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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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

Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

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.

Grade: A-

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.

Grade: B-

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.

Grade: B-

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.

Grade: B-

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.

Grade: B-