Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784 in Virginia. His father, Richard, slowly built a massive plantation in Louisville, Kentucky and owned over 10,000 acres and twenty-six slaves by the year 1800.
As a boy, Zachary was provided with a good education, but was a poor student. His English writing skills were particularly poor and problems in this area persisted throughout his life. From early on, he wanted a career in the military, ignoring other professions such as medicine and law.
In 1808, Zachary was commissioned as a first lieutenant to serve in the War of 1812. He continued to serve and lead in the Black Hawk War in 1932 and the Second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842. By this time, he had been promoted to general and was leading quite a large group of men. In 1846, he was was sent by President Polk to the Rio Grande to defuse a tense situation with the Mexicans. The Mexican Army attacked and, although his troops were outnumbered 4-to-1, Taylor's troops were able to defeat them.
After the attack by the Mexicans, President Polk was left with no choice but to declare war. The resulting war became known as the Mexican-American War and led the United States to launch an offensive into Mexico. Taylor continued to lead, winning very important battles at the cities of Monterrey and Buena Vista. His successes brought national attention and he quickly achieved hero status. However, President Polk began to favor General Winfield Scott over Taylor, and held Taylor back while Scott captured Mexico City.
In 1848, Taylor was nominated for presidency on the Whig party's ticket. His amount of experience in the military was very appealing to northern voters and the fact that he had slaves was quite appealing to southerners, who were hoping to get more federal support for slavery. His primary opponent, Lewis Cass, ran on the Democratic ticket and intended to allow individual states to determine whether to allow slavery. A third candidate, Martin Van Buren, was introduced by the Free Soil Party, but he only served to help Taylor win by pulling votes away from Cass. In the end, Taylor became the twelfth president of the United States of America.
Taylor made history by refusing to be sworn in on a Sunday for religious reasons, making the government wait until Monday. As a result, the US had no official president for one full day. He was sworn in on March 5, 1849 to begin his decidedly short stint as president.
Among his more controversial policies was to encourage settlers in New Mexico and California to draft state constitutions as quickly as possible to settle disputes over slavery. The southern states did not like this idea since the majority of settlers in these areas did not support slavery and it was not likely to be allowed in the state constitutions.
In February of 1850, a group of southern leaders came to Washington D.C. to hold a meeting with Taylor. They threatened to secede from the union and form an independent country in order to protect their slave-based economies. Taylor became furious and told them that anyone taking place in such a treasonous act would be hanged. He also said that if the south ignored any federal laws, he would lead the army himself and enter the south to enforce them.
On July 4, 1850, Taylor engaged in celebrations at the Washington Monument, but fell ill after standing in the extreme heat all day. He died five days later on July 9, 1850 with the cause of death described as "acute indigestion". He was buried in Louisville, Kentucky and succeeded by Vice President Fillmore.