Known as "Old Rough and Ready", Taylor had a 40-year military career in the U.S. Army, serving in the War of 1812, Black Hawk War, and Second Seminole War before achieving fame leading U.S. troops to victory at several critical battles of the Mexican-American War. A Southern slaveholder who opposed the spread of slavery to the territories, he was uninterested in politics but was recruited by the Whig Party as their nominee in the 1848 presidential election.
In the election, Taylor defeated the Democratic nominee, Lewis Cass, and became the second U.S. president, after Washington, never to hold any prior office. Taylor was also the last southerner to be elected president until Woodrow Wilson. As president, Taylor urged settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood, setting the stage for the Compromise of 1850.
He was the third of nine children of Colonel Richard Lee Taylor and Sarah Strother. James Madison was a second cousin and Robert E. Lee was a third cousin once removed (through Colonel Richard Lee the Immigrant). In his infancy, Taylor's family moved to Jefferson County, Kentucky, where Taylor grew up on a plantation called "Springfield", now called the Zachary Taylor House. He was known as "Little Zack" and was educated by private tutors. He was a descendant of King Edward I of England, as well as Mayflower passengers Isaac Allerton and William Brewster.
During the War of 1812, Taylor became known as a talented military commander. Assigned to command Fort Harrison on the Wabash River, at the northern edge of present-day Terre Haute, Indiana, he successfully commandeered a small force of soldiers and civilians to stave off a British-inspired attack by about 500 Native Americans between September 4 and September 15. The Battle of Fort Harrison, as it became known, has been referred to as the "first American land victory of the War of 1812." Taylor received a brevet promotion to major on October 31, 1812. Taylor was promoted to lieutenant colonel on April 20, 1819, and colonel on April 5, 1832.
Taylor served in the Black Hawk War (May-August 1832) and the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). During the Seminole War, Taylor fought at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee and received a brevet promotion to brigadier general in January 1838. It was here he gained his nickname "Old Rough and Ready" for his rumpled clothes and wide-brimmed straw hat. On May 15, 1838, Taylor was promoted commanding general of all U.S. forces in Florida.
James K. Polk sent the Army of Occupation under Taylor's command to the Rio Grande in 1846. After the Thornton Affair, an incident in disputed territory in which Mexician troops killed and captured a squadron of the 2nd dragoons, Polk urged Congress to declare the Mexican-American War. In that conflict Taylor won an important victory at the Battle of Monterrey and led the U.S. army at the Battle of Buena Vista, becoming a national hero.
Polk kept Taylor in Northern Mexico, disturbed by his informal habits of command, particularly his decision to negotiate a ceasefire at Monterrey against Polk's wishes, and his affiliation with the Whig Party. He sent an expedition under General Winfield Scott to capture Mexico City. Taylor, incensed, thought that "the battle of Buena Vista opened the road to the city of Mexico and the halls of Montezuma, that others might revel in them."
Taylor received the Whig nomination for President in 1848. Millard Fillmore of Cayuga County, New York was chosen for the Vice Presidential nominee. Like many other army officers, Taylor was nonpolitical and had never voted. His homespun ways and his status as a war hero were political assets. Taylor defeated Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate, and Martin Van Buren, the Free Soil candidate. Taylor was the last southerner to be elected president until Woodrow Wilson - Andrew Johnson became president through succession.
To the astonishment of Whigs, Taylor ignored their platform, as historian Michael Holt explains:
Taylor was equally indifferent to programs Whigs had long considered vital. Publicly, he was artfully ambiguous, refusing to answer queries about his views on banking, the tariff, and internal improvements. Privately, he was more forthright. The idea of a national bank "is dead, and will not be revived in my time." In the future the tariff "will be increased only for revenue"; in other words, Whig hopes of restoring the protective tariff of 1842 were vain. There would never again be surplus federal funds from public land sales to distribute to the states, and internal improvements "will go on in spite of presidential vetoes." In a few words, that is, Taylor pronounced an epitaph for the entire Whig economic program.
Although Taylor had subscribed to Whig principles of legislative leadership, he was not inclined to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress. He ran his administration in the same rule-of-thumb fashion with which he had fought Native Americans.
Under Taylor's administration, the United States Department of the Interior was organized, although the legislation authorizing the Department had been approved on President Polk's last day in office. He appointed former Treasury Secretary Thomas Ewing the first Secretary of the Interior.
The cause of Zachary Taylor's death is not well understood. On July 4, 1850, Taylor consumed a snack of milk and cherries at an Independence Day celebration. Upon his sudden death, five days later on July 9, the cause was listed as gastroenteritis. He was buried in Louisville, Kentucky, at what is now the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.
In the late 1980s, Clara Rising theorized that Taylor was murdered by poison and was able to convince Taylor's closest living relative and the Coroner of Jefferson County, Kentucky, to order an exhumation. On June 17, 1991 Taylor's remains were exhumed and transported to the Office of the Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner, where radiological studies were conducted and samples of hair, fingernail and other tissues were removed. The remains were then returned to the cemetery and received appropriate honors at reinterment. Neutron activation analysis conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory revealed traces of arsenic at levels several hundred times less than necessary for poisoning to have occurred.
Despite these findings, assassination theories have not been entirely put to rest. Michael Parenti devoted a chapter in his controversial 1999 book History as Mystery to "The Strange Death of Zachary Taylor", speculating that Taylor was assassinated and that his autopsy was botched. "Parenti", "Michael" (1999). "History as Mystery". "City Light Books".