With little formal education and no political training, Zachary Taylor was a surprising choice for president. From a military background, his willingness to compromise was unexpected, as was his sudden death while in office. He might not have finished a full term in office, but Taylor gave people something to talk about.
Fact 1: With ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, Taylor was born in Orange County, Virginia, on November 24, 1978. He had nine siblings, and the family moved to Louisville, Kentucky while he was still young. There were no established schools in that part of Kentucky so Taylor’s education was sporadic.
Fact 2: Taylor was a fast learner, though he had only a rudimentary knowledge of spelling and grammar.
Fact 3: Margaret Smith married Taylor in 1810 and they had six children. The family had to deal with army life, regularly moving between rural outposts. Taylor did not want his daughters to marry into a soldier’s life.
Fact 4: Taylor worked in the military with great distinction from 1808, until the 1848 election had him serving in the White House. He was posted in near Baton Rouge several times, so he purchased a plantation there in 1826. As his was posted elsewhere, he was forced to leave the running of this plantation to his wife, some advisors and the slaves who did the work.
Fact 5: Owning slaves and being a war hero, 1847 found two political parties asking him to run for president, Democrats and Whigs. Taylor was an independent who did not speak of his political beliefs in public. He had neither held public office nor voted in previous elections. Eventually, he aligned with the Whigs, who did not want slavery expanded into the western territories.
Fact 6: Perhaps people who elected a war hero expected him to make clear decisions and were disappointed when Taylor took office. Taylor felt the President’s role was simply to veto unconstitutional laws and lead the way in legislative compromises between factions.
Fact 7: California, New Mexico, and Utah were annexed by the U.S. after the Mexican war. Abolitionists from the North wanted to ban slavery in these new territories, while the Southern states wanted to expand slavery to the area. Taylor thought the new territories would not be able to support the plantation lifestyle that required slaves, which received calls of secession from the south.
Fact 8: When the South began to call for secession, some offered a compromise. As a nationalist, Taylor decided to do what was best for the country as a whole, and encouraged the new territories to develop state constitutions and apply for statehood. This made him enemies with the Southerners and Northerners, as neither got their way. Â
Fact 9: After attending Fourth of July celebrations at the Washington Monument, Taylor ate cherries and milk. On July 9, 1850, at 65 years old, Taylor died. His doctor diagnosed him with cholera morbus, a term for stomach problems with an unknown cause.
Fact 10: On June 17, 1991, Taylor’s remains were exhumed and taken in for study. Rumors of assassination attempts had started before he was dead, and this was a chance to find out the truth. The final review could not find evidence of arsenic poisoning as was suspected, nor could they find proof his actual cause of death.
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