Zachary Taylor has the distinction of being one of a handful of U.S. presidents who never won an elective office before capturing the nation’s highest office.
Taylor also was the second chief executive to die in office and the last before the Civil War to take a principled stand on slavery.
Like Presidents George Washington, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison before him, Taylor had a distinguished military career before becoming president. He began his Army service at 23 and served for the next 40 years.
Taylor was a superb field commander who disdained military ceremonies and ostentatious uniforms. His men called him "e;Old Rough and Ready"e; because of his casual dress and low-key manner.
Taylor’s victories in the Mexican War (1846-48) made him a national hero and an attractive presidential candidate to both the Democratic and Whig parties.
He might have been a political novice, but Taylor proved to be an independent chief executive—to the dismay of Whig leaders. As the debate over slavery in Western territories threatened to tear the country apart, he was determined that the Union would be preserved.
Taylor became ill after attending a long ceremony at the Washington Monument on a torrid Fourth of July in 1850. He died five days later, having been president only 16 months.
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In November, the United States Mint paid tribute to Taylor on the 12th installment in the presidential $1 coin series, which honors the nation’s chief executives in the order in which they served. Taylor is the fourth and final president on a $1 coin bearing the date 2009. The George Washington dollar led off the series in February 2007.
All of the $1 coins bear a portrait of the president on the obverse and a common reverse depicting the Statue of Liberty. They are being struck in the same metallic composition as the Sacagawea "e;golden dollar."e;
Each president will appear on one coin except for Grover Cleveland, who will be featured on two because he served two non-consecutive terms.
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Zachary Taylor was born Nov. 24, 1784, on a farm in Barboursville in Orange County, Virginia.
His distant ancestors were among the colonies’ earliest settlers. Taylor was a descendant of William Brewster, one of the Pilgrims who arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the Mayflower. James Madison, the nation’s fourth president, was Taylor’s second cousin, and he also was related to Robert E. Lee.
Taylor’s parents, Richard Taylor and Sarah Dabney Strother Taylor, were prominent members of Virginia’s planter class.
Richard Taylor served with Gen. George Washington during the American Revolution, and for his service he was rewarded with 6,000 acres of land in Kentucky.
Shortly after Zachary was born, Taylor moved his family from Virginia to a plantation on the Muddy Fork of Beargrass Creek, near the present city of Louisville.
In 1792, Taylor was named a delegate to Kentucky’s territorial constitutional convention. He later served in the Kentucky state legislature and as collector of customs for the Port of Louisville.
The Taylors lived in a cabin in the woods during most of Zachary’s childhood. By 1800, Richard Taylor’s prosperity enabled him to move into a brick house.
Zachary and his seven siblings received only a basic education from private tutors. Contemporary accounts describe Zachary as a poor student, and throughout his life his handwriting, spelling and grammar were criticized as crude and unrefined.
Taylor was 23 on May 3, 1808, when he entered the military, having received a commission as a first lieutenant in the Army’s Seventh Infantry Regiment with the help of his cousin Madison, who was secretary of state. The Army assigned him to the Indiana Territory, which in 1808 was a wilderness with a small Indian population and scattered white settlers.
In 1810, Taylor married Margaret Mackall Smith, the daughter of a Maryland planter. That same year, he was promoted to the rank of captain.
One year later, the commandant of Fort Knox fled from his post. The Army named Taylor as his replacement.
Taylor was the polar opposite of a spit-and-polish soldier, but he was a skilled commander.
Taylor achieved his first military success in the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. As commander of Fort Harrison near present-day Terre Haute, Indiana, he defended the fort with 50 other soldiers against an attack by Indians allied with the British.
Shawnee Chief Tecumseh led 400 warriors in the assault, but Taylor’s men were inspired by their commander’s coolness under fire. His superb leadership forced the Indians to withdraw despite their numerical advantage.
Newspapers made Taylor a national hero. The Army promoted him to major.
In 1814, the Army appointed Taylor commander of Fort Johnson, America’s last outpost in the upper Mississippi River Valley. Taylor remained commander until the Army ordered the fort abandoned, and he and his men then retreated to Fort Cap au Gris in what is now Missouri.
The Army reduced Taylor’s rank to captain after the war ended in late 1814. He resigned his commission, but rejoined the Army in 1815 after securing a new commission as major.
In 1832, he became a full colonel when he led the 1st Infantry Regiment in the Black Hawk War. The chief of the Black Hawks personally surrendered to him.
In 1837, the Army assigned Taylor to Florida, where he was ordered to pacify the Seminole people. He and his 1,100 men caught up with the Indians near Lake Okeechobee and defeated them in battle on Christmas Day, 1837.
The Army made Taylor a brigadier general in command of the entire Florida District. His men admired him for his willingness to share the hardships of military life.
In 1840, the Army sent Taylor to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to command the Southwest Department. He bought a home in Baton Rouge and also purchased plantation land in Mississippi.
Taylor had been a planter and slaveholder since his marriage, and his 2,000-acre Cypress Grove plantation on the Mississippi River near Natchez became his main interest. He owned more than 100 slaves.
Despite being born and bred a Southerner, Taylor believed that slavery was an economic necessity only in cotton states.He never claimed that slavery and the plantation system were a superior way of life.
Taylor was still an Army officer in 1845 when the Republic of Texas, which had won independence from Mexico in 1836, joined the Union and became the state of Texas—albeit one with a disputed boundary.
Texas’ position was clear: The Rio Grande River was the Texas-Mexico border. Mexico’s position was equally clear: The Texas-Mexico border was the Nueces River, about 125 miles north of the Río Grande. In August 1845, President Polk ordered Taylor and his troops to the Río Grande with equally clear orders: They were to prevent Mexico from trying to recapture any part of Texas.
Taylor took command of troops assembled at Fort Jesup, Louisiana, and led them by sea to Corpus Christi, Texas, just south of the Nueces River. He was then ordered to cross the Nueces and position his troops at Point Isabel. In April 1846, he was ordered to advance to the Río Grande and to fight if attacked.
Mexico considered American troops on the Río Grande an invasion. In early May, Gen. Mariano Arista led 6,000 men across the river to drive Taylor back. The clash was indecisive.
Immediately after learning about the encounter, Polk informed Congress, which declared war.
Taylor next led his forces to victory at the Battle of Palo Alto by using superior artillery against a much larger Mexican force. In September, his men inflicted heavy casualties on the Mexicans at the Battle of Monterrey.
Taylor, however, was criticized for not ensuring that the Mexican army that surrendered at Monterrey disbanded. As a result, about half of his men were ordered to join Gen. Winfield Scott at the siege of Veracruz.
However, agents for Mexican Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna intercepted a letter from Scott to Taylor revealing that nearly half of Taylor’s 6,000 men were not Regular Army soldiers.
In February 1847, Santa Anna amassed 20,000 men and attacked Taylor at the Battle of Buena Vista.
Taylor led the Americans to victory. His forces suffered 672 casualties, but the Mexicans lost about 1,800 men. Santa Anna withdrew in defeat.
Newspapers likened Taylor to Washington and Jackson. Reports about his informal dress and coolness under fire made him a folk hero and potential presidential candidate. After Taylor’s victory at Buena Vista, "e;Old Rough and Ready"e; clubs popped up with the avowed goal of making him president.
Taylor reportedly never had revealed his political beliefs before 1848—nor voted before that time. During the Mexican War, someone asked him whether he would run for president. He is said to have replied that "e;such an idea never entered my head. Nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person."e;
Taylor evidently reconsidered: As the 1848 Whig convention approached, he declared that he always had been a Whig in principle but considered himself a Jeffersonian-Democrat.
Many Southerners thought Taylor supported the expansion of slavery into the lands acquired from Mexico. Many of them also thought their fellow-Southerner backed states’ rights and was opposed to protective tariffs and government spending for internal improvements.
Most abolitionists declined to back Taylor because he was a slaveowner.
Whigs hoped that first and foremost he supported the Union, but no one knew for sure what his political beliefs were.
Taylor did have his beliefs. He thought of himself as an independent. He opposed Andrew Jackson’s decision to allow the Second Bank of the United States to collapse. He was a staunch nationalist and opposed secession.
Taylor became a Whig even though he disagreed with the party’s stand favoring protective tariffs and internal improvements. He thought the president should sign into law all bills passed by Congress except those he deemed unconstitutional. He also believed in a strong Cabinet and collective decision-making.
The Whigs nominated Taylor for president and Millard Fillmore of upstate New York for vice president. But Taylor came close to derailing his own nomination.
In the mid-19th century candidates remained home and awaited word of their presidential nomination by mail. However, the notoriously frugal—some might say downright cheap—Taylor ordered his local post office to refrain from delivering any mail with postage due.
As it turned out, the letter from the Whigs informing him of his nomination arrived postage-due. The letter sat in the post office undelivered for weeks—and by the time Taylor learned of his nomination, the Whigs were close to selecting another candidate.
The Democrats nominated Sen. Lewis Cass of Michigan for president, and the antislavery Free Soil Party chose former president and onetime Democrat Martin Van Buren. Taylor ran strongly in the Mid-Atlantic states and New England, and won a few Southern states. He captured 47.5 percent of the popular vote and 56 percent of the electoral vote.
Cass won 42 percent of the popular vote and 44 percent of the electoral vote. Van Buren won less than 10 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes.
Taylor was scheduled to take the oath of office on March 4, 1849—but because that day was a Sunday, he refused to take the oath until the following day.
Most presidential scholars think that under the U.S. Constitution, Taylor became president at noon on March 4.
From the start of his term, the new president confounded Whig leaders in Congress because he refused to take orders from them. He also surprised supporters and foes alike with his position on the extension of slavery into the Western territory, which was addressed by the Wilmot Proviso—a bill introduced in 1846 that would have prohibited such an extension.
The House passed the proviso twice, but it fell short twice in the Senate, where Southerners were more powerful.
Taylor offered a simple solution. He said that because California wanted statehood, its wish should be granted immediately. If Californians wanted to prohibit slavery, he said, they and not Congress had the right to make that decision.
"e;Free Soilers"e; and antislavery or "e;conscience"e; Whigs, who were led by Sen. William Seward of New York, backed Taylor. Radical abolitionists demanding that slavery be banned from the whole country opposed Taylor’s suggestion.
Some pro-slavery Southerners were outraged and would accept no changes to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, in which Congress had drawn a line at 36°30’ latitude as the northern limit of slave territory. The line split California and would have put Los Angeles and San Diego into slave territory. These so-called "e;diehards,"e; led by Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, talked of seceding from the Union if Taylor’s plan was followed.
Taylor did not seek a compromise. He said if any state attempted secession, he personally would lead the Army against it. He urged the residents of California and New Mexico to create state constitutions and apply for statehood in December, when Congress would be in session.
Taylor correctly predicted that both territories would write constitutions banning slavery. In January 1850, he urged Congress to allow both California and New Mexico to become states. California joined the Union on Sept. 9, 1850, as a free state. (New Mexico was later divided into several states that joined the Union much later.)
Taylor came to the White House with the idea of being a nonpartisan president. However, he soon found himself inundated with requests from Whigs for federal appointments. He tried to resist but eventually gave in to the demands of the spoils system, which took up much of his time.
Taylor had little knowledge of foreign affairs and he left diplomacy to his secretary of state, John M. Clayton. Clayton also lacked experience in foreign policy—but unlike Taylor, he was not a novice.
Clayton and Taylor opposed expansionism, which at that time was manifested by the Young America movement. The movement advocated American expansion into Latin America.
In 1849, former Cuban provincial governor Narciso Lopez tried to raise an army to invade Cuba and wrest control of that country from Spain. His base was New Orleans, and he was backed by prominent Southerners, who wanted to extend slavery to Cuba.
Taylor derailed Lopez’s effort by forbidding Americans to participate in expeditions such as the one he planned to Cuba.
Clayton argued with France and Portugal over reparations and supported German liberals during the revolutions of 1848. He also confronted Spain, which had arrested several Americans on the charge of piracy, and helped Great Britain search for a team of explorers that had become lost in the Arctic.
The United States had planned to construct a canal across Nicaragua, but the British opposed the idea, arguing that they held special status in neighboring Honduras. Clayton persuaded the British to enter a landmark agreement called the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. Under the treaty, Britain and the United States agreed not to claim control of any canal that might be built in Nicaragua.
Clayton-Bulwer was a key step in the formation of the British-American alliance. It weakened the drive for "e;manifest destiny,"e; a belief that the United States was destined to expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, but it did recognize the supremacy of U.S. interests in Central America.
Taylor was 64 when he became president. Years of rugged military life had taken their toll. His presidential duties also wore him out. He came close to death when he fell ill during a trip through Pennsylvania in September 1849.
He grew depressed when three members of his Cabinet were charged with corruption, leaving him open to personal attacks from Congress that were especially venal because of his stand on slavery.
On the Fourth of July 1850, Taylor attended ceremonies at the Washington Monument. The day was scorching.
He listened to numerous long patriotic speeches and sampled several dishes presented to him by members of the public.
When Taylor returned to the White House, he had a wicked thirst. He drank several glasses of water. When they failed to quench his thirst, he drank iced milk and ate a bowl of cherries.
That night, the president developed acute indigestion. He died on July 9. The official cause was listed as gastroenteritis.
His last words were: "e;I regret nothing, but I am sorry to leave my friends."e;
The president was interred in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, then later in a mausoleum in Louisville, in what is now Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. He was moved to his current mausoleum in 1926.
Following Taylor’s death, some people speculated that he had been poisoned. In the late 1980s, Clara Rising, a conspiracy theorist, persuaded his closest descendants and the coroner of Jefferson County, Kentucky, to exhume Taylor’s remains to see if he had been poisoned with arsenic.
On June 17, 1991, Taylor’s coffin was opened. The Office of the Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner removed samples of hair, fingernail and other tissues and conducted radiological studies.
The results showed only trace amounts of arsenic—nowhere near the amount that would have been needed to poison the president.