Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor, oil on canvas by James Reid Lambdin in 1848

Zachary Taylor, oil on canvas by James Reid Lambdin in 1848

The twelfth President of the United States, Zachary Taylor, also known as “Old Rough and Ready” due to his slovenly dress, was born to Richard Taylor and Sarah Strother on November 24, 1784 in Barboursville, Virginia. Though his family was aristocratic Taylor was born in a log cabin. As an infant he and his family moved to Kentucky, where Taylor grew up on a plantation and was known as “Little Zack.” His family’s fortunes grew, and by 1800, they owned 10,000 acres in Kentucky and a number of slaves.

He was a wealthy slave owner who held properties in the plantation states of Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi. During his brief time in office — he died only sixteen months after his election — his presidency foundered over the question of whether the national government should permit the spread of slavery to the present-day states of California, New Mexico, and Utah, then newly won from Mexico.

Taylor joined the U. S. Army in 1808 becoming a career officer. He received a commission as first lieutenant, and soon afterward was ordered into the Indiana Territory, taking command of Fort Harrison near Helena, Montana. He became known as an excellent military commander during the War of 1812. Taylor also served in the Black Hawk War (1832) and the Second Seminole War (1835–1842). It was during the Seminole War that he gained the nickname “Old Rough and Ready.”

In 1810, he married Margaret Mackall Smith, the daughter of a prominent Maryland family. She followed him from post to post as their four daughters were born. The family finally settled in Louisiana, where Taylor assumed command of the fort at Baton Rouge. Taylor won fame as an “Indian fighter” in the present-day states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas. Although he frequently fought Native Americans, he also protected their lands from invading white settlers. He believed that the best solution for coexistence between settlers and Native Americans was a strong military presence to keep the two sides apart.

Taylor became a national hero after winning impressive victories in the was with Mexico. President James K. Polk sent an army under his command to the Rio Grande in 1846. When the Mexicans attacked Taylor’s troops, Taylor defeated them despite being outnumbered 4-to-1. However, disturbed by Taylor’s association with the Whig Party and his “seat of the pants” style of military leadership, President Polk kept Taylor in northern Mexico, sending instead General Winfield Scott to capture Mexico City.

At the time he became President, Zachary Taylor was the most popular man in America, a hero of the Mexican-American War. Even though he had never voted before, he was granted the Whig Party nomination for President in 1848. His status as a national hero coupled with his homespun ways proved to be political assets. His long military record would appeal to northerners while his ownership of 100 slaves would lure southern votes. He ran against the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, who favored letting the residents of territories decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery. Protesting Taylor’s ownership of slaves and Cass’ advocacy of “squatter sovereignty.” northerners who opposed slavery formed the Free Soil Party and nominated Martin Van Buren as their candidate. The Free Soil vote ended up pulling votes away from Cass, giving the victory to Taylor.

Taylor was due to be inaugurated as President on March 4, 1849. Because it was a Sunday he refused to be sworn in until the following day. Vice President Millard Fillmore was also not sworn in on that day. Technically speaking, for one day, the nation had no President or Vice President.

Though an advocate of the Whig Party platform, he proved not to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress. In fact, at times he thought himself as an independent, acting as though he were above parties and politics. He differed with the Democrats over the concept of a strong national bank and opposed the extension of slavery into areas where neither cotton nor sugar could be grown. He also had problems with the Whigs’ support of strong protective tariffs. Most importantly, he passionately opposed secession as a means of resolving the nation’s problems. He ran his administration in the same informal fashion with which he had fought Indians.

Traditionally, people could decide whether they wanted slavery when they drew up new state constitutions. To end the dispute over slavery in new areas, Taylor urged settlers in New Mexico and California to draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing the territorial stage. Since neither state constitution was likely to permit slavery, this outraged Southerners. In February 1850 President Taylor had 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.

After participating in ceremonies at the Washington Monument on a blistering July 4, 1850, Taylor fell ill with acute indigestion and was diagnosed by his physicians with cholera morbus. He died of gastroenteritis five days later, after just 16 months in office. More than 100,000 people lined the funeral route to see the hero laid to rest. He is buried in Louisville, Kentucky.

He left behind a country sharply divided and a vice president, Millard Fillmore, who supported the Compromise of 1850. In the end, Taylor had limited personal impact on the presidency, and his months in office did little to slow the approach of the great national tragedy of the Civil War.

Zachary Taylor Facts

  • President No.: 12th
  • When did Zachary Taylor serve? 1849-50
  • What was Zachary Taylor’s party? Whig
  • Where was Zachary Taylor from? Louisiana
  • Who was Zachary Taylor’s wife? Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor
  • When was Zachary Taylor born? November 24, 1784
  • Where was Zachary Taylor born? Orange County, Virginia
  • When did Zachary Taylor die? July 9, 1850
  • Where did Zachary Taylor die? Washington D.C. while in office
  • How did Zachary Taylor die? He got sick after eating cherries and milk at a July 4 celebration. He was the second president to die in office.
  • Which college did Zachary Taylor attend? Did not attend college.
  • What was Zachary Taylor’s Jobs Before President? General in the Mexican War, Career officer in the Army
  • What was Zachary Taylor’s height? 5 feet, 8 inches
  • What was the population when Zachary Taylor was president? 23,191,876
  • What hobbies did Zachary Taylor have? Horseback riding
  • What transportation did Zachary Taylor use? Train
  • How did Zachary Taylor communicate? Letter


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