The wife of 12th U.S. president Zachary Taylor, Margaret Mackall Smith was born September 21, 1788, in Calvert County, Maryland. Her parents were Walter Smith and Ann Mackall. Like most First Ladies, Margaret was born into a family of wealth and influence. Her father was a wealthy planter and an officer in the American Revolution. Her mother also came from an influential and well-known family with origins in the early American colonies. It is through virtue of being born into these types of families that most First Ladies were in the position to come into the social sphere of the men who would become U.S. presidents, and Margaret was no different.
Her ancestry in colonial America was impressive. Of both English and Scottish descent, her earliest American ancestor on her father’s side was her great-great-grandfather, Captain Richard Smith, who was born in England and came to the American colonies in 1649, settling in Calvert County, Maryland. During the English Civil War and brief period of Protestant civil rule in England between King Charles I and King Charles II, Captain Richard Smith was appointed Maryland Attorney General by Oliver Cromwell. On her mother’s side, her earliest American ancestor was her great-grandfather, James Mackall. James was a Scottish immigrant who came to the American colonies as an indentured servant, settled in Calvert County, Maryland and bought his freedom in 1668.
Margaret was the youngest of seven children born to her parents. One of her older sisters married into the family of former first lady Louisa Johnson Adams, on Louisa’s mother’s side. Margaret was also a childhood friend of Nelly Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter. Margaret clearly traveled in well-known and connected circles among the Virginia and Maryland landed aristocracy of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, due to her family’s wealth, influence, and reputation.
More particularly, Margaret’s father was a tobacco planter, and he owned a large plantation. This put him and his family squarely in the sphere of other prosperous tobacco planters and plantation owners. Because of her social status and her family’s wealth, Margaret received a better education than most girls of this time period. She was trained in sewing, embroidery, music, and the management of servants, which were essential skills any plantation girl who hoped to marry a plantation boy would need to know. She was also taught reading, writing, grammar, and basic math. While this was not a stellar education at an exemplary private school, which included instruction in foreign language, as some former First Ladies received, it was considered a quality one for a plantation owner’s daughter, who would likely become a plantation owner’s wife.
Margaret lost her mother when she was only ten years old. Being the youngest daughter of a large family with a busy father, she spent much time afterward at the nearby home of her mother’s parents (Margaret’s maternal grandparents). They, too, had a plantation, called “God’s Graces.” Margaret’s mother and aunts had, in their youth, been celebrated in Culvert County as the “eight beautiful daughters of General Mackall.” As such, these women made brilliant marriages that connected Margaret to the most powerful political families in Maryland. Her aunts married governors, Maryland Convention members, and Revolutionary War generals.
Margaret’s father died when she was 16, after which she moved to Louisville, Kentucky to live with her older sister, Mary Anne, who was the sister closest in age to her. Mary Anne was married to Samuel Chew, a member of another prominent Maryland family. It was five years later, while still residing with her sister in Kentucky, that Margaret was introduced to Zachary Taylor.
Dr. Alexander Duke, an old family friend of her father’s, was the one who made the introduction. At the time, Taylor was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was on leave. The couple hit it off because, on June 21, 1810, Margaret and Zachary wed at Mary Anne and Samuel Chew’s double log cabin in Kentucky.
Over the next forty years, Margaret led an itinerant life as the wife of a U.S. Army officer. She and Zachary were always being moved around by the Army, stationed at one outpost or other. Margaret lived in log cabins, forts, and even in tents, in places ranging from the Florida Everglades to northern Wisconsin, and as far west as Missouri. The couple rarely had any time when Zachary was not on duty; on the odd occasion they did, they lived at a stately home in Louisville, Kentucky owned by members of Zachary’s extended family.
During their marriage, Margaret gave birth to five girls and a boy. Of these, three girls and the boy survived childhood. Margaret began her marriage to Zachary with the intention to always be with him, regardless of the hardships or deprivations of their outposts. She always stuck to this, whether her health was good or not. However, after losing two of her five daughters while on a horseback trip across the American frontier (a four-year-old and a one-year-old), she insisted on sending her older daughter, and the daughter and son she would later bear, back to Louisville to live with relatives and receive schooling once they were old enough to be away from her. And, while she started out her journey as a military wife in excellent health, Zachary’s letters after that fateful trip where she lost two daughters always referred to Margaret’s health as “delicate.”
The remaining children all joined Margaret and Zachary again at Fort Crawford in the mid-1830’s when Zachary got stationed there for four years. During this time, Margaret took on the duties of a farmer’s wife and had a successful garden while also raising livestock. By the time Zachary was re-stationed, all of the children had either married or otherwise left home. Their daughter, Sarah, became the first wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis but died twenty-five years before the Civil War began.
The Taylors traveled with the Army together for more than another decade, and Margaret was often the only woman at these outposts. Without her children or other female companionship, she became quite lonely. During a posting in Baton Rouge, she turned down the spacious and luxurious quarters of an officer’s wife, and instead renovated a dilapidated Spanish house, beginning another garden, and teaching the Army wives who were once more around her how to make butter and other dairy products. She began to join Zachary on the frontierless and less, preferring to stay at her Baton Rouge cottage.
In 1845, during the Mexican War, when her husband was tasked with securing the US position at the Rio Grande, Margaret became deeply religious, probably as a means of dealing with Zachary’s most dangerous assignment yet. When he came back a celebrated war hero, she had a period of relative peace, where they traveled to visit all of their children and do some sightseeing as far north as Niagara Falls, New York. However, when Zachary was put forth as a candidate for US President for the Whig Party, she was staunchly against it, believing it to be a ploy by the nation to deprive her of his company in what was supposed to be their retirement. Zachary himself joked that he would vote for the other candidate because he knew his wife was firmly against him winning.
When Zachary won the presidency, Margaret attended the inauguration, but refused to go to a dinner with the outgoing Polk family the night before, and also did not attend the inaugural ball.
During Margaret’s brief time as First Lady, she enjoyed the company of her two remaining daughters, one of whom lived with her husband and children in nearby Baltimore and visited often, and the other of whom lived with her husband and children in the White House with Margaret and Zachary. Their son, Richard, was estranged from Zachary, and not encouraged to visit, making only one attempt to do so while his father was president. As First Lady, Margaret primarily focused on the joy of getting to be with her daughters and grandchildren.
While Margaret managed the White House household, as she was taught to do as a child, and took the greatest interest in the management of her husband, attending to his health, diet, and general wellbeing (and his wardrobe, as he had earned a reputation as a sloppy dresser), she did not like hosting official activities, such as dinners with dignitaries and other politicians. This duty, she gave to her daughter, Betty, who resided at the White House with her. Betty seemed to enjoy the public side of political life. Margaret, meanwhile, continued the religious devotion she developed while Zachary was securing the Rio Grande, and attended church every day at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square.
She would receive important guests in her sitting room upstairs at the White House in the family’s living quarters and did sometimes attend public events with the greater Taylor family. However, her general absence from public life made her less recognizable than Zachary, and she enjoyed standing in crowds who came to see him or hear him speak, loving that they adored him almost as much as she did. Of course, her love of anonymity also lead to rumors that she was a crude frontier woman who smoked a corncob pipe and was an embarrassment to her family, so they kept her upstairs at the White House; this, of course, was not true, and her grandson later remarked that any smoke made Margaret quite ill.
A year and four months after becoming president, Zachary Taylor became ill with an undisclosed gastric issue, and it quickly became apparent he wasn’t going to make it. Margaret could not accept this, and became hysterical, refusing to leave his bedside, begging him to not leave her, and telling him he had survived much worse than this on the frontier. When he died, she had to lay down, sobbing and shaking for hours, and asked for the ice packing his body before his funeral to be removed three times so she could see his face one more time. She was unable to attend his funeral, so distraught was she, and instead listened to it from her room in the White House, sobbing and hysterical the whole time, until she finally collapsed from exhaustion.
After Zachary’s death, Margaret lived with her daughter Betty and Betty’s husband for a few months in Louisville, Kentucky, much more composed than she had been. However, she found the constant expressions of sympathy she was exposed to thereby anyone who saw her to be too much for her to bear. She moved to St. Charles Parish, Louisiana to live with her son, Richard, who had a successful sugar plantation there. She made no official public appearances as a presidential widow, with the one exception of her appearance at Richard’s wedding in 1851, and lived to see his first child, a daughter.
Margaret died unexpectedly on a trip to Mississippi, to visit her daughter Betty and husband, who had relocated there, two years after losing her beloved Zachary. She was buried next to him in the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. Zachary’s own words describing her in a letter to a friend sum up Margaret’s life and personality well:
“You know my wife was as much of a soldier as I was.”