Zachary Taylor

12th president - 1849-1850


Taylor's military successes in the Mexican War – and a quarter of a century's previous experience policing the frontiers against Native Americans – made him an attractive candidate to northerners; the fact that he was a slave-owner (he had a plantation in Mississippi) was attractive to southern voters. This mixed appeal allowed the famously dishevelled Taylor to defeat more polished rivals such as Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate, and Martin Van Buren, who ran for the short-lived Free Soil Party (which opposed slavery).

His presidency was dominated by the issue of slavery, which he attempted to deal with in the same rule-of-thumb fashion that he had used as a soldier.

To end the dispute over slavery in newly acquired areas, he urged settlers in New Mexico and California to draft constitutions and apply for statehood. (Traditionally, people could decide whether they wanted slavery when they drew up new state constitutions.) Southerners were furious, since neither state constitution was likely to permit slavery; Members of Congress were dismayed, since they felt that the President was usurping their policy-making prerogatives. Taylor's rough-and-ready solution ignored several important side issues, such as the northern dislike of the slave market operating in the District of Columbia; and southern demands for a more stringent fugitive slave law.

By February 1850, southern leaders were threatening secession. Taylor held a stormy conference, in which he told them that, if necessary, he would personally lead the Army in order to enforce the law and the Union. Persons "taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang... with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico."

He never wavered from this uncompromising stance for the remainder of his presidency; which did not, however, last long. That summer, he participated in a lengthy 4 July ceremony at the Washington Monument, on a blisteringly hot day. His thirst and exhaustion caused him to accept a snack of cherries and milk (and, possibly, other offerings from onlookers). He fell ill almost immediately, and died five days later.

The tensions over slavery that he had attempted to resolve survived his presidency, but would not explode into civil war for another decade.

In his own words

"For more than half a century, during which kingdoms and empires have fallen, this Union has stood unshaken. The patriots who formed it have long since descended to the grave; yet still it remains the proudest monument to their memory... In my judgement, its dissolution would be the greatest of calamities."

In others' words

"He talks artlessly as a child about affairs of state, and does not pretend to a knowledge of anything of which he is ignorant. He is a remarkable man in some respects and it is remarkable that such a man should be President of the United States."

Congressman Horace Mann

"Few men have ever had a more comfortable, labour-saving contempt for learning of every kind." General Winfield Scott


Actress Lillian Gish claimed to be descended from him.

When he was 17, he swam across the Ohio River and back.

Taylor chewed a lot of tobacco, and was said to be an unusually gifted marksman with a spittoon.

His wife, Peggy, hated the idea of her husband becoming president and prayed every day for his defeat during the 1848 election campaign. Chronic illness prevented her from serving as First Lady. Her daughter Betty took the role instead, while Peggy remained in seclusion on the second floor of the White House.

He was the first president not to have previously held any other elected public office.

His will was deemed inadmissible for probate, as it had been drafted on the assumption that he would die in combat.

Not until Woodrow Wilson, more than 60 years later, would another southerner be elected president.

Conspiracy theorists have suggested that Taylor was assassinated. In 1991, Taylor's remains were exhumed, but the minute traces of arsenic found in tissue samples were considered too insignificant to be attributable to poisoning.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform