Margaret Taylor was best known as the wife of Zachary Taylor, the 12th President of the United States.
Margaret Taylor was born September 21, 1788, in Calvert County, Maryland. On a visit to Kentucky, Margaret met Lieutenant Zachary Taylor, whom she married in 1810 and followed around the country. Margaret was not a public First Lady, in fact she gave her daughter many of the duties of the White House. No painting survived her time at the White House.
Born on a Maryland plantation, Margaret “Peggy” Mackall Smith was brought up on a successful tobacco farm in Calvert County, Maryland. During childhood she was instructed in all the customary skills of a young 18th-century American woman—sewing, embroidery, music and dance—and probably received basic tutelage in grammar and mathematics as well, which would help her manage her family’s itinerant military life later on.
Peggy’s mother had died before her 10th birthday, and being the youngest of seven children Peggy spent much of her childhood at the nearby estate of her grandparents. When she was 16, her father died and she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, to live with her older sister Mary Anne. It was there that in 1809 the young Margaret Smith was introduced to Lieutenant Zachary Taylor, and after a brief courtship they were wed. For the first few years of their marriage, Margaret stayed on the farm that her father-in-law had given the couple as a wedding present. There she bore her first of six children, Anne Mackall Taylor. The couple would go on to have four more daughters and one son.
The Life of an Army Wife
For the nearly 40 years that followed, Margaret Taylor traveled to almost every frontier army post where her husband was stationed. During Zachary’s rise through the ranks, Margaret lived in remote forts and army tents, log cabins and army barracks and eventually officers’ quarters. In 1820, while in Bayou Sara, Louisiana, she lost two daughters to bilious fever and sent the remaining children to be raised by relatives back in Louisville. Margaret herself fell seriously ill and never fully recovered throughout the rest of her life.
In 1845 Zachary Taylor was sent to the Texas Republic at the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, and for the first time in their marriage, Margaret Taylor decided not to join her husband at the front. During this period she constantly feared for his safety, and according to legend she asked God to spare him, promising to renounce fashionable society if he did.
After the war, Zachary Taylor emerged a national hero, and Margaret rejoined her husband in New Orleans as the city and nation honored him with parades and tributes. In 1848, Taylor was nominated president of the United States by the Whig Party. Margaret disapproved and supposedly believed the nomination was a plot to deprive her of a peaceful retirement with her husband. He was sworn in as the 12th President of the United States in March 1849.
During her brief tenure as First Lady, Margaret did what she had always done, focusing her energy on the household and her husband. She chose not to perform her duties as official hostess of the White House, instead passing that responsibility along to her young daughter Betty. Few people in Washington D.C. saw Margaret in public, and as a result, she was rumored to be a recluse and possibly mentally ill.
On July 4, 1850, President Zachary Taylor suffered from a sudden gastric attack and died five days later. Margaret wouldn’t accept his passing and was overwhelmed with grief. Too distraught to attend his funeral, she is said to have stayed upstairs in the White House crying uncontrollably in bed.
After her husband’s death, Margaret Taylor left the capital and moved to Louisiana. In her final years, she lived a comfortable life as a widow on a prosperous estate with slaves and servants. She made no public appearances except for attending her son’s wedding in 1851. She died on August 14, 1852, at age 63, while visiting her daughter Betty in East Pascagoula, Mississippi.