Taylor, Zachary (President)
Born: 1784-11-24 Orange County, Virginia
Died: 1850-07-09 Washington, D.C.
Born into a family of prominent Virginia planters, Zachary Taylor migrated in 1785 from his birthplace to a property near Louisville, Kentucky, where his father, formerly a lieutenant colonel in the American Revolution, had recently settled. Taylor received a sporadic education on the Kentucky frontier before joining the army in May 1808, receiving a commission as first lieutenant in the U.S. Seventh Infantry. After a short assignment in Louisiana, Taylor returned to Louisville and married Margaret Mackall Smith in 1810. He served admirably and with distinction in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Second Seminole War, rising to the rank of brevet brigadier general. In 1841, he became commander of the Second Military Department stationed in Arkansas. As tensions mounted with Mexico over the annexation of Texas, President James K. Polk ordered Taylor and a small army to a position on the Rio Grande in 1846. Mexican forces eventually attacked Taylor, resulting in the outbreak of the Mexican War. Taylor won several major victories during the war and earned a reputation as a national hero. Capitalizing on this, the Whig Party nominated Taylor as its presidential candidate in 1848, despite his open disdain of political parties and his ownership of a large plantation and 140 slaves. In the presidential election, Taylor defeated the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass. Taylor's presidency primarily focused on matters resulting from the territory acquired from Mexico. He supported the Wilmot Proviso and California's immediate entry into the Union due to the recent gold rush. He also took an active role in forming the Compromise of 1850.
On July 4, 1850, Taylor joined other Americans in celebrating the nation's independence, but contracted gastroenteritis from the food and drink he consumed. Attempts at medical intervention worsened his condition, and he died on July 9, when Vice President Millard Fillmore assumed the presidency.
Gravestone, Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, Louisville, KY; Elbert B. Smith, "Taylor, Zachary," American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 21:410-12; Elbert B. Smith, The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor & Millard Fillmore (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988); K. Jack Bauer, Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985).