1938 12¢ Zachary Taylor
Issue Date: September 14, 1938
First City: Washington, DC
Quantity Issued: 664,333,800
Printing Method: Rotary press
Perforations: 11 x 10 ½
Color: Bright violet
Known affectionately as the “Prexies,” the 1938 Presidential series is a favorite among stamp collectors.
The series was issued in response to public clamoring for a new Regular Issue series. The series that was current at the time had been in use for more than a decade. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed, and a contest was staged. The public was asked to submit original designs for a new series picturing all deceased U.S. Presidents. Over 1,100 sketches were submitted, many from veteran stamp collectors. Elaine Rawlinson, who had little knowledge of stamps, won the contest and collected the $500 prize. Rawlinson was the first stamp designer since the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began producing U.S. stamps who was not a government employee.
Zachary Taylor was a military man for almost his entire life. His active military career spanned four decades, and he figured prominently in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and the Mexican-American War. Nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready,” Taylor was noted for wearing tattered clothing. In fact, his family was wealthy, and he was related to several prominent figures, including U.S. President James Madison and General Robert E. Lee.
Taylor’s military career is among the most distinguished in American history. He became a national hero after a string of decisive victories in the war with Mexico, many against overwhelming odds. He was a man of strong principles who did not compromise them as President, even for the Whig party that nominated him. As Abraham Lincoln said at Taylor’s funeral, he “did not...once in his life, fight a battle on equal terms, or on terms advantageous to himself, and yet he was never beaten and he never retreated.”
Taylor’s Early Life
Zachary Taylor was born in Montebello, Virginia, on November 24, 1784. His father, Richard, had served under George Washington as a lieutenant colonel during the Revolution, and was given 6,000 acres in Kentucky. The family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, before Zachary’s first birthday. Richard Taylor built the land into a large plantation, became a prominent citizen and a member of the state legislature.
The Taylors didn’t encourage their children’s education, preferring they concentrate on the farm. As a result, Zachary’s handwriting was poor and he was not a good student. Taylor developed a fondness for farming that would remain with him all his life. He was groomed to run the plantation. But Taylor also had been interested in the military since he was young, and he joined the local militia in 1806.
Start of a Long Military Career
Taylor found military life agreed with him. He enlisted in the army after his militia unit disbanded. With the help of his second cousin, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Madison, Taylor began his military career with a commission as a first lieutenant in 1808. His first Army posts were in Indiana at Fort Knox and later at Fort Harrison.
The War of 1812 brought America into conflict with Great Britain, and also coincided with the Indian Wars on the frontier. Taylor, now a captain, saw his first action during this time. American forces suffered several quick defeats at the hands of the British and their Indian allies at the outbreak of the war with England. This encouraged other tribes to take action. Shawnee Chief Tecumseh led a group of 600 warriors to Fort Harrison, where Taylor was in charge of a force of only 50 men – 30 of whom were ill.
The Indians approached under a white truce flag and requested a negotiation in the morning. But that night, a lone warrior snuck into the fort and set a fire that destroyed most of the food and made a wide hole in the outer wall. At the same time, the rest of the force attacked the other side of the fort, but the soldiers managed to drive off the initial attack. As the Indians besieged the fort, Taylor told his men, “Taylor never surrenders!” The garrison managed to hang on through an eight-day siege, until a relief column was able to drive off the attacking natives. Taylor resigned from the army after the war, but rejoined it a year later as a major. He later became a lieutenant colonel.
Marriage and Family
Taylor met Margaret Smith in 1809 when she was visiting her sister in Kentucky. After a brief courtship, they were married in 1810. She lived at their home in Kentucky while he was on duty early in the marriage. When it became clear that his military assignments would keep him away from home, Margaret decided to join him at his outposts.
For the rest of his career, Margaret – typically called Peggy – followed her husband and oversaw the raising of their children. The Taylors had six children, including five daughters. Two of them died at a young age from a bout of fever, which also left Peggy weakened.
Well aware of the hardships his family endured in following him during his military career, Taylor was determined that his daughters not become military wives. “I will be damned if another daughter of mine shall marry into the Army. I know enough of the family life of officers. I scarcely know my own children or they me,” said Taylor, about one suitor for his daughter Sarah. He added, “I have no personal objections to Lieutenant Davis.”
Sarah ignored his opinion, and married the young lieutenant – Jefferson Davis. Davis would later become president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The marriage did not last long, as Sarah died of malaria three months after her wedding. Taylor’s two other surviving daughters, Ann and Mary Elizabeth, also married Army officers. By the Civil War, Taylor’s relatives included high-ranking officers on both sides of the conflict.
The Indian Wars
In 1832, Taylor served under General George Atkinson in the Black Hawk War. The conflict began when Fox and Sauk warriors, led by Chief Black Hawk, began moving into the Illinois Territory to regain land that had been lost in the War of 1812. As the Illinois militia assembled, the Indians approached to negotiate peace. But the inexperienced militia didn’t understand and fired upon the approaching Indians. In the ensuing battle, Black Hawk’s war band had a surprising victory, as the militia panicked and fled. A series of raids and skirmishes followed, but a massacre at a homestead near Indian Creek, by Potawatomi allies of Black Hawk, prompted regular Army intervention.
Atkinson’s force chased down the fleeing tribes and trapped them at the Mississippi River. What followed is now called the Bad Axe Massacre, as 150 natives – warriors, women, and children – were slain. This effectively ended the war, although several war bands were still active. Atkinson was later criticized by Taylor and others for his conduct of the campaign.
Taylor was put in command of Federal forces in the Second Seminole War, which was an effort to force a relocation of the Seminole tribe in Florida. It was an increasingly unpopular and costly conflict. Taylor was promoted to general after a victory on Christmas Day, 1837, at Lake Okeechobee, and was one of several high profile commanders throughout the seven-year conflict. In 1838, he was put in charge of the campaign – mostly a series of raids and skirmishes around long stretches of uneasy peace. Taylor’s strategy was based on building a network of forts to slowly drive the Seminoles out of the disputed territory. After serving two years as military commander – longer than any other U.S. commander in the conflict, he received a transfer in 1840.
Hero of the Mexican-American War
After the Republic of Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, it sought to join the United States. The union was delayed, as the Van Buren administration did not want to risk war with Mexico. By the time James Polk took office in 1845, there was greater interest in adding Texas, and Polk won the presidential election largely because of his support for that issue. Even with the annexation of Texas, there was serious disagreement between Mexico and the U.S. as to the location of the southern border of the Territory. Mexico claimed it was on the Nueces River, while Polk insisted it was on the Rio Grande. He ordered Taylor to set up a camp at the Rio Grande to defend the claim.
Taylor raised a force of 4,000 volunteers and established a military base. Several months later, Polk ordered Taylor to cross the river into territory that undisputedly belonged to Mexico. Taylor did so, and prepared for an attack, which came soon.
A Mexican force besieged Fort Texas, and Taylor moved in to help. Mexican general Mariano Arista intercepted him with an army that was estimated to be two to three times larger. Taylor used a set of light, highly-mobile cannons called “flying artillery” to defeat the Mexican army in the Battle of Palo Alto. The two sides fought another battle on the following day (Resaca de la Palma), with Taylor facing even greater odds. But again, his troops pulled off a victory.
Taylor pressed on to Monterrey and attacked the city, which was defended by a superior force. Taylor found his light artillery was of little help, and the battle turned into three days of street fighting, with the Americans slowly gaining the upper hand. Taylor and the Mexican commander negotiated a two-month peace in exchange for surrendering Monterrey to the Americans. Polk was unhappy with Taylor’s decision, saying he didn’t have that authority. He placed heavy pressure on Taylor to continue the campaign, and Taylor broke the armistice to capture the city of Saltillo.
Taylor’s legend was growing in the U.S. Popular opinion for Taylor was so high that Polk feared his political aspirations, and sent General Winfield Scott to take control of the Mexican campaign. He also ordered Taylor to give Scott some of his best troops. Taylor was left with a force of a little more than 4,000 soldiers.
In the meantime, Mexican president Santa Anna led an army of nearly 20,000 troops north to fight Taylor. Taylor again faced an enemy force that was several times larger than his own – and again he won, in the Battle of Buena Vista. The victory effectively ended the fighting in northern Mexico, and victories by Scott in Veracruz, Cerro Gordo, and Mexico City completed the American campaign. Taylor, meanwhile, returned home to explore his political options.
From War to Politics
Nobody knew what Zachary Taylor’s political leanings were. He had never spoken about them publicly, and had never voted in a presidential election. He owned a large number of slaves, but opposed expansion of slavery into the West. He was a Southerner, but firmly disagreed with talk of secession.
The Whig party, meanwhile, needed a strong candidate. After a series of Jacksonian Democrat Presidents (Jackson, Van Buren, Polk), the Whigs tried to revive a strategy that worked for them earlier, when they were able to get war hero Benjamin Harrison elected. Despite opposing several of the primary Whig ideals, Taylor said, “I am a Whig, but not an ultra-Whig.” Despite concerns about Taylor’s lack of commitment to Whig ideals, the party nominated him as its candidate for President.
The Whigs sent Taylor a letter offering the party’s nomination with postage due, but he didn’t read it, since he never accepted postage due letters. They sent him another one, and also sent a telegram that finally got the offer across.
Some Whig supporters in the North formed a third party called the Free Soil Party, and nominated former President Martin Van Buren. Taylor did not commit himself on the major issues (mostly regarding slavery), and his casual manner and military heroics gained him many admirers. The Free Soil Party pulled enough votes away from Cass that Taylor was able to win the election with a 163-127 margin in the electoral votes.
“Old Rough and Ready” as President
Taylor quickly confirmed Whig fears. In his Inaugural Address, he invited New Mexico and California to apply for statehood with their own preference on the slavery issue, rather than one decided by territory location. Neither state was expected to be in favor of slavery, and the Southern-dominated Whigs wanted the process controlled through negotiations for Territory status, where it could be decided by groups outside the areas in question.
Taylor also affirmed his plans to use presidential vetoes only for Constitutional issues, and not to block legislation for policy reasons. When he later noted that he would not use tariffs for anything other than increasing revenue (as opposed to protective reasons), this represented a near-complete rejection of Whig core values. It contributed to the weakened party’s further loss of influence, and helped lead to the party being disbanded after losing the 1856 presidential election.
As talks of secession began to rise, particularly in South Carolina, Taylor responded strongly. He said he would personally lead the Army against anyone rising in rebellion “he would hang...with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.” This shocked politicians on both sides, and Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts forged an agreement that came to be called the “Compromise of 1850.”
The Compromise acknowledged California’s inclusion as a state and solidified the borders between Texas and the New Mexico territory. It also abolished slavery in Washington, D.C., and set forth the means for new states to decide on the slavery issue themselves. Further, it strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, which increased penalties of anyone helping slaves escape (up to six years in jail and a fine in excess of $1,000). Taylor was opposed to the Compromise, and even though it quickly passed Congress, he was expected to veto it.
Taylor attended a celebration on July 4th, 1850. He wore a thick coat on a hot day, and snacked on ice milk and cherries to cool off. He complained of sickness and cramps, and his condition grew worse until he died five days later. The exact causes of his death are still unknown, and there have been rumors he was poisoned. Many historians agree the most likely cause was typhoid fever, possibly brought on by the heat of the day with the cold snack shocking his system. Vice President Millard Fillmore succeeded Taylor and became the 13th U.S. President. Taylor had served only 16 months of his term.