This Day in History: Zachary Taylor's short presidency
On this day in 1784, future President Zachary Taylor is born. This United States President was born after we’d declared independence from England, but before the Constitutional Convention met.
In other words, some of Taylor’s earliest memories would have been of a nation just getting off the ground and establishing a new government.
Taylor was born into respectable circumstances in Virginia, although his family soon moved to Kentucky. Once there, the family’s holdings grew, and his father became a wealthy plantation owner with many slaves. Taylor, however, didn’t intend to simply settle down to a planter’s life. He was enthralled by his father’s legacy as a solider in the Revolutionary War.
He would join the army and did so in 1808.
Taylor was quite successful in the army and came to be much-loved by his men because of his willingness to share in their hardships. This characteristic earned him the nickname “Old Rough and Ready.” He’d soon earn accolades for his service in the Mexican-American war, and he became something of a national hero.
During all this time, though, Taylor was pretty quiet about his political beliefs. Before running for President, he thought of himself as an independent, but when he ran for office he did so as a Whig. The first time he ever voted was when he cast a ballot for himself in the 1848 presidential election.
Nevertheless, Taylor was in an odd position. He may have been living a military life, but he was also a wealthy plantation and slave owner. Yet, despite his circumstances, he still opposed the expansion of slavery. Ultimately, some of his positions angered abolitionists, while some of his positions angered southerners.
Slavery opponent Millard Fillmore was nominated as his vice presidential candidate in an effort to even out the ticket, and the two were elected on November 7, 1848. It was the first presidential election in which all Americans voted on the same day.
Unfortunately, Taylor would not serve out his full term in office.
Trouble began on the July 4, 1850, when Taylor had been President for just over a year. Apparently, Taylor got very hot that day, drank many chilled beverages, and consumed quite a lot of cherries and other fruit. He began suffering severe stomach pains soon afterwards and passed away within a matter of days.
His doctors at the time declared that he had passed of “cholera morbus,” but modern historians remain unsure.
Indeed, Taylor’s body was exhumed in 1991 by researchers who wanted to know if his death was really a murder. Lab tests did reveal trace amounts of arsenic, but these amounts should not have been enough to kill him. They might even have been naturally occurring.
Others wonder if Taylor’s health might have been undermined by the poor sanitary conditions then existing in Washington D.C. In the mid-1800s, the city lacked a modern sewage system, and the White House was built near a foul marsh. Could the water supply have been compromised? Maybe Taylor was exposed to a deadly bacteria in the water.
Either way, Taylor knew that he was dying on July 9. He asked to see his wife.
“I have always done my duty,” he told her. “I am ready to die. My only regret is for the friends I leave behind me.”
Jane McHugh & Philip A. Mackowiak, What Really Killed William Harrison? (N.Y. Times; Mar. 31, 2004)
John S. D. Eisenhower, Zachary Taylor: The American Presidents Series (2008)
Millard Fillmore, Announcement to Congress of the Death of President Taylor (July 10, 1850)
Remembering Zachary Taylor: Military hero, obscure President (National Constitution Center website)
The Enslaved Households of President Zachary Taylor (White House Historical Association website)
Zachary Taylor, 1784 – 1850 (Miller Center at the University of Virginia website)
Zachary Taylor, Annual Message (Dec. 4, 1849)