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Zachary Taylor: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

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Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor, depicted while commanding troops in Mexico

Zachary Taylor, depicted while commanding troops in Mexico.

Library of Congress

Life span: Born: November 24, 1785, in Orange Country, Virginia
Died: July 9, 1850, in the White House, Washington, D.C.

Presidential term: March 4, 1849 - July 9, 1850

Accomplishments: Taylor's term in office was relatively brief, little more than 16 months, and was dominated by the issue of slavery and the debates leading up to the Compromise of 1850.

Considered honest but politically unsophisticated, Taylor had no noteworthy accomplishments in office. Though he was a southerner and a slave owner, he did not advocate for the spread of slavery into territories acquired from Mexico after the Mexican War.

Perhaps because of his many years spent serving in the military, Taylor believed in a strong union, which disappointed southern supporters. In a sense, he set a tone of compromise between North and South.

Supported by: Taylor was supported by the Whig Party in his run for president in 1848, but he'd had no previous political career. He had served in the U.S. Army for four decades, having been commissioned as a officer during the administration of Thomas Jefferson.

The Whigs nominated Taylor largely because he had become a national hero during the Mexican War. It was said that he was so politically inexperienced that he had never voted, and the public, and political insiders, seemed to have little idea where he stood on any major issue.

Opposed by: Having never been active in politics before being supported in his presidential run, Taylor had no natural political foes. But he was opposed in the election of 1848 by Lewis Cass of Michigan, the Democratic candidate, and Martin Van Buren, a former president running on the ticket of the short-lived Free Soil Party.

Presidential campaigns: Taylor's presidential campaign was unusual as it was, to a large degree, foisted upon him. In the early 19th century it was common for candidates to pretend not to be campaigning for the presidency, as the belief was that the office should seek the man, the man shouldn't seek the office.

In Taylor's case that was legitimately true. Members of Congress came up with the idea of running him for president, and he was slowly convinced to go along with the plan.

Spouse and family: Taylor married Mary Mackall Smith in 1810. They had six children. One daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, married Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, but she tragically died of malaria at the age of 21, only three months after their wedding.

Education: Taylor's family moved from Virginia to the Kentucky frontier when he was an infant. He grew up in a log cabin, and only received a very basic education. His lack of education hampered his ambition, and he joined the military as that gave him the greatest chance for advancement.

Early career: Taylor joined the U.S. Army as a young man, and spent years in various frontier outposts. He saw service in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Second Seminole War.

Taylor's greatest military accomplishments occurred during the Mexican War. Taylor was involved in the beginning of the war, in skirmishes along the Texas border. And he led American forces into Mexico.

In February 1847 Taylor commanded American troops at the Battle of Buena Vista, which became a great victory. Taylor, who has spent decades in obscurity in the Army, was catapulted to national fame.

Later career: Having died in office, Taylor had no post-presidential career.

Nickname: "Old Rough and Ready," a nickname bestowed upon Taylor by soldiers he commanded.

Unusual facts: Taylor's term of office was scheduled to begin on March 4, 1849, which happened to fall on a Sunday. The inauguration ceremony, when Taylor took the oath of office, was held the following day. But most historians accept that Taylor's term in office actually began on March 4.

Death and funeral: On July 4, 1850, Taylor attended an Independence Day celebration in Washington, D.C. The weather was extremely hot, and Taylor was out in the sun for at least two hours, listening to various speeches. He reportedly complained of feeling dizzy in the heat.

After returning to the White House, he drank chilled milk and ate cherries. He soon fell ill, complaining of severe cramps. At the time it was believed he had contracted a variant of cholera, though today his ailment probably would have been identified as a case of gastroenteritis. He remained ill for several days, and died on July 9, 1850.

Rumors circulated that he may have been poisoned, and in 1994 the federal government allowed his body to be exhumed and examined by scientists. No evidence of poisoning or other foul play was found.

Legacy: Given Taylor's short term in office, and his curious lack of positions, it is difficult to point to any tangible legacy. However, he did set a tone of compromise between the North and South, and given the respect the public had for him, that probably helped to keep a lid on simmering sectional tensions.

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