Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

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Book: Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House

Author: Holman Hamilton

1. Date- An awful lot can change in ten years. The lives of both Holman Hamilton and Zachary Taylor are no exception. When Hamilton penned his second volume to his two part look at Taylor, America had experienced much change. No longer was the lead-up to war and the malaise of depression the pain du joir, rather 1951 America was emerging invincible from a long war and economic hardship. They were roundly proclaimed kings of the world stage. It is perhaps fitting that this second volume covers the period of 1849-1850, a time where America was also licking the wounds of war and facing new realities. It would be over a year before America elected Dwight D. Eisenhower as President. However,  it was this very era that the first non-Civil War military official was elected President since well… Zachary Taylor. Though ten years in a long time, America in general and Hamilton in particular were sucked into a war for most of the 1940s. As a result, this type of scholarly output ground to a halt. Eventually, Hamilton revisited his subject. What emerges is a solid and more confident Hamilton willing to take more chances (some worked, some didnt) and overall produce a deeper look at our twelfth president. As before with Hamilton’s first volume, an academic biography on Taylor was seriously lacking in the century since Taylor’s deaht. Though now nearly 65 years old, this remains an authoritative look at the Taylor presidency and the America that elected him. It is more patient and deep that the first volume. A more thorough and complete work results to the benefit of the reader. What a difference a decade makes. Taylor is badly in need of an update but this is one of the few should one want the cream of the crop on Taylor.

Grade: A-

2. Scope-While the first volume dealt essentially cradle to grave, it stopped right at the political emergence of Zachary Taylor. This takes the narrative from its blistering pace to a crawl in 1849. This says little of a change in scope. When we leave the swan song in the first work, Taylor is just starting to taste the momentum of a candidacy. Therefore, this second volume’s scope completes the two work project by telling the tale of Taylor’s final 16 months. Picking up right where part one ended, Hamilton brings the story to its tragic conclusion. After brisking through a childhood, ascendance and military prowess, Hamilton brings the scope and pace to a screeching halt. Where the years 1784-1849 are covered in full through barely 200 pages, Hamilton takes the final 16 months at almost twice the length. The scope is completed but this volume is much fuller, bringing the audience more intimately into the life of Taylor. For example, much more is said about Taylor’s private life and the White House in which he lived. Hamilton as diverts from volume one by significantly increasing coverage on the political events in addition to Taylor’s biography. Though this can be too long winded at times, Hamilton usually finds a way to tie it into Taylor’s biography and weave a total scope. This is accomplished by going deeper into the world and America around Taylor than in the previous volume. So whereas the scope of the subject is just as complete, the total picture and the surroundings of 1840s America is rounded out by a more comprehensive scope.

Grade: A-

3. Author- Ten years after publishing his first Taylor volume, Hamilton shows signs of shedding his Lost Cause identity. As a point of reference, volume one shows much more sympathy for the Lost Cause of Confederacy visions than this work which essentially shows the failed path of southern lawmakers. As discussed in the author section in the previous entry, early 20th century biographers often whitewashed slavery or embraced the slaveholders as captives of fate. Ten years have soften and redirected Hamilton to a noticeable degree. He certainly does not castigate Taylor’s slave-holding ways but does go much deeper in the second work. Here is a Hamilton with his slave-holding tendencies and dealing critically with those realities. The reader feels less of a nostalgic smile than a tragic flaw one might see in a grandparent. While his 1951 work signaled an end to both his work on Taylor and his journalism career, Hamilton continued academic pursuits, earning his doctorate in 1954. Though he would never return to full scale biography, his 1966 work on the 1850 Compromise is but one example of his return to this era and his mastery of the subject matter. Overall, it was this slightly less biased journalism background combined with his scholarly visions that created a more sound second volume. It was penned by a writer who spent a lifetime refining his craft. Hamilton wrote until his death in 1980.

Grade: A-

4. Length- While the sky high look in the first volume barely maxed out at 250 pages, the lengthier second volume goes much deeper despite covering just 16 months of Taylor’s life. At 496 pages, the depth and breadth At this length a reader expects an above average short biography type of work. Taken together, the 750+ page work spanning two volumes is the most extensive and dense look at Zachary Taylor. As one project, he would rank as one of the longest biographies reviewed in the Presidents Project. This makes it the best chance to get a long biography view of the 12th president. This is typical for a man of Taylor’s stature. In modern scholarship he is hardly heralded as a notable president nor is it something one would expect a schoolchild to embrace. He was, after all, a slaveholder who fought to stop slavery. He also died in 16 months following his inaugural. For the sake of the Project, the small and large biographies both play their role. As it turns out, obscure or unknown presidents such as Taylor rarely get this type of attention in both the large and small scales. For Hamilton this was a golden opportunity to fill a void and have a captive audience and going for a decade-long two volume route was a benefit to Taylor scholarship. Quite simply, there are presidents with endless more resources and scholarly attention, but few get this length from a single author.

Grade: A

5. Mission-In 1941, an established journalist sought out to investigate Zachary Taylor and fill a huge gap in presidential history. Capping off similar works on other antebellum presidents that depicted Hamilton negatively, Hamilton’s mission was simply to remove the narrative from enemies and attempt to cast Taylor as the protagonist. In volume one, the breadth of the work lessened this clear cut mission. It covered Hamilton completely, but its pace made it difficult to ascertain Taylor as a significant figure. However, turning the page to the second work sees Hamilton extend his mission to remove characters such as Clay and Webster to the back burner and show the influence of Zachary Taylor in American milestones. Ironically Hamilton does this by spending dozens of pages on key political figures but in the context of Taylor’s influence on contemporary events. The old adage of history written by the victors is integral to Hamilton’s mission. After all, his subject is a slave-holding Southerner hellbent on restricting the spread of slavery. It is no wonder that generations of youth didn’t idealize this enigma of a man who bucked all attempts of nice little characteristics and didn’t fit into the Slavery/Antislavery buckets. Curiously then, Hamilton’s mission was to clutter and blur, taking the audience from their preconceived notions of Taylor and confusing them at all costs. Hamilton tried to bring the heady post-WWII days back to a time where right and wrong were not easily defined and the correct decision was anyone’s guess. He snatched that exclusive right from Taylor’s enemies and shone a light on an American Hero also dedicated to a positive resolution. These blurred and unclear distinctions shouldn’t be one sided.

Grade: A-

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