a whole the work should leave casual seekers satisfied. At the publication of this entry a deeper dive into the life of Taylor does not exist and no future works are on the horizon. This simply makes this work stand alone in both breadth and depth. Despite being the shorter of the two volumes, there is plenty of meat here considering this is only half the story covering through 1847. Where the second volume dedicates hundreds of pages to the brief two year political career of Taylor, this first volume rarely spends dozens of pages in a decade. Years and years speed past as the rather long pre-presidency of Taylor moves rapidly. A quick work that Taylor enthusiasts and history seekers alike can appreciate, Hamilton overall keeps it succinct and produces a sky-high look at Taylor.

Grade: B+

5. Mission- As is the case with most biographies of little known figures, Hamilton’s 1941 work was a mission to fill an empty space in scholarly research. One quick look at the bibliography will reveal that outside of “academically worthless” biographies true scholarly looks at Taylor are almost nonexistent. All of this is despite Taylor’s incredible contemporary popularity. The mission clearly shows how contemporary popularity does not always translate into volumes of praise later. Many times, like modern celebrity, this sudden meteoric rise late in life can make humans into caricatures where one or two authors monopolize opinions on the subjects. Taylor was no different. In his mission, Hamilton simply sought to combat these folktales. All his anecdotes and historical accounts are exhaustively cited with multiple primary and secondary sources one might expect from a reporting or general journalism background. What emerges is not Taylor the myth but simply a Taylor account that the reader trusts is backed by scholarly intrigue and hard data. As a presidential project it is works such as Hamilton’s that are incredibly valuable. These scholarly gaps of research frequently appear and are rarely filled by powerful authors. As a mission, Hamilton has accomplished his goal and his two volume work remains elite among those taking a Harrison foray. Whereas Bauer can hold the reins as the preeminent author of short biography, the investigative and researched prize will inevitably go to Hamilton. After all, that is where his mission sent him in the first place.

Grade: A

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