Zachary Taylor (November 24, 1784 - July 9, 1850), also known as "Old Rough and Ready", was the 12th (1849-1850) President of the United States, and the second President to die in office.
Taylor was born to Richard Taylor and Sarah Strother. He was a career soldier. Starting with a commission as a first lieutenant, in 1808, he fought in the War of 1812 (1812 - 1815), the Black Hawk War (1832) and the Second Seminole War (1835 - 1842). President James Knox Polk sent an army under his command to the Rio Grande in 1846. When the Mexicans attacked Taylor's troops, Taylor defeated the Mexicans, despite being outnumbered 4-to-1, and Polk declared war.
In the Mexican-American War that followed, Taylor won additional important victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista and became a national hero. President Polk, disturbed by General Taylor's informal habits of command and perhaps his Whig status as well, kept him in northern Mexico and 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."
He received the Whig nomination for President in 1848, although he had never even bothered to vote before. His homespun ways were political assets, his long military record would appeal to northerners, and his ownership of slaves would attract southern votes. He also had not previously committed himself on troublesome issues. He ran against the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, who favored letting the residents of territories decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery. In protest against Taylor, a slaveholder, and Cass, an advocate of "squatter sovereignty", northerners who opposed extension of slavery into territories formed the Free Soil Party and nominated Martin Van Buren. In a close election, the Free Soilers pulled enough votes away from Cass to elect Taylor.
Taylor earned a footnote in Presidential history before he even took office. His term of service was scheduled to begin at noon on March 4, 1849, but being a Sunday, Taylor refused to be sworn in until the following day. Vice President Millard Fillmore also was not sworn on that day. As a result, the nation technically had no President or Vice President for one day. Some people later claimed that David Rice Atchison, the previous President Pro Tempore of the Senate, was technically Acting President, but this claim is rejected by virtually every constitutional scholar.
Although Taylor had subscribed to Whig principles of legislative leadership, he was not inclined to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress. He acted at times as though he were above parties and politics. As disheveled as always, Taylor tried to run his administration in the same rule-of-thumb fashion with which he had fought Indians.
Traditionally, people could decide whether they wanted slavery when they drew up new state constitutions. Therefore, to end the dispute over slavery in new areas, Taylor urged settlers in New Mexico and California to draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing the territorial stage.
Southerners were furious, since neither state constitution was likely to permit slavery; members of Congress were dismayed, since they felt the President was usurping their policy-making prerogatives. In addition, Taylor's solution ignored several acute side issues: the northern dislike of the slave market operating in the District of Columbia and the southern demands for a more stringent fugitive slave law.
In February 1850 President Taylor had held a stormy conference with southern leaders who threatened secession. He told them that if necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would lead the Army. 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.
After participating in ceremonies at the Washington Monument on a blistering July 4, 1850, Taylor fell ill; he died of acute indigestion five days later, after just 16 months in office. He is buried in Louisville, Kentucky. Taylor was succeeded by his vice president, Millard Fillmore.