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Book Review: Zachary Taylor - Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest by K. Jack Bauer

Sometimes biographers get too close to their subjects and the resulting product is a fawning case of hero worship. In his book Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest by K. Jack Bauer, the author gets very close to his subject in this book, with an opposite result.

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Bauer has little good to say about Zachary Taylor, who he portrays as petulant, petty, poorly-read and as someone whose successes are attributable more to an abundance of good fortune than good management. Of Taylor's successes in the Mexican War where the general won each of the four battles he commanded in (often against vastly superior numbers), Bauer attributes victory either to mistakes by the other side, factors that developed in spite of a poorly thought out battle plan, or by simply letting his soldiers do perform as separate units, without any management. Bauer provides the reader with very detailed battle descriptions. His research is impeccable and his attention to every detail in the history of Zachary Taylor the soldier is superb. Yet it is difficult to reach the same conclusion as Bauer about credit that Taylor is deserving of. For example, Bauer criticizes Taylor when a battle is won by the infantry rather than the artillery as Taylor had planned, but he makes this criticism after acknowledging that most battles don't play out they way the generals plan them. The reality of the results make it difficult to accept Bauer's criticism that Taylor's forces won battles against the odds in spite of the general, rather than because of him. Bauer also fails to explain why Taylor was so highly regarded by his soldiers and by the folks on the home front and why Democratic politicians feared him if he was such a bumbler and a dunce.

Bauer's criticisms of Taylor the politician are even more suspect. For example, Taylor, (like many other Presidents), was elected on a pledge to operate as a Washington outsider, with his first allegiance to the interests of the nation as a whole, ahead of any allegiance to his party. Many would view this as a virtue, not as a vice. But Bauer is constant in his criticism of Taylor's failure to participate in the give and take of Washington politics and his refusal to cozy up to the politicians in congress. He would rather have seen Taylor seek friendly compromises rather than stick firmly to his principles. Not everyone would agree with this. Taylor's delegation of responsibility to his cabinet is also viewed as weakness even though it is acknowledged that Taylor had selected a competent cabinet for the most part. Taylor's decision not to carry on expansionism into Central and South America is somehow seen as a failing, and Bauer gives Taylor too little credit for his opposition to the expansion of slavery and his strong unionist sentiment.

Aside from the author's having no love for his subject, the book is superb for it's accounting of the history of the times and of the issues of the day. Bauer always does a wonderful job of setting Taylor's life in the context of the times, whether it be in his early days as a soldier in the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War, his participation in the Mexican War amid the expansionist impulses of the Polk administration, or of his presidency at a time when the threat of secession began to boil. Bauer's account of the tensions in the nation following the acquisition of new territory from Mexico, and the debate over the expansion of slavery into that territory (leading to the Compromise of 1850) is first rate history. The author is a very knowledgeable historian and the depth of his research is astonishing. The history he writes gives the reader a flavour of the times as if one was living them as current events.

From the book we learn that Zachary Taylor was a career soldier who gave great service to his nation. His bravery and courage are never called into question. He constantly won battles against forces superior in number, often with very green soldiers. He ran for president on a wave of significant popular support. As president he refused to play partisan politics. He stood up to those in congress who expected him to be a puppet. He demonstrated a good understanding of constitutional principles. He rejected cronyism. He was ardent in his desire to keep the nation united, to the point that he threatened to personally lead an army against any seceding states. He refused to expand slavery even though taking that stance made him very unpopular among his base. All of these things we are told by the author in this book. Many of these things sound quite virtuous and it is for that reason that I have great difficulty with the author's negative assessment of his subject. I would have preferred if the author had kept this to himself, or offered a stronger justification for his opinion, but having said that, this is still a very good history of Zachary Taylor the man and his times.
Tags: author: b, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: history
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