Miller Center

Margaret Taylor - First Lady

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As a figure in her husband's presidential life, Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor seemed to be more a phantom than a person, and for good reason. Few actually saw her either in person or on paper as she refused to sit for an official portrait or for a photograph. In addition, she opted not to take on the social duties associated with the role of President's wife, transferring her responsibilities to her daughter, Mary Elizabeth "Betty" Taylor Bliss.

Just twenty-four and newly married when her father became President of the United States, Betty Taylor Bliss assumed her mother's obligations as presidential hostess right from the start. When President James K. Polk invited the president-elect and his wife to dinner at the White House, Margaret Taylor declined, and Betty went in her stead. When Margaret failed to appear at the various inaugural balls, the press focused on her youthful and lively daughter. It was a pattern oft repeated throughout Zachary Taylor's short presidency as Betty assumed her mother's place at all official functions. Despite her ghostlike presence in the White House, Margaret Taylor still managed to exert an influence as a presidential spouse. Her dislike of pomp and protocol and her refusal to perform official hostess duties neither precluded her from entertaining friends and relatives in the family's private quarters nor from debating current political issues and listening to her husband's political discussions. And while frail, she was no recluse. She attended services almost daily at a church near the White House and even made a couple of rare public appearances, welcoming a Sunday school group to the White House and accepting a life membership in the American Sunday School Union.

Yet for an American populace accustomed to seeing and hearing about the President's wife on a regular basis, Margaret Taylor's refusal to assume her expected social role was baffling. Rumors flew as Washington society in particular tried to make sense of the situation. One story told of a forced imprisonment in the attic while another described a family embarrassed by her coarse western ways.

But it was neither embarrassment nor cruelty that kept Margaret Taylor out of the public eye: it was gratitude. President Zachary Taylor expressed no resentment for his wife's refusal to assume the role of presidential spouse. It seems that he felt she had done enough, having followed him to rustic military forts scattered throughout North America for much of their married life. Indeed, he once commented, "My wife was as much of a soldier as I was." But while she had encountered untold hardships in the wilderness of the West, perhaps the greatest challenge for Margaret Taylor was to survive her husband's death. When Zachary Taylor died from acute gastroenteritis, Margaret Taylor was undone by grief. She could not stand or walk without support and remained closeted upstairs in the family quarters while her husband's funeral went on downstairs in the East Room. She moved out of the White House that evening; two weeks later, she left Washington forever. She would never mentioned the White House again. Even if Zachary Taylor had survived his term, it seems doubtful that Margaret Taylor would have left any meaningful legacy for her successors. Caring little about performing the social duties required of the President's wife, she was equally disinterested in being her husband's political partner. Rejecting both aspects of the role ensured that her tenure would be remembered as a veritable nonevent. For Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor, such anonymity, no doubt, would have been to her liking.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Michael F. Holt

Professor Holt is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. His writings include:

The Civil War and Reconstruction (Co-authored with Jean H. Baker and David Herbert Donald, W.W. Norton, 2001)

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1999)

Political Parties and American Political Development from the age of Jackson to the age of Lincoln (Louisiana State University Press, 1992)