Zachary Taylor, the only president of the United States to call Louisiana home, famously had little interest in the job. The lifelong military man didn’t even know that he’d been nominated, was not a member of any political party and, after accepting the nomination, refused to campaign.
Most remarkably, he hadn’t voted. Ever.
Bobby Jindal, by contrast, has spent his career, starting in his early 20s, chasing higher office. On Wednesday, ending years of speculation, the 44-year-old governor of Louisiana is announcing his pursuit of the highest office in the land. If he wins, he will be the second Louisianian to serve as president.
Retired LSU historian William J. Cooper said Taylor and Jindal couldn’t be more different.
“A different time, different people, different personalities, different everything,” said Cooper, author of several books exploring the antebellum South.
Gen. Taylor, 63 years old and with almost no formal education, was recruited by leaders of both the Whigs and the Democrats, but it was the Whigs who ended up nominating him at their convention in July 1848.
“They came to him; he didn’t go to them,” Cooper said. “I don’t think anyone has come to Jindal asking him to be president.”
Jindal, an Ivy Leaguer and Rhodes scholar with a master’s degree from Oxford University, is entering an exceedingly crowded race. He will be the 13th individual to officially announce for the 2016 Republican nomination.
So why was Taylor so much in demand? He was a war hero, of course.
Just the year before, Taylor pulled off a series of improbable victories against much larger Mexican Army forces. Obscure places such as Monterey and Buena Vista suddenly became household names. The nickname his soldiers had given him years before, “Old Rough and Ready,” became well known.
While unfamiliar today, the Mexican-American war was a big deal for the young country and, once won, wildly popular.
“It was the first foreign war that the United States had been in since the War of 1812,” Cooper said. “The way it was presented to the American public was that the Mexicans had invaded our soil and killed our soldiers, and we went and showed them a lesson.”
The war cemented Texas’ place in the Union and opened the way for the future entrance of California and other states into the Union. The subsequent fight over whether slavery should be allowed in those new American territories also precipitated the Civil War.
Taylor returned to private life in 1847, reuniting with his wife, Margaret, who went by “Peggy.” They’d called Baton Rouge home for the previous quarter-century, going back to when Taylor was brought in to help supervise the construction of the Pentagon Barracks. Taylor, a veteran of the country’s battles with Native American tribes, was often away for long stretches on Army duty.
The family lived in a modest four-room cottage, later destroyed, that overlooked the Mississippi River. He also owned farmland up and down the river from Baton Rouge and died a wealthy man.
His newfound celebrity followed him back to his adopted home. He sat for hours in the saddle of his horse, Whitey, posing for portrait painters. Steamboats cruised near the east bank of the river seeking a glimpse of the white-haired hero.
Whig Party leaders, who had opposed the Mexican-American War, shifted with the political winds and elevated the hero of that war. He was one of two war heroes whom the Whigs sent to the presidency. The party collapsed over the next decade and morphed into the Republican Party.
With others campaigning for him, Taylor ended up winning a plurality in a three-way election held Nov. 7, 1848.
In early 1849, he left Baton Rouge, never to return. He lasted only 16 months as president. On July 4, 1850, he contracted a stomach illness, diagnosed as cholera at the time, and died five days later.
The war that made him famous sowed the seeds of discord during his presidency.
Although a Southerner and the owner of more than 100 slaves, Taylor strongly opposed the expansion of slavery into the American West. He resisted the Compromise of 1850, which allowed, among other things, certain Western territories to decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery.
Taylor’s replacement, Millard Fillmore, though, signed the compromise. It preserved the peace for a time, but collapsed a decade later.
Cooper said the Civil War might have started earlier if Taylor had lived, given his resistance to the compromise.
“You could have had a secession crisis in 1850,” he said. “We don’t know.”