Zachary Taylor: The Occupation of Mexico City?

If you're like me, you have a cursory understanding of American history. You know the big events, the big players, wars etc. but may be surprised when you go a little deeper than the front page of the major chapters of a High School History book.

For example, I knew their was a 'Mexican War', but for some reason, I always thought that it took place in what were once Mexican territories, New Mexico of course, Texas, California... but I had no idea that the U.S. Army marched all the way down to Mexico City and occupied it.

It seems ridiculous that I don't know this, but there it is. It really happened.

One of the best parts about this project is that you find these kinds of things out. It seems like the majority of a lot of these biographies (especially the ones on minor presidents like Taylor who died in office) focus mostly on the movements and events that happened leading up to their presidency and I'm OK with that.

The viewpoint from one author to another will change dramatically or focus on different parts of the country. All this variety fills in a lot of blanks for me and makes me appreciate the complex nature of our history.


Zachary Taylor: The Trainee Politician 1849

Many politicians before and after Taylor had well known military careers as war heroes and he was no exception. What is exceptional however is that his very FIRST political office was President of the United States.

It's understandable that many Americans don't want career politicians as President, but it's hardly imaginable that someone who never held any political position could be elected to the highest office in the land (think of the flack Sarah Palin got and she was the mayor of Wasilla!). Taylor spent nearly 40 years in the military before being nominated by the Whig party.

The Whig party calculated that having a Southerner and Northerner on the same ticket would be a good political move in this divided time and they were right. The irony is that as a career military man, Taylor didn't foster the strong Whig beliefs that they might have expected- at least none that he shared publically during the campaign.

Taylor, like Harrison got elected because most of what was known about him was nothing more than that he was a war hero. Taylor took the opposite approach as Polk in the election before and rather than being the candidate to make a bold stand on his beliefs, Taylor would take almost no public stands on the issues of the day other than that he believed in the constitution. He let people decide for themselves what his beliefs were and seemed to attract voters on conflicting sides of the same issue.

Many politicians have tried this tactic throughout world history, but I guess it takes a newbie to pull it off.


James Polk: The Mormon Battalion

I've mentioned before that James Polk grew a distaste for religious intolerance at a young age when his mother's Episcopalian Preacher refused to baptize him because his father was a Deist. Perhaps that's why he had a special place in his heart for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (say that three times fast).

The mid 1840's weren't exactly a great example for religious tolerance in America. The recent influx of foreign immigrants, especially Irish to the east coast of the United States had led to the rise of the 'Know Nothing' party which was essentially an organization devoted to keeping Catholics and foreigners out of political office and if possible, out of the country. In addition, 'Anti-Mason' parties would be devoted to fighting the influence of secret organizations on paper, but in practice they often would attack those who were not of a main line Protestant religion.

It's not surprising then that in this time period, a religious movement that supported polygamy and modern day prophets would not be met with understanding. The Mormon Church members were chased out of New York and many other eastern and Midwestern cities and were forced to flee west.

During Polk's time in office, he met with the leader of the church, Brigham Young (yes, the one the college is named after) and decided to allow them to form a 'Mormon Battalion' to head west to California and support the US efforts there in the Mexican War. They didn't see much action, but they made their first steps to creating a home land in the West, far away from the religious persecution they'd faced back east.

The History of the United States is interesting in that the intolerance faced by minorities was really no more or less than anywhere else in the world, however, the sheer size of the expanding country constantly allowed those who were persecuted to move elsewhere and start their own enclaves. When else in the History of the World have you seen anything like Utah, a state founded as a homeland for persecuted minorities within a country?


James Polk: Dark Horse

Polk served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives and Governor of Tennessee before he entered the competition for Presidential Candidate.

He had a long and distinguished career, but was actually thought to be a Vice Presidential Candidate of the Democratic party, not a presidential candidate. The Democrats were expected to choose Martin Van Buren who had actually served as president two administrations ago.

What made Polk into a serious contender on the national stage and then the President of the United States were his views on manifest destiny.

During the Whig and Democratic Convention of 1844, Henry Clay, the Whig candidate and Van Buren, the expected Democratic candidate had both come out against the annexation of Texas, badly misreading public opinion at the time to be against the expansion of the country. Polk however came out strongly in favor of annexing Texas.

Clay and Van Buren both thought that the leading issue of the day, slavery and its potential to expand would cause most Northerners to be against the annexation of Texas, but they were wrong.

Polk was the new hero of the people and quickly went from vice presidential candidate to President Elect, adding another sad chapter to the ballad of Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay.