Zachary Taylor (November 24, 1784 – July 9, 1850) was the 12th President of the United States, serving from March 1849 until his death in July 1850. Before his presidency, Taylor was a career officer in the United States Army, rising to the rank of major general.
Taylor’s status as a national hero as a result of his victories in the Mexican-American War won him election to the White House despite his vague political beliefs. His top priority as president was preserving the Union, but he died seventeen months into his term, before making any progress on the status of slavery, which had been inflaming tensions in Congress.
Taylor was born into a prominent family of planters who migrated westward from Virginia to Kentucky in his youth. He was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army in 1808 and made a name for himself as a captain in the War of 1812.
He climbed the ranks establishing military forts along the Mississippi River and entered the Black Hawk War as a colonel in 1832.
His success in the Second Seminole War attracted national attention and earned him the nickname “Old Rough and Ready”.
In 1845, as the annexation of Texas was underway, President James K. Polk dispatched Taylor to the Rio Grande area in anticipation of a potential battle with Mexico over the disputed Texas–Mexico border.
The Mexican–American War broke out in May 1846, and Taylor led American troops to victory in a series of battles culminating in the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Monterrey.
He became a national hero, and political clubs sprang up to draw him into the upcoming 1848 presidential election.
The Whig Party convinced the reluctant Taylor to lead their ticket, despite his unclear platform and lack of interest in politics.
He won the election alongside former U.S. Representative Millard Fillmore of New York, defeating Democratic candidates Lewis Cass and William Orlando Butler.
As president, Taylor kept his distance from Congress and his cabinet, even as partisan tensions threatened to divide the Union. Debate over the slave status of the large territories claimed in the war led to threats of secession from Southerners.
Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not push for the expansion of slavery. To avoid the question, he urged settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood, setting the stage for the Compromise of 1850.
Taylor died suddenly of a stomach-related illness in July 1850, ensuring he would have little impact on the sectional divide that led to civil war a decade later.
Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, on a plantation in Orange County, Virginia, to a prominent family of planters of English ancestry. He is inconclusively believed to have been born at the home of his maternal grandfather, Hare Forest Farm.
He was the third of five surviving sons in his family (a sixth died in infancy) and had three younger sisters. His mother was Sarah Dabney (Strother) Taylor. His father, Richard Taylor, had served as a lieutenant colonel in the American Revolution.
Taylor was a descendant of Elder William Brewster, the Pilgrim colonist leader of the Plymouth Colony, a Mayflower immigrant, and one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact; and Isaac Allerton Jr., a colonial merchant and colonel who was the son of Mayflower Pilgrim Isaac Allerton and Fear Brewster. Taylor’s second cousin through that line was James Madison, the fourth president.
Leaving exhausted lands, his family joined the westward migration out of Virginia and settled near what developed as Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River.
Taylor grew up in a small woodland cabin before his family moved to a brick house with increased prosperity. The rapid growth of Louisville was a boon for Taylor’s father, who came to own 10,000 acres (40 km2) throughout Kentucky by the start of the 19th century; he held 26 slaves to cultivate the most developed portion of his holdings.
There were no formal schools on the Kentucky frontier, and Taylor had a sporadic formal education. A schoolmaster recalled Taylor as a quick learner.
His early letters show a weak grasp of spelling and grammar, and his handwriting was later described as “that of a near illiterate”.
In June 1810, Taylor married Margaret Mackall Smith, whom he had met the previous autumn in Louisville. “Peggy” Smith came from a prominent family of Maryland planters; she was the daughter of Major Walter Smith, who had served in the Revolutionary War. The couple had six children:
Ann Mackall Taylor (1811–1875), married Robert C. Wood, a U.S. Army surgeon she had met while living Fort
Snelling, in 1829.
Sarah Knox “Knoxie” Taylor (1814–1835), married Jefferson Davis in 1835, whom she had met through her father at the end of the Black Hawk War; she died at 21 of malaria in St. Francisville, Louisiana, shortly after her marriage.
Octavia Pannell Taylor (1816–1820), died in early childhood.
Margaret Smith Taylor (1819–1820), died in infancy along with Octavia when the Taylor family was stricken with a “bilious fever.”
Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Taylor (1824–1909), married William Wallace Smith Bliss in 1848 (he died 1853), married Philip Pendleton Dandridge in 1858.
Richard Scott “Dick” Taylor (1826–1879), Confederate Army general, married Louise Marie Myrthe Bringier in 1851.
As president-elect, Taylor kept his distance from Washington, not resigning his Western Division command until late January 1849.
He spent the months following the election formulating his cabinet selections. He was deliberate and quiet about his decisions, to the frustration of his fellow Whigs.
While he despised patronage and political games, he endured a flurry of advances from office-seekers looking to play a role in his administration.
While he would not appoint any Democrats, Taylor wanted his cabinet to reflect the nation’s diverse interests, and so apportioned the seats geographically.
He also avoided choosing prominent Whigs, sidestepping such obvious selections as Henry Clay. He saw Crittenden as a cornerstone of his administration, offering him the crucial seat of Secretary of State, but Crittenden insisted on serving out the Governorship of Kentucky to which he had just been elected.
Taylor settled instead on Senator John M. Clayton of Delaware, a close associate of Crittenden’s.
Taylor began his trek to Washington in late January, a journey rife with bad weather, delays, injuries, sickness—and an abduction by a family friend. Taylor finally arrived in the nation’s capital on February 24 and soon met with the outgoing President Polk.
The incumbent Democrat held a low opinion of Taylor, privately deeming him “without political information” and “wholly unqualified for the station” of President.
Taylor spent the following week meeting with political elites, some of whom were unimpressed with his appearance and demeanor. With less than two weeks until his inauguration, he met with Clayton and hastily finalized his cabinet.
Taylor’s term as president began Sunday, March 4, but his inauguration was not held until the following day out of religious concerns.
His inauguration speech discussed the many tasks facing the nation, but presented a governing style of deference to Congress and sectional compromise instead of assertive executive action.
Throughout the summer of 1849, Taylor toured the northeastern U.S., to familiarize himself with a region of which he had seen little. He spent much of the trip plagued by gastrointestinal illness and returned to Washington by September.
On July 4, 1850, Taylor reportedly consumed raw fruit and iced milk after attending holiday celebrations and a fund-raising event at the Washington Monument, which was then under construction.Over the course of several days, he became severely ill with an unknown digestive ailment.
His doctor “diagnosed the illness as cholera morbus, a flexible mid-nineteenth-century term for intestinal ailments as diverse as diarrhea and dysentery but not related to Asiatic cholera,” the latter being a widespread epidemic at the time of Taylor’s death.
The identity and source of Taylor’s illness are the subject of historical speculation (see below), although it is known that several of his cabinet members had come down with a similar illness.
Fever ensued and Taylor’s chance of recovery was small. On July 8, Taylor remarked to a medical attendant:
I should not be surprised if this were to terminate in my death.
I did not expect to encounter what has beset me since my elevation to the Presidency. God knows I have endeavored to fulfill what I conceived to be an honest duty. But I have been mistaken. My motives have been misconstrued, and my feelings most grossly outraged.
Despite treatment, Taylor died at 10:35 p.m. on July 9, 1850. He was 65 years old.
Taylor was interred in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., from July 13, 1850, to October 25, 1850. (It was built in 1835 to hold remains of notables until either the grave site could be prepared or transportation arranged to another city.)
His body was transported to the Taylor Family plot where his parents were buried on the old Taylor homestead plantation known as “Springfield” in Louisville, Kentucky.