A Day With No President & Lincoln’s Lost Coat: Zach Taylor’s 1849 Sunday Inauguration, Part 3

Vague, Rough and Ready: President Zachary Taylor.

Vague, Rough and Ready: President Zachary Taylor.

When Warren G. Harding was a candidate for the highest office in the land, his manager Harry Daugherty enthused that Harding might win simply because “he sure looks like a President!”

Nobody ever said that about Zachary Taylor.

In this cartoon Taylor's skull is examined by a phrenologist, a popular science which claimed to read a person's character by head bumps..

In this cartoon Taylor’s skull is examined by a phrenologist, a popular science which claimed to read a person’s character by head bumps.

In fact, he so didn’t look like a President that when people encountered him as he made a triumphant three-week promenade by steamship, railroad and carriage from his modest Baton Rouge, Louisiana cottage to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration,  many did not believe the cranky old man with a face entirely covered with wrinkles, wearing the rumpled canvas duster around his dumpy body and spitting chewing tobacco with bull’s-eye precision could possibly be him.

He didn’t give a damn what the hell people thought about the way he looked. He didn’t even give a damn about being elected President – and he certainly didn’t give a damn about how he was inaugurated or what day of the week it was, Sunday or Monday.  So he said.

Nobody really gets to be President entirely against his wishes.

In fact, the legendary Mexican War general and hero of the Battle of Buena Vista may have simply been playing the sly mouse for the desperate cat that was the Whig Party which essentially thrust their party’s 1848 nomination upon him. Henry Clay’s insistence that no new territory be acquired which would permit slavery had turned off the party’s southern wing while New Englander Daniel Webster had zero support in the West or South.

As a presidential candidate Taylor refused to answer any questions about where he stood on policy issues.

As a presidential candidate Taylor refused to answer any questions about where he stood on policy issues.

If Americans in 2013 perceive the sad state of national culture having deteriorated to the point where a Kardashian with no readily identifiable talent can garner wealth and power, they need only look back to Zachary Taylor’s 1848 campaign to find the roots of Celebrity Culture. The man was elected President simply because he was the nation’s Famous General and in an era before Hollywood, generals were the bomb. Washington and Jackson had both been generals and they’d done well as President, Taylor supporters argued – without mentioning the fact that both those men also had political experience.

Taylor had never voted before in his life but when his name persisted as the best chance for the Whigs to win the White House, he finally claimed that he was a “Whig, but not an ultra Whig.”

As far as his opinion on free trade, protective tariffs, or the chance of furthering or limiting slavery, he said he’d have no answer until he’d  looked into all that stuff. And by the time he was nominated, he still hadn’t indicated when he’d start looking into such issues. Finally, he sat himself down and wrote one vague letter, promising that he would “carry out the people’s will as expressed through Congress.”

Zach and Peggy Taylor's Baton Rouge cottage.

Zach and Peggy Taylor‘s Baton Rouge cottage.

If nominated and elected, Taylor seemed okay with the chance of being nominated and elected but if that didn’t pan out he was just as happy to prop his feet up on the railing of his Baton Rouge cottage, right along the Mississippi River.

After decades of hardship following him from one remote frontier post and primitive garrison to another, the general’s sweet but long-suffering wife Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor had enough of public service. She began to pray that somehow the Whigs would nominate Henry Clay. She had only recently finished outfitting the cottage, their first permanent home. For years she had looked forward to the time when he was finally retired from the Army and could relax at home with her.

Sarah Taylor had been the first wife of Jefferson Davis.

Sarah Taylor had been the first wife of Jefferson Davis.

Peggy Taylor had a lingering fear of the sort of exposure to the elements and strangers that one encountered in military and political life, based on the death of their daughter Sarah Knox just after the young woman had run off and married the young Army officer Jefferson Davis against her parents’ wishes. Now, all this presidency talk led Peggy Taylor to utter her famous prediction that nominating “Old Rough & Ready,” the affectionate nickname the nation knew him by, was really a “plot to deprive him of my company and shorten his life.”

Not that Zach was secretly plotting for it himself. Rather astoundingly, when the letter informing Taylor that he had been nominated by the Whigs was carried to his bayou cottage as “postage due” he refused to pay for it, as he did with all mail that followed him around with charges. He found out he’d been nominated by reading about it in the newspaper.

Whether or not Taylor even voted for himself as President is unclear, but he was elected. He didn’t seem to give a damn about that either.

Well past the period when even a slow-boat letter from the bayou would have reached Washington, the Whig leadership never received a message from Taylor or heard through any intermediary about when he would start out for the capital and expected to arrive in time for his March 4, 1849 inauguration. Concern grew as the weeks went by.

Was old Rough and Ready, in fact, not really ready for this?

Betty Taylor Bliss wore a flower in her hair and no jewlery while promenading with her father at his Inaugural Balls.

Betty Taylor Bliss wore a flower in her hair and no jewelry while promenading with her father at his Inaugural Balls.

Finally, they sent down his former son-in-law, Jefferson Davis, now a U.S. Senator who’d remained close to the family, to discover what was going on – and get him to Washington in time for the inauguration.

Peggy Taylor was not happy about any of this. Initially, she even threatened to let him just go to Washington while she stayed alone at the bayou but her bright and sweet daughter Betty Taylor Bliss helped coax her into a cooperative mode.

Betty’s husband, also a military man, would serve as President Taylor’s private secretary and she would serve as the hostess at any of the large public affairs which social and political leaders expected the president’s wife to preside over. Peggy Taylor would be a more exclusive First Lady, hosting only private events in the family quarters.

She would, however, nevertheless appear in the background among clusters of visiting kinfolk at many of the larger and more important social events of the Taylor Administration, proud to watch her husband and daughter take center stage.

Peggy Taylor, photographed in one of two family images kept private until the 21st century.

Peggy Taylor, photographed in one of two family images kept private until the 21st century.

She was able to do this yet also entirely escape any public attention and completely maintain her anonymity because of one wise and tactical decision.

The later claim to an historian by Betty Bliss that her mother had never posed for her portrait was a slight obfuscation: as far as the public would ever have any concerning interest, Mrs. Taylor hadn’t. In fact, she posed for two photographs which were held so closely among generations of the family honoring her wishes that neither of them came to light until  the 21st century.

To escape all the hoopla over Zach along his meandering procession for Taylor to Washington by coach, train, boat and sleigh, along which he was cheered by thousands, celebrated at dinners,  serenaded with band concerts, announced by booming cannons and honored with massive bonfires and band concerts.

To avoid this hoopla, Peggy Taylor was escorted from Louisiana by her other son-in-law, Dr. William Wood, to his Baltimore home, where she joined her daughter Ann and four grandchildren.

Once Taylor arrived there, the entire family rode the rails to Washington together, arriving ten days before the Inauguration, contrary to the more melodramatic myth that the new First Lady was not in town for the event.

Senator Jefferson Davis, former son-in-law to Zach and Peggy Taylor and 1849 Inaugural chairman in a photo taken four years after the event.

Senator Jefferson Davis, former son-in-law to Zach and Peggy Taylor and 1849 Inaugural chairman in a photo taken four years after the event.

Jeff Davis had also taken charge of the doings for the big day, serving as Inaugural Arrangements Committee chief, but relied on many loyal Whigs serving in Congress to make the practical arrangements, including one from Illinois by the name of Abraham Lincoln.

In all the anxiety about whether Taylor would even come to town for the event and the arrangements necessary for the outdoor swearing-in ceremony on the east front of the U.S. Capitol Building, necessary number of horse and carriages to convey officials and the ticket sales for the official Whig Party inaugural ball, however, few had thought enough in advance to realize the fact that March 4, 1849 fell on a Sunday. Taylor didn’t give a hoot about it, but knowing that having him swear on Sunday would enrage the nation’s Sabbatarianists, Senator Davis swiftly determined the ceremony should be held the next day instead.

Davis was soon enough swept up in the matter of soothing the resentment of the uptight and precise outgoing President James Polk towards Taylor, whom he considered to be a dangerous ignoramus.

Taylor was nothing if not gracious, however, and the two men managed a cordiality during their exchange of calls. Polk even hosted a state dinner for Taylor in the White House.

Whether it was something Taylor said at dinner or the fact that Peggy was a no-show for it, however, the outgoing First Lady Sarah Polk renewed her husband’s fear that Taylor would destroy the country.

This political cartoon shows Taylor on a railroad engine headed straight for the White House and ready to roll over President Polk.

This political cartoon shows Taylor on a railroad engine headed straight for the White House and ready to roll over President Polk.

Perhaps to get a rise out of the humorless Polk, Old Rough and Ready didn’t help matters by shrugging off the idea of California joining the Union, saying it was too far away and should form its own government.

Under Taylor’s presidency, of course, it became a state.

On Saturday, March 3 drew to a close, it must have dawned on Senator Davis or some among his colleagues that all of their official terms were ending when the U.S. Congress officially adjourned at midnight.

Further complicating matters was the fact that, at noon on Sunday, James Polk ceased being President.

David Atchison photographed the same month as the taylor inaugural.

David Atchison photographed the same month as the Taylor inaugural.

There would also be no official Vice President until Monday – not until Taylor’s running mate Millard Fillmore was sworn-in just before the new President would be.

This time, however, unlike the case of Monroe’s Sunday inaugural, there would also be no official Senate president pro tempore.

That office was held by Missouri’s Senator David Atchison. Although Atchison had been re-elected, his current term expired on March 4, and could not legally resume his legal privileges as president pro tempore until the new session began on Monday.

So technically, legally, officially the United States had no President all day on Sunday, March 4, 1849.

On Monday morning, the first order of business was for the incumbent Senators who had not been up for re-election, to elect Atchison as president pro tem, so he could resume his official duties. Loyal Missourians claim that this, at the least, made him U.S. President.

Shortly after he was restored to his position, however, “President Atchison” swore in Millard Fillmore who, as the new Vice President, was second in line for the presidency.

Does that mean that Millard Fillmore was President before he became President two years later when, just as Peggy Taylor predicted, old Rough & Ready met his maker?

Some argue that upon Atchison swearing-in Fillmore, the new Vice President was briefly the new President  – until Taylor took his oath within the hour after that.

If all of these theoretics are true then it basically means that the day without a President was followed by the day when there were three Presidents.

Taylor didn’t give a damn.

Four Presidents: John and Julia Tyler (far left - who did not actually attend) stand behind James and Sarah Polk with Millard Fillmore seated before them all listening to Taylor give his speech - as his gestures Four Presidents John and Julia Tyler (far left) stand behind James and Sarah Polk with Millard Fillmore seated before them all listening to Taylor give his speech - as his gestures in from of ponderous President-for-an-hour-or-so Atchison.

Various states of Presidency: Former President John Tyler and his wife Julia (far left – who did not actually attend) stand behind outgoing President James Polk and his wife Sarah with Briefly-President/Vice President/Future President Millard Fillmore seated before them all listening to new President Zachary Taylor give his Inaugural Address – as his gestures in the face of ponderous President-for-about-an-Hour Atchison.

Making his way out to the sofas placed on the east portico of the Capitol to take his presidential oath, Taylor was a sight to behold.

Hatted Zach.

Hatted Zach.

For decades, his presence at the various battlefield encampments of the military campaigns he led was often a mystery to all but the soldiers familiar with him.

Most new recruits and imported captains and lieutenants had no idea that the fat and slovenly farmer in the straw hat was no vagrant but actually the brilliant strategist himself.

Now, wanting to do his bit to make the nation proud in this moment of glory, Zachary Taylor had ordered some fancy duds, a respectable black silk suit proper to the occasion.

Yet conscious of how his uniforms had always wrapped too tightly around his dumpy figure, he insisted on an inaugural suit that was several sizes too large. Taylor’s tailor had done as told and the result was a new President who drew even more attention to his odd physicality.

Taylor Inaugural Ball.

Taylor Inaugural Ball.

That night, his vivacious daughter Betty sparkling at his side with only a white flower in her hair as an accessory, the new President gallivanted to all three Inaugural balls.

There was a ball held just for members of the military which many of his former comrades attended.

There was also one organized by the defeated Democrats who had decided to dance away their dejection by holding a friendly and loyal opposition ball, the very first “Counter-Inaugural Ball” of its kind, a curiosity the new President just had to see for himself.

Then there was the “Grand Inaugural Ball,” for some 4,000 Whigs.

That was the “it” Inaugural Ball ticket, there being a sumptuous supper included in the ticket price.

Everywhere he went that night, contemporary commentators noted how President Taylor reached out and held hands with the most attractive women guests in his vicinity as he passed through the rooms.

There was also dancing at the Grand Inaugural Ball, although no reports of either President Taylor or “Miss Betty” taking to the floor to join in on one of the “Scottisches” that were popular that year. To give a sense of the sound and look of the dance – albeit in a jam-packed massive canvas and wood temporary ballroom, here is a short video:

Ladies wildly ravaged the Taylor Inaugural Ball food tables.

Reports had mostly ladies wildly ravaging the Taylor Inaugural Ball food tables.

Those ladies who were dancing or whose hands weren’t lucky enough to be held by the new President, however, seemed to be grasping frantically around the gargantuan buffet tables in the dining hall and right into the food, yanking legs off turkeys and scooping their gloved fingers into casserole serving bowls.

The sight of it all left one aghast British Embassy official to sniff that the American ladies gone wild seemed not to have “eaten for days.”

It even got too rough for Rough and Ready.

He took Betty home to Peggy at the big new cottage which was to be furnished so it looked like the one they left back on the bayou.

With the new President gone, all hell broke lose in the large temporary structure that had been raised on Judiciary Square for the “Grand Inaugural Ball.”

Having already been paid for their night of work, the temporary staff hired to keep order in the cloakroom fled the scene. Masses of coats, muffs, gloves, scarves, bonnets, shawls, capes and umbrellas were scattered in piles large and small, leaving panicked guests to tear through it all searching for their items. Jefferson Davis was relieved to at least find his coat.

Whether or not he commiserated with the tall Congressman also searching the room for his outside duds is unknown, but Abraham Lincoln never did find his hat.

A Civil War cartoon later showed Lincoln duking it out with  Davis but in truth it wasn't his shirt Lincoln lost at Taylor's Inanugural Ball. - but his hat.

A Civil War cartoon later showed Lincoln duking it out with Davis but in truth it wasn’t his shirt Lincoln lost at Taylor’s Inaugural Ball. – but his hat.

Categories: Abraham Lincoln, First Daughters, First Families, First Ladies, History, Individual Presidents, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Presidential Homes, Presidential Inaugurations, Presidents, Zachary Taylor

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4 replies »

  1. Zachary Taylor’s innaugaration sounds like a real political comedy of errors, complete with disfuctional and reluctant guests, followed by a food fighting ball and brawl. Wow, what fun. Almost sounds like today.

  2. Could you tell me more about the picture of Margaret Taylor that was released by family? All I have read of her said there was no authenticated picture or portrait. Who from the the family released this photo and when? I have also seen a colored drawing of her likeness online from an image search where she is wearing a light blue dress and looking to the side. Do you know if this drawing is aunthentic?

    • Dear Rachel – thanks for writing. When I was conducting research and writing my two-volume history entitled First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and their Power, 1789-1900, I did attempt to unravel this but at the time the two known images of her had not yet been unearthed. Her daughter Betty Bliss later in life said her mother never posed for a portrait – and it seems she meant an oil painting portrait since “photographs” were still relatively new and not referred to that way. The two photographs of her do seem to prove that she is the same person. One of them was found within a collection of photos of Mexican War military leaders and young West Point cadets, at least one of whom seems likely to have been a nephew of Betty Bliss. She remarried after her first husband’s death but had no children and so it seems that a descendant of her second husband in Virginia had them and sold them. The second was sold at auction a few years ago (you might find the info. somewhere online – I don’t recall the name of the auction house) along with one of President Taylor and was described as being kept in the family all those years. I don’t know who the descendants were or who owns those images now. Since these were held by the family for what seems like a really long time, it may have been to somehow respect Peggy Taylor’s penchant for privacy and her daughter’s remark may have been saying there was no public image – and would not be, if she had anything to do with it.However, it also seems that the drawing done of it, and later colorized, was in fact adapted from the photo held by Betty Bliss, so she seems to have likely allowed an artist to render a version of it but never released the original to the public.


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