Margaret Taylor: First Lady of the United States
Margaret Taylor was the wife of American President Zachary Taylor, who served in the White House from March 1849 until his death in July 1850. Zachary Taylor rose to prominence as a national war hero due to his outstanding victories in the Mexican-American War. As first lady, Margaret Taylor, or “Peggy” as she was called, preferred not to be in the spotlight because of her poor health and disinterest in social activities. She was, however, known as a kind and agreeable woman who had faithfully followed her husband in his assignments across the nation while he fulfilled his military duties.
Early Life and Marriage
Margaret Taylor was born on September 21, 1788, in Calvert County, Maryland, as the daughter of Ann Mackall and Major Walter Smith, a prosperous plantation owner who had served as an officer during the American Revolution. Although raised amid wealth in an influential and respectable family, like most young women from her day, Margaret did not benefit from formal education. She did have some private tutors, but her education was mostly focused on practical knowledge rather than intellectual matters.
In 1809, when she was 21, Margaret took an extended trip to visit her sister and her family in Kentucky. While there, she was introduced to a 25-year-old army lieutenant named Zachary Taylor. He was on leave, staying with his parents who lived nearby. Friends and acquaintances of the couple later talked about how the two fell in love with each other very quickly. They were married in June of 1810 after six months of courtship. To honor the occasion, Taylor’s father gave the couple 324 acres of land near Louisville, Kentucky.
Life as the Wife of a Military Man
Since Zachary Taylor’s military career progressed slowly in the beginning, the newlyweds first years together were disturbed by continual hardships, dangers, and periodic lengthy separations. Because he had few political connections, Taylor was often assigned to positions in rural places near the frontier--places like Michigan, Missouri, Louisiana, and Florida, where he commanded small military posts. Thus, the couple often lived in log cabins and military barracks in the winter and switched to tents in the summer.
A kind and modest woman, Margaret Taylor faithfully followed her husband to his posts and took care of domestic duties. Although this harsh life with its lack of basic amenities was nothing like the refinement and comfort she had experienced in her parents’ home, she found within herself the moral strength to endure and rarely complained. As a devout Episcopalian, she often found comfort in her faith.
Margaret Taylor gave birth to six children, five daughters and a son. Despite the difficulties of raising children in such a harsh environment, she and her husband were happy together. Whenever he was called on duty, she stayed at the garrison taking care of the children with the few amenities available. The Taylors had two slaves who traveled with them and assisted Margaret in her domestic duties. Although her life was often lonely, Margaret showed impressive strength of character and always had the power to remain calm and even provide comfort to the wives of other officers. As her children grew up, they were sent to boarding schools back East and Margaret’s loneliness increased.
In 1820, the family went through one of the toughest periods in their life together when the couple’s three-year-old daughter Olivia died of malaria. That same year they lost an infant daughter to the same disease. Margaret was also stricken with malaria, or “bilious fever” as it was called, but managed to survive, though her health was permanently impaired. Although she slowly recovered with her characteristic inner strength, the trauma had affected her deeply.
Due to the hardships endured at the frontier and the slow progression of Taylor’s career, both he and Margaret became disenchanted with military life and did not want their daughters to marry men from the military. However, their daughter Sarah fell in love with a lieutenant named Jefferson Davis, who would go on to be the president of the Confederate States of America. Sarah married Jefferson against her parents’ wishes, and the Taylors refused to attend the wedding. The marriage was short-lived as Sarah died from malaria three months later. Another daughter, Ann, married an assistant military surgeon. The parents showed slight opposition again but made peace with it eventually.
The Indian Wars
During the Seminole Wars, Zachary Taylor found an opportunity to show his skills as a military leader and finally achieved fame for his military victories, earning the nickname “Old Rough and Ready.” Now a brigadier general, he took leave to spend quality time with his family. After years of itinerant life, they were so used to moving that they preferred to spend their free time traveling. Thus, Zachary and Margaret embarked on a long tour across the country, visiting family and relatives in several locations, including Florida, Louisiana, New York, Kentucky, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. While in Philadelphia they visited their daughter Betty, who was attending school there.
When Taylor resumed his military duties, he was assigned commander of a fort in Baton Rouge. For the first time in many years, due to Zachary’s increasing influence and popularity, the Taylors had the chance to find a more comfortable home and moved into a small cottage. With the help of her slaves and the fort’s soldiers, Margaret renovated and decorated the new residence and even started a garden. In her free time, she established an Episcopal Church in one of the rooms in the garrison building. This period was one of great tranquility and happiness for the family. Besides the joy of having her own modest home, Margaret also had the chance to see her beloved husband finally achieve the prestige and fame she felt he deserved.
The Mexican-American War
Their happy period ended when the war with Mexico broke out and Taylor was called into duty in Texas. Margaret remained behind in her cottage at Baton Rouge, finding comfort in the company of her children. This separation proved one of the most challenging of their lives together, as Margaret felt she had good reasons to worry about Zachary’s safety. A devout believer, Mrs. Taylor prayed regularly for her husband and his soldiers. It was in this period that she started increasingly avoiding social life, even though she had never been a very social person. The reason for her reclusiveness was that she had made a promise to God to renounce the pleasures of social company if her husband returned home safely.
In December 1847, when the Mexican-American war ended with the impressive victory of her husband at the Battle of Buena Vista, Margaret traveled to New Orleans together with her daughters to meet Zachary. What they discovered was that the entire city was celebrating her husband, who was received as a hero. After extensive celebrations, the Taylors resumed their peaceful life in their cottage at Baton Rouge. Their newfound happiness was overshadowed by Margaret’s declining health. She had always had a delicate constitution, but only now the effects of her harsh lifestyle became more apparent.
First Lady of the United States
Due to his role in the Mexican-American War, Zachary Taylor became an influential figure in American politics and many believed he should become president of the United States. Although reluctant to enter politics and with no experience in public office, he eventually decided to pursue the office of the president. When she learned he was nominated for the presidential race by the Whig Party, Margaret expressed her discontent. It was “a plot,” she bemoaned, “to deprive her of his society, and shorten his life by unnecessary care and responsibility.” Being the long-suffering wife, she went along with his decision to run, hoped for his sake he would win the election, and was pleased when he was elected. She would have preferred a quiet and serene retirement for both of them, especially as her health was not improving. She also wanted to be able to enjoy her husband’s company freely as she couldn’t in their many decades together. The idea of moving into the White House from their cozy cottage in Baton Rouge thoroughly displeased her, and she dreaded the possible consequences on their health and personal lives. She was glad her husband was so successful but dreaded the drastic change that was before them.
After Zachary won the election and became president, Margaret followed once the inaugural celebrations were complete. The president and Mrs. Taylor settled into the White House and tried to live as much as they could as if they were back in Baton Rouge. Living with them was their daughter and son-in-law, William and Betty Bliss. Betty’s husband, lieutenant colonel William Bliss, was president Taylor’s adjutant and secretary. On occasion Zachary’s niece, Rebecca Taylor, lived with them while she attended school in the city. Margaret spent most of her time in the upstairs quarters but was always welcoming to friends and relatives. True to her promise to God, she shunned public life, a decision that caused a stir in the social circles of Washington. Margaret was the polar opposite of First Ladies such as Dolley Madison and Julia Tyler, who had held sway in the parlors of the capitol city. Rumors began to circulate that Mrs. Taylor was a pipe smoking country bumpkin. Never mind the fact that she was allergic to smoke, came from a well-heeled family, and had married a wealthy man. The Taylors did their best to ignore the rumors and enjoy a regular family life as much as possible.
Although in poor health and with no interest or energy for public life, Margaret continued to attend church regularly at St. John’s Episcopal Church. In general, Margaret ignored invitations and did not participate in important events at the White House. Although she had shown herself as incredibly resilient before, she now complained often about their lives in Washington. Meanwhile, Taylor’s political opponents found new reasons in Margaret’s behavior to criticize him.
To avoid criticism regarding her seclusion, Margaret and the president decided to delegate the responsibilities of the first lady to their daughter Marry Elizabeth “Betty” Bliss, who became the official White House hostess. Betty happily took the responsibility of entertaining guests at presidential dinners and events. To everyone’s satisfaction, she proved an agreeable and refined hostess.
Death and Legacy
President Taylor attended a long July 4th celebration in 1850, spending many hours in the hot sun. During the long ceremony he ate several green apples and cherries, washing down the mix with iced milk. That night the sixty-five-year-old president fell ill and was diagnosed with acute indigestion. The crude medical treatment administered by the doctors probably did more harm than good and he died five days later. Devastated and in shock, Margaret did not find the strength to attend her husband’s funeral. The former vice president, Millard Filmore, took over the presidency and graciously offered for Mrs. Taylor and her family to remain in the White House as long as needed. Not happy with life in Washington, she departed the city to visit her daughter Ann in Baltimore shortly after the funeral. As soon as she took care of her husband’s will she retired to Pascagoula, Mississippi, to live with her daughter Betty and her family. She remained there with her family and five slaves for the remainder of her days. Margaret took the death of her husband hard and never again spoke of her time in the White House.
Margaret Taylor died on August 18, 1852, two years after her husband, and was buried next to him near Louisville, Kentucky. She was survived by three of her children. Her son Richard went on to serve as an officer in the Confederate army during the Civil War. Her daughter Betty lived into the twentieth-century, dying in 1909.
Since she left no written legacy of her life, Margaret Taylor is considered one of the least influential first ladies as she played no part in her husband’s short presidency. She remains in history a simple and kind, typically Southern woman who lived a challenging but virtuous life.
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Swain, Susan and C-SPAN. First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. Public Affairs. 2015.
Watson, Robert P. First Ladies of the United Sates: A Biographical Dictionary. Lynne Rienner Publishers. 2001.