Lincoln’s Eulogy on President Taylor: An Example to Others, Lincoln Himself Included

It was on this date – July 25 – in the year 1850 that Abraham Lincoln pronounced in Chicago a eulogy for President Zachary Taylor, who had died two weeks earlier at age 65, having served only one year and four months of his term.

The choice of Lincoln for this task was understandable since he had campaigned on behalf of Taylor in 1848 following his own one term in the U.S. Congress.  Yet it also seems somewhat ironic given some of the vast differences between Taylor’s life and his own.  Until Taylor was recruited by the Whig Party to run for President, for example, he expressed little interest in politics and held vague political beliefs.  Lincoln, by contrast, had been intrigued by politics since young adulthood and had very defined beliefs.

Even more striking was the difference in their military careers.  Much of Lincoln’s eulogy on Taylor covered his long and distinguished career as an army officer, from the War of 1812 to the Indian wars and finally the Mexican-American War, in which as a major general he became a national hero.  Lincoln’s own military service consisted of three uneventful months as a young man in the Black Hawk War, an experience which he once jokingly described as follows: “I had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes [sic]”.  In fact, Congressman Lincoln had opposed the initiation of the war with Mexico, viewing it as an unjustified land grab by President Polk with the sole goal of claiming more territory for the expansion of slavery.

While talking at length about General Taylor’s military accomplishments, Lincoln’s recitation was mostly plain and factual, but he allowed himself some poetic license when talking about one tense moment early in the Mexican-American War.  The general and his men were desperately trying to reach a besieged fort on the Rio Grande (near the modern Brownsville), not knowing whether their compatriots inside were dead or alive, and those inside likewise fearing for those outside.  Lincoln concluded the scene as follows:

And now the din of battle nears the fort and sweeps obliquely by; a gleam of hope flies through the half imprisoned few; they fly to the wall; every eye is strained – it is – it is – the stars and stripes are still aloft!  Anon the anxious brethren meet; and while hand strikes hand, the heavens are rent with a loud, long, glorious, gushing cry of victory! victory!! victory!!!

Later, when discussing General Taylor’s final battle, against the great Santa Anna at Buena Vista, deep in Mexican territory, outnumbered three or four to one, Lincoln recalled the apprehension felt by those back in the United States, fearing the worst.  When the truth finally came, it was of both “glory and grief.  A bright and glowing page was added to our Nation’s history; but then too, in eternal silence, lay Clay, and Mc’Kee, and Yell, and Lincoln, and our own beloved Hardin” (these names being some of the officers killed at Buena Vista, including Henry Clay’s son, Henry Clay, Jr.; Lincoln’s friend John J. Hardin; and interestingly, an officer named George Lincoln, apparently no relation).

While all this military history reveals a great difference between the lives of Taylor and Lincoln, however, Lincoln’s eulogy also suggests some remarkable commonalities between the two men.  They were both shaped, for example, by having spent their early years on the frontier in Kentucky.  Perhaps most interesting of all, the character traits, ambitions, priorities, etc. which Lincoln exalts in Taylor are ones which we would easily apply to Lincoln himself.  And they are the same ones which Lincoln would later appreciate in others when he had his second military stint, that of Commander-in-Chief, in particular in men such as General Grant.  Lincoln might just as well have been pronouncing the eulogy he hoped others would pronounce on his own life when his own time came to depart this world.

The following words, for example, might just as easily express the feelings which Lincoln would have toward Grant 15 years later:

Gen. Taylor’s battles were not distinguished for brilliant military manoeuvers; but in all, he seems rather to have conquered by the exercise of a sober and steady judgment, coupled with a dogged incapacity to understand that defeat was possible.  His rarest military trait, was a combination of negatives – absence of excitement and absence of fear.  He could not be flurried, and he could not be scared.

Lincoln also took time to carefully relate one notable incident which showed that Taylor was averse to seeking revenge.  During the Mexican-American War, Colonel William Worth, greatly offended when Taylor selected another officer over him, returned to Washington to tender his resignation, where “in his passionate feeling, he hesitated not to speak harshly and disparagingly of Gen. Taylor.  He was an officer of the highest character; and his word, on military subjects, and about military men, could not, with the country, pass for nothing.”

Worth soon regretted his words and actions, however, and his resignation having been declined, he returned to the field of battle, where, Lincoln relates:

Then came Gen. Taylor’s opportunity for revenge.  The battle of Monterey was approaching, and even at hand.  Taylor could if he would, so place Worth in that battle, that his name would scarcely be noticed in the report.  But no.  He felt it was due to the service, to assign the real post of honor to some one of the best officers; he knew Worth was one of the best, and he felt that it was generous to allow him, then and there, to retrieve his secret loss.  Accordingly he assigned to Col. Worth in that assault, what was par excellence, the post of honor; and, the duties of which, he executed so well, and so brilliantly, as to eclipse, in that battle, even Gen. Taylor himself.

To anyone familiar with Lincoln’s own life and career, these words will immediately recall to mind some of the notable incidents when he would likewise refuse to hold grudges against those who did him harm or spoke ill of him, even naming them to posts of honor for the sake of the country if he felt that they were the best people for the job.  The case of Edwin Stanton is just one example of this.

Given that Taylor’s political career was rather short and also recent, Lincoln’s eulogy is understandably brief on this point, noting that “the incidents of his administration up to the time of his death, are too familiar and too fresh to require any direct repetition”.  He was more concerned about what effect the President’s death would have politically on the country, but called for trust in God on this matter:

I fear the one great question of the day [slavery], is not now so likely to be partially acquiesced in by the different sections of the Union, as it would have been, could Gen. Taylor have been spared to us.  Yet, under all circumstances, trusting to our Maker, and through his wisdom and beneficence, to the great body of our people, we will not despair, nor despond.

Lincoln held that Taylor would be remembered for “his unostentatious, self-sacrificing, long enduring devotion to his duty”, and moralized that this should serve as an example to young Americans “that treading the hard path of duty, as he trod it, will be noticed, and will lead to high places”.

Lincoln concluded his thoughts on Taylor’s life as follows, including a citation from the gospels and another from an Isaac Watts hymn:

But he is gone.  The conqueror at last is conquered.  The fruits of his labor, his name, his memory and example, are all that is left us – his example, verifying the great truth, that “he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted” teaching, that to serve one’s country with a singleness of purpose, gives assurance of that country’s gratitude, secures its best honors, and makes “a dying bed, soft as downy pillows are”.

But Lincoln was not quite done, noting that the death of such a great and well-known person inevitably reminds all people of their own mortality.  He then finished his eulogy by citing several stanzas of his favorite poem, William Knox’s “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud”, on the brevity and uncertainty of life, ending with the final stanza:

‘Tis the wink of an eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath,

From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.

From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud.

Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

Reading Lincoln’s eulogy on President Taylor, and comparing it to how Lincoln lived his own life, suggests that he tried to emulate the positive characteristics of those he admired.  We might do well to do the same, beginning with the example of Lincoln himself.

Kevin J. Wood

July 25, 2017