Margaret “Peggy” Smith was born in Calvert County, Maryland, on September 21, 1788 to Ann Mackall and Walter Smith, a major in the Revolutionary War and wealthy tobacco plantation owner. In 1809, visiting a sister in Kentucky, she met young Lieutenant Zachary Taylor. They were married on June 21, 1810, and for a while the young wife stayed on the farm given them as a wedding present by Zachary’s father. She gave birth to her first baby there, but followed her husband from one remote garrison to another in the American West.
Peggy gave birth to 6 children. Two small girls died in 1820 of what Taylor called “a violent bilious fever,” which left their mother’s health impaired; three girls and a boy grew up. Knowing the hardships of a military wife, Taylor opposed his daughters’ marrying career soldiers—but each eventually married into the army.
The second daughter, Sarah Knox, married Lt. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of America, in gentle defiance of her parents. In a loving letter home, she imagined her mother skimming milk in the cellar or going out to feed the chickens. Within three months of her wedding, Knox died of malaria. Taylor was not reconciled to Davis until they fought together in Mexico; in Washington the second Mrs. Davis became a good friend of Mrs. Taylor’s, often calling on her at the White House.
Though Peggy welcomed friends and kinfolk in her upstairs sitting room, presided at the family table, met special groups at her husband’s side, oversaw White House staff including enslaved people brought to the White House by the Taylors, and worshiped regularly at St. John’s Episcopal Church, she took no part in formal social functions. She relegated all the duties of official hostess to her youngest daughter, Mary Elizabeth “Betty”, then 25 and recent bride of Lt. Col. William W. S. Bliss, adjutant and secretary to the president. Betty Bliss filled her role admirably. One observer thought that her manner blended “the artlessness of a rustic belle and the grace of a duchess.”
For Mrs. Taylor, her husband’s death—on July 9, 1850—was an appalling blow. Never again did she speak of the White House. She spent her last days with the Blisses, dying on August 14, 1852.
This drawing of Margaret Taylor is from 1903, nearly 50 years after her death. No certain likeness of Margaret Taylor survives.
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