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Who is Zachary Taylor?

Zachary Taylor, the 12th President of the United States, was a national hero before taking office, having served as a major general in the Mexican-American War. His presidency, though brief due to his untimely death, was marked by his strong stance against the expansion of slavery. Discover how his leadership still echoes in today's political landscape. What legacy did he leave behind?
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Zachary Taylor was the twelfth President of the United States, serving a brief term from 1849-1850. He was the second president to die in office, and the cause of his death is somewhat debated. Some suggest he had cholera or food poisoning, while others argue he died of heat stroke. There has even been some debate that he may have been poisoned on purpose, but little evidence exists to support this theory.

Despite serving a short term as president, Zachary Taylor promoted some important legislation, actively encouraging California to seek state status. By doing so, he enraged his fellow Southerners, because Californians wrote a constitution that disallowed slavery. Zachary Taylor was a slave owner, but he did not necessarily want to see slavery expanded. Members of the Southern US were so angry at Taylor’s actions they threatened secession, to which Taylor responded by threatening to hang anyone who truly rebelled against the US.

President Taylor's youngest son became a well-known Confederate general during the Civil War, and the president's daughter was briefly married to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
President Taylor's youngest son became a well-known Confederate general during the Civil War, and the president's daughter was briefly married to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.

This action in the life of President Zachary Taylor is a good example of the type of man he was. He was decidedly tough, with a 40-year military career prior to winning the presidency. He was known by his nickname, “Old Rough and Ready,” and he did appear to have lightning fast actions, sometimes of a violent or at least threatening nature. He actually got the nickname from his somewhat disheveled appearance while serving in the military in the 1830s.

In the military, a career that began in 1808 when he was 24, he participated in many of the major military engagements against the Indians. These included the War of 1812, The Black Hawk War, and the Second Seminole War. Zachary Taylor made no bones about disliking Native Americans, and supported the right of settlers to take Native American land and the right of the US to force Native Americans away from their land. He was a very active military man, becoming a military hero for feats of bravery and success in battle.

In politics, Zachary Taylor was nominally of the Whig Party, but his presidency disappointed Whig politicians. Zachary Taylor would refuse to be lead by Whig guidance, acting by his own conscience and only passing Whig legislation that he personally agreed with. Due to Taylor’s Whig allegiance, and while he was still serving in the military, President Polk kept him to appointments that were far away from the center of politics. Polk was also disturbed by Taylor’s appearance and unusual manner of governing his men.

In his personal life, Zachary Taylor was married to Margaret Mackall Smith. Together they had one son, and five daughters; two died in infancy. Two of Taylor’s children would definitely ignore their father’s more modest stance on slavery. His daughter Sarah Knox Taylor married Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Southern Confederacy. Sadly she passed away only three months after her marriage. Richard Taylor, President Taylor’s youngest child, would become a well-known Confederate General during the Civil War.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Zachary Taylor and why is he significant in American history?

Zachary Taylor was the 12th President of the United States, serving from March 1849 until his death in July 1850. He is significant for his role as a national military hero during the Mexican-American War, where he earned the nickname "Old Rough and Ready." His presidency was marked by debates over the extension of slavery into the new territories acquired from Mexico. Despite being a slave owner, Taylor sought to hold the Union together and opposed the creation of the Confederate States, which would later lead to the Civil War.

What were the major accomplishments of Zachary Taylor's presidency?

One of the major accomplishments of Zachary Taylor's short presidency was his firm stance against the secession of Southern states over the issue of slavery. He also supported the admission of California as a free state and encouraged New Mexico to write a state constitution, which contributed to the shaping of the United States during a critical period of expansion. However, his sudden death in 1850 cut short any further achievements he might have had in office.

How did Zachary Taylor die, and what was the impact of his death on the nation?

Zachary Taylor died on July 9, 1850, after a brief illness that followed a July 4th celebration at which he reportedly consumed raw fruit and iced milk. His death was officially attributed to acute gastroenteritis. The impact of his death was significant as it led to the succession of Vice President Millard Fillmore, who was more conciliatory to Southern interests. This change in leadership influenced the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which temporarily eased sectional tensions between the North and South.

What was Zachary Taylor's military background before becoming president?

Before becoming president, Zachary Taylor had a distinguished 40-year military career in the U.S. Army, serving in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Second Seminole War. His greatest fame came from his leadership during the Mexican-American War, where he won significant battles at Palo Alto, Monterrey, and Buena Vista. His military success made him a popular national figure and propelled him to the presidency despite his lack of political experience.

How did Zachary Taylor's presidency address the issue of slavery?

Zachary Taylor's presidency addressed the issue of slavery in a complex manner. Although a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not publicly advocate for the expansion of slavery into the new territories acquired from Mexico. He believed that the extension of slavery could lead to the disunion of the states. Taylor's unexpected death, however, prevented him from implementing any long-term policies regarding slavery, leaving the contentious issue to be dealt with by his successors.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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    • President Taylor's youngest son became a well-known Confederate general during the Civil War, and the president's daughter was briefly married to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
      By: mtrommer
      President Taylor's youngest son became a well-known Confederate general during the Civil War, and the president's daughter was briefly married to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.