Taylor was born on a farm near Metamora, Illinois. He attended the common schools of Illinois and Kansas, and graduated from the high school at Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1881. Taylor moved to Leadville, Colorado and was principal of Leadville High School from 1881 to 1882. He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1884. Admitted to the bar the same year, he returned to Leadville and commenced the practice of law.
Taylor served as superintendent of schools of Lake County in 1884, and as deputy district attorney in 1885. He moved to Glenwood Springs, Colorado in 1887 and resumed private practice. Taylor served as district attorney of the ninth judicial district from 1887 to 1889.
Taylor was elected to the 61st United States Congress as a Democrat in the 1908 election and was reelected to the 16 succeeding Congresses, served from March 4, 1909, until his death in Denver, Colorado on September 3, 1941. Taylor served as chairman of the Committee on Irrigation of Arid Lands (65th Congress) and Committee on Appropriations (75th, 76th, and 77th Congresses).
Taylor is best known for sponsoring the Taylor Grazing Act, enacted in 1934, which regulates grazing on federal lands. He also was responsible for the legislation in 1921 that changed the name of the Grand River to the Colorado River. Taylor is interred in a mausoleum in Rosebud Cemetery in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.