Zachary Taylor

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Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor

In office
March 4, 1849 –  July 9, 1850
Vice President(s)   Millard Fillmore
Preceded by James Knox Polk
Succeeded by Millard Fillmore

Born November 24, 1784
Barboursville, Virginia
Died July 9, 1850
Washington, D.C.
Political party Whig
Spouse Margaret Smith Taylor
Religion Episcopal

Zachary Taylor ( November 24, 1784 – July 9, 1850) was an American military leader and the twelfth President of the United States. Taylor had a 40-year military career in the U.S. Army, serving in the War of 1812, Black Hawk War, and Second Seminole War before achieving fame while leading U.S. troops to victory at several critical battles of the Mexican-American War. A Southern slaveholder who opposed the spread of slavery to the territories, he was uninterested in politics but was recruited by the Whig Party as their nominee in the 1848 presidential election. In the election Taylor defeated the Democratic nominee, Lewis Cass, and became the first U.S. president never to hold any prior office.

As president, Taylor urged settlers in New Mexico and California to by-pass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood, setting the stage for the Compromise of 1850.

Known as "Old Rough and Ready," Taylor died of acute gastroenteritis just 16 months into his term. Vice President Millard Fillmore became President.

Early life and family

Taylor was born on November 24, 1984, in a log cabin near Barboursville in Orange County, Virginia.

Zachary Taylor was the third of eight children of Richard Taylor and Sarah Strother. Taylor's family was aristocratic: James Madison was a second cousin and Robert E. Lee was a fourth cousin once removed. In his infancy, Taylor's family moved to Kentucky, where Taylor grew up on a plantation. He was known as "Little Zack" and was educated by private tutors. He is one of the descendants of King Edward III of England .

Taylor met Margaret "Peggy" Mackall Smith of Maryland in early 1810, and they were married on June 21, 1810. They had one son and five daughters, two of whom died in infancy. The surviving children were:

  • Ann Taylor (born April 9, 1811)
  • Sarah Knox "Knoxie" Taylor (born March 6, 1814)
  • Mary Elizabeth "Betty" Taylor (born April 20, 1824)
  • Richard "Dick" Taylor(born January 27, 1826)

Sarah Knox Taylor married future Confederate president Jefferson Davis at age 21 over her father's strenuous objections; she died from malaria three months after the marriage.

Military career

Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor

On May 3, 1808, Taylor joined the U.S. Army, receiving a commission as a first lieutenant of the Seventh Infantry Regiment. He was ordered west into Indiana Territory, taking command at the Battle of Fort Harrison; he was promoted to captain in November 1810.

During the War of 1812, Taylor became known as a talented military commander. Assigned to command Fort Harrison on the Wabash River, at the northern edge of present-day Terre Haute, Indiana, he successfully commandeered a small force of soldiers and civilians to stave off a British-inspired attack by about 500 Native Americans between September 4 and September 15. The Battle of Fort Harrison, as it became known, has been referred to as the "first American land victory of the War of 1812." Taylor received a brevet promotion to major on October 31, 1812. Taylor was promoted to lieutenant colonel on April 20, 1819, and colonel on April 5, 1832.

Taylor served in the Black Hawk War (May-August 1832) and the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). During the Seminole War, Taylor fought at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee and received a brevet promotion to brigadier general in January 1838. It was here he gained his nickname "Old Rough and Ready" for his rumpled clothes and wide-brimmed straw hat. On May 15, 1838, Taylor was promoted commanding general of all U.S. forces in Florida.

James K. Polk sent the Army of Occupation under Taylor's command to the Rio Grande in 1846. Mexico attacked Taylor's troops and Taylor defeated them despite being outnumbered 4-to-1. Polk later declared war. In the Mexican-American War that followed, Taylor won additional important victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista and became a national hero.

Polk kept Taylor in northern Mexico, disturbed by his informal habits of command and his affiliation with the Whig Party. He sent an expedition under General Winfield Scott to capture Mexico City. Taylor, incensed, thought that "the battle of Buena Vista opened the road to the city of Mexico and the halls of Montezuma, that others might revel in them."

Election of 1848

Whig Party banner from 1848 with candidates Taylor and Fillmore
Whig Party banner from 1848 with candidates Taylor and Fillmore

He received the Whig nomination for President in 1848. Like many other army officers, he was nonpolitical and had never voted. His homespun ways and his status as a war hero were political assets. Taylor defeated Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate, and Martin Van Buren, the Free Soil candidate.

To the astonishment of Whigs, Taylor ignored their platform, As historian Michael Holt explains:

Taylor was equally indifferent to programs Whigs had long considered vital. Publicly, he was artfully ambiguous, refusing to answer queries about his views on banking, the tariff, and internal improvements. Privately, he was more forthright. The idea of a national bank "is dead, & will not be revived in my time." In the future the tariff "will be increased only for revenue"; in other words, Whig hopes of restoring the protective tariff of 1842 were vain. There would never again be surplus federal funds from public land sales to distribute to the states, and internal improvements "will go on in spite of presidential vetoes." In a few words, that is, Taylor pronounced an epitaph for the entire Whig economic program.

Although Taylor won the election, he didn't know it at first. Having been a popular war general, he received many fan letters, some without postage. To avoid paying large sums of money, he had asked his post office to stop sending letters without postage. The letter from Washington, informing Taylor had won the election, did not have postage, and Taylor didn't receive the letter until another letter with postage had been sent.



Although Taylor had subscribed to Whig principles of legislative leadership, he was not inclined to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress. He ran his administration in the same rule-of-thumb fashion with which he had fought Indians.

Under Taylor's administration the United States Department of the Interior was organized, although the department had been activated under President Polk's last day in office.

Compromise of 1850

The slavery issue dominated Taylor's short term. Although he owned slaves, he took a moderately anti-slavery position. Taylor urged settlers in New Mexico and California to draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing the territorial stage. New Mexico was too small to act but California—which had high population growth from the gold rush—wrote a constitution that did not allow slavery; it was approved by the voters and a new state government took over in December 1849 without Congressional approval. Southerners were furious with Taylor (a southerner) and with California. In February 1850, Taylor held a stormy conference with southern leaders who threatened secession. He told them that if necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would lead the Army. Persons "taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang ... with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico." He never wavered. Henry Clay then proposed a complex Compromise of 1850. Taylor died as it was being debated. (The Clay version failed but another version did pass under the new president, Millard Fillmore.)

Taylor postage stamp
Taylor postage stamp

Administration and Cabinet

President Zachary Taylor 1849–1850
Vice President Millard Fillmore 1849–1850
Secretary of State John M. Clayton 1849–1850
Secretary of the Treasury William Meredith 1849–1850
Secretary of War George Crawford 1849–1850
Attorney General Reverdy Johnson 1849–1850
Postmaster General Jacob Collamer 1849–1850
Secretary of the Navy William Preston 1849–1850
Secretary of the Interior Thomas Ewing 1849–1850

Supreme Court appointments


States admitted to the Union



Picture of Zachary Taylor
Picture of Zachary Taylor

The cause of Zachary Taylor's death is not well understood, nor is it well documented. On July 4, 1850, Taylor was diagnosed by his physicians with cholera morbus, a term that included diarrhea and dysentery but not true cholera. Cholera, typhoid fever, and food poisoning have all been indicated as the source of the president's ultimately fatal gastroenteritis. More specifically, a hasty snack of iced milk, cold cherries and pickled cucumbers consumed at an Independence Day celebration might have been the culprit. By July 9, Taylor was dead.

In 1991, Taylor's body was exhumed, and Larry Robinson and Frank Dyer conducted an autopsy at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Investigating the possibility of assassination by means of deliberate poisoning, Dyer and Robinson detected traces of arsenic and sent the results to a Kentucky medical examiner, who determined the quantity of arsenic present -- there is a faint amount of arsenic present naturally in the human body -- was several hundred times less than there would have been, had he been poisoned with arsenic. Taylor is buried in Louisville, Kentucky, at what is now the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.

There is some strong evidence that Taylor died from complications of heat stroke. On July 4, 1850, the weather in Washington was hot and rather humid. Taylor was there to preside over ceremonies at the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. Taylor was sporting a thick coat, vest, high-collared shirt, and a top hat. Shortly after arriving, Taylor complained that he was very thirsty. He went to the reception table and downed a large amount of water directly from a pitcher.

Since the water was sitting in the sun, the idea of cholera is a possibility. But Taylor exhibited classic symptoms of heat stroke, particularly red, flushed skin on the face. Records also indicate that Taylor was having trouble walking and exhibiting slurred speech. At no time while outside did anyone loosen or remove Taylor's clothing. Only after returning to the White House was some of his clothing loosened. It was only a short time before Taylor collapsed.

At this point his clothing was removed, but internal organs had already been damaged. In fact, his doctors were mystified as to the cause of multiple organ failure. Medical sciences had not addressed heat stroke and the internal damage caused by it. According to author Charles Panati, Taylor actually awoke briefly and said- "I should not be surprised if this were to result in my death." He took a few sips of iced milk, again adding to the possibility of cholera. He lapsed again into unconsciousness and died on July 9.

Surviving family

Taylor's son Richard became a Confederate Lieutenant General, while his daughter Sarah Knox Taylor (1814–1835) had married future President of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis three months before her death of malaria. Taylor's brother, Joseph Pannill Taylor, was a Brigadier General in the Union Army during the Civil War. {Joseph P. Taylor's son Joseph Hancock Taylor was a Colonel in the US Civil War and was also a son-in-law of Union General Montgomery C. Meigs}. Taylor's niece Emily Ellison Taylor was the wife of Confederate General Lafayette McLaws.


1848 Democratic cartoon ridicules General Taylor as butcher of Mexican soldiers
1848 Democratic cartoon ridicules General Taylor as butcher of Mexican soldiers
  • Taylor's term of service was scheduled to begin on March 4, 1849, but as this day fell on a Sunday, Taylor refused to be sworn in until the following day. Vice President Millard Fillmore was also not sworn in on that day. As a result, it is often claimed that the previous president pro tempore of the Senate, David Rice Atchison, was "president for a day," or that the presidency was vacant. Most scholars believe that according the U.S. Constitution, Taylor's term began on March 4, regardless of whether he had taken the oath or not.
  • Taylor always preferred old and slovenly clothes (including his unique straw hat) to military uniforms, leading to his nickname, "Old Rough and Ready."
  • In 1942, a Liberty ship named the SS Zachary Taylor was launched. The ship was scrapped in 1961.
  • Taylor had a stutter.
  • Taylor was a poor writer and had difficulty spelling.
  • Taylor was the last Veteran of the War of 1812 to serve as President {the others were Andrew Jackson & W.H. Harrison}; the only Veteran of the Seminole War as President; and the first Veteran from either the Black Hawk War (the other was Abraham Lincoln) or the Mexican-American War (the others were Franklin Pierce, and Ulysses Grant) to become President.
  • On The Daily Show for October 17, 2006, as part of Its "Ten Years" observance, host Jon Stewart showed clips from previous shows that mentioned at least in passing every one of the United States Presidents — except for Zachary Taylor.
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