Who is Zachary Taylor? - Presidency, Facts & Accomplishments

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
In this lesson, we'll be studying Zachary Taylor, the 12th President of the United States who also died just over one year after taking office. After the lesson, test your knowledge with a quiz.


Throughout American history, there have been several military heroes who have gone on to be president. Most famous among these men are George Washington and Dwight D. Eishenhower. Lesser known than those two, Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1848 entirely upon his record as a military leader. Taylor had a vague political ideology and was catapulted into office on the laurels of victory in the Mexican-American War. He proved a forgettable president, due mostly to his untimely death in 1850 a little over one year into his presidency. Let's learn more about this little-known military leader and president, Zachary Taylor.

Born in Virginia in 1784, Zachary Taylor was a native of the slave-holding South. Early on in his life, his family moved to Kentucky, and Taylor was raised near the banks of the Ohio River. Taylor's family held a large amount of land and numerous slaves to cultivate it.

Taylor's upbringing did not see him attend any prestigious schools. In 1808, he joined the U.S. army as a first lieutenant in the infantry and, thus, he began a long and prestigious career that would catapult him to fame. Soon after joining the army, Taylor married Margaret Mackall Smith.

Military Career

Taylor's early military career saw him in several different posts. During this time, he acquired both land and slaves near Louisville, where he had grown up. He gained notoriety during the War of 1812 by fighting against Native Americans in the Indiana Territory. This began his steady rise in rank through the army. By 1820, Taylor had become a lieutenant colonel. By the mid 1820s, Taylor acquired a plantation in Louisiana and moved there with his young family. During the 1830s, Taylor commanded troops during the Black Hawk War in Illinois and the Second Seminole War in Florida. During the latter, he gained a famous nickname, Old Rough and Ready, for his military leadership.

War With Mexico

In the mid 1840s, tensions between the United States and Mexico were running high over territorial expansion and the possible annexation of Texas into the Union. President James Polk wanted to be aggressive with Mexico and, thus, sent then-General Taylor with a force of U.S. soldiers to the Rio Grande. Taylor's force became engaged with a party of Mexican soldiers, and Polk used the incident to justify bringing the U.S. into war.

The Mexican-American War began in 1846, and it was Taylor's shining moment. Taylor led U.S. forces in Northern Mexico, gaining victories at Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. After defeating Mexican troops at Monterrey, Taylor sent a large portion of his army to join Winfield Scott's men in taking Veracruz. In early 1847, Taylor achieved a tremendous victory at the Battle of Buena Vista, defeating a much larger Mexican army.

Zachary Taylor

Political Stage

Just in time for the presidential election of 1848, the victory in the Mexican War catapulted Taylor to national fame and reverence. President Polk had pledged to only serve one term, and thus the race for the presidency was wide open. The Whig Party saw an opportunity and began courting Taylor for its national ticket. Despite having previously renounced any intention of running for the presidency, Taylor was swayed by the Whigs.

Taylor's political ideology was vague, but it seemed to fit with the Whigs. Despite being from the South and being himself a slave owner, Taylor did not support the expansion of slavery into western territories. He also opposed the growing sectionalism and saw potential secession as a great threat to the country. He believed in an executive who did not meddle in legislative affairs. All of these things made Taylor an ideal Whig, despite his other positions and stances, some of which were too vague and others of which were in strong contrast to those of the Whigs.

In 1848, Taylor accepted the Whig nomination, and Millard Fillmore was put forward as his Vice President. Taylor and Fillmore won the election that year, defeating Democrat Lewis Cass.

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