Zachary Taylor: 12th President: The War Hero

Updated on December 11, 2019
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Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past—or else be destined to repeat it.

Official White House Portrait


Old Rough and Ready the War Hero

Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, in Montebello, Orange County, Virginia. His father was a military colonel who moved to Kentucky soon after Zachary was born, then raised him on a plantation. Following in his father's footsteps, he too joined the military, serving from 1808 to 1848, only ending his career to become President. The only education that Taylor received was from several tutors. He never attended college.

He joined the Army when he was 18 years old and fought in the War of 1812 as part of the defense of Fort Harrison in Indiana. He was promoted quickly, first to major while serving in the war, and at the end, he became a colonel.

Taylor was given the nickname "Old Rough and Ready" by the military men he led during the Second Seminole War that lasted between 1835 and 1842. He got the nickname because he rarely dressed in a military uniform, preferring the simple clothes of a farmer. Despite being a very successful career officer in the Army, Taylor preferred talking about cotton raising and missed his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He also owned a plantation in Mississippi, where he owned 100 slaves.

During the Second Seminole War, he fought in Florida against Chief Osceola, who was fighting against his people migrating west of the Mississippi River and won. Still, it was the Mexican War that made him well-known. The Mexican War began as a dispute over the border between Mexico and Texas.

President Polk sent Taylor and his men to protect the Rio Grande border. He won despite having fewer men. Taylor's success caused the Mexican's to declare war against the United States. Taylor went against President Polk's desires and gave the Mexicans a two-month armistice. Later, he led 4,600 American volunteers in a fight against Santa Anna, which was a troop that was almost four times larger than his own force, which was known as the Battle of Buena Vista. Despite his limited number of men, Taylor won this battle, securing his title as a war hero.

Campaign Cartoon: Cock of the Walk

Because Polk was believed to be the front-runner, this cartoon was created showing that he was going to be a victorious fighting cock.
Because Polk was believed to be the front-runner, this cartoon was created showing that he was going to be a victorious fighting cock. | Source

What Is Zachary Taylor Best Known For?

His success in the military caught the attention of the Whig party in 1848. They nominated him as President without him being present or even aware of the nomination. They sent him a letter telling of this nomination but unfortunately did not pay for postage. When the notice arrived, he refused to pay the postage; therefore, he did not learn of his nomination until weeks later.

Despite no governmental experience, he appealed to the citizens of the United States for many reasons. Even though he never voiced an opinion on slaves, those who were pro-slavery assumed since he owned over 100 slaves that he would support their cause. He also got many of the northern votes, because of his long military record, plus he considered himself a nationalist. Soon he was elected as the 12th United States President.

Unfortunately for those who were pro-slavery, despite owning slaves himself, he did not defend the owning of slaves. Southerners threatened secession, but Taylor felt that he could keep the Union together by armed force if necessary. He refused to compromise on the issue of slavery.

His strong character also caused the Whig leaders in Congress to have trouble controlling him as they hoped. He still held many of the principles of the Whig legislature but was not easily budged when he felt an idea was not best. Still, he was well-liked with his simple way of treating others with respect and even allowing his warhorse to graze on the White House lawn.

Still, issues of slavery were one of the most significant issues during his presidency. Before this time, when a new territory constitution was drawn up, they could decide whether they wanted slavery or not. Taylor did not want to see the slave territory to grow; therefore, he urged the settlers of New Mexico and California to apply for statehood and draft a constitution, which would not allow for slavery. This upset members of Congress as they felt this was usurping their policy-making prerogatives.

He also ignored many issues regarding slave ownership, like when southerners demanded more stringent fugitive slave laws, which again, in February of 1850, caused southern leaders to threaten secession. His response was to remain united within the states and to enforce the laws, he would personally lead the Army to protect our nation from splitting. He stated that any person "taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang... with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico." This war that he was willing to fight would come only 11 years later. His son Richard Taylor would serve as a general in the Confederate Army.

How Did President Taylor Die?

Unfortunately, his presidency did not last long. On the Fourth of July, only 16 months after he became President, he participated in several ceremonies held at the not-yet-finished Washington Monument. Some believed on that day. He had suffered from sun-stroke due to the scorching weather; others thought he contracted cholera due to eating fresh cherries and drinking milk; then others believed he was poisoned. Either way, he became very sick and died only four days later.

One hundred and forty years after his death, Taylor's body was exhumed to confirm that his death was not due to being poisoned. After careful testing, they decided that he had died of natural causes since his body did not contain any more arsenic than was typical in a person's body at that time.

Which Presidents Died Whille In Office?

Year of Death
William Henry Harrison
Zachary Taylor
Abraham Lincoln
James A Garfield
William McKinley
Warren G. Harding
Franklin D. Roosevelt
John F. Kennedy

Fun Facts

  • He was the first military leader to become president without ever holding a governmental position.
  • His heritage can be traced back to the Mayflower. His descendant William Brewster was a leader and preacher in the Plymouth Colony.
  • His nickname was 'Old Rough and Ready.'
  • In 1848, the Whig Party nominated him for president without his knowledge. He was sent notification of his nomination in an envelope without postage. Since Taylor refused to pay for the postage, he did not learn of his nomination until a few weeks later.

Excerpt from the History Channel

Basic Facts

November 24, 1784 - Virginia
President Number
Military Service
United States Army - Major general
Wars Served
War of 1812 • Siege of Fort Harrison Black Hawk War Second Seminole War • Battle of Lake Okeechobee Mexican–American War • Battle of Palo Alto • Battle of Resaca de la Palma • Battle of Monterrey • Battle of Buena Vista
Age at Beginning of Presidency
65 years old
Term of Office
March 4, 1849 - July 9, 1850
How Long President
16 Months
Millard Fillmore
Age and Year of Death
July 9, 1850 (aged 65)
Cause of Death
Intestinal Ailments

List of American Presidents

1. George Washington
16. Abraham Lincoln
31. Herbert Hoover
2. John Adams
17. Andrew Johnson
32. Franklin D. Roosevelt
3. Thomas Jefferson
18. Ulysses S. Grant
33. Harry S. Truman
4. James Madison
19. Rutherford B. Hayes
34. Dwight D. Eisenhower
5. James Monroe
20. James Garfield
35. John F. Kennedy
6. John Quincy Adams
21. Chester A. Arthur
36. Lyndon B. Johnson
7. Andrew Jackson
22. Grover Cleveland
37. Richard M. Nixon
8. Martin Van Buren
23. Benjamin Harrison
38. Gerald R. Ford
9. William Henry Harrison
24. Grover Cleveland
39. James Carter
10. John Tyler
25. William McKinley
40. Ronald Reagan
11. James K. Polk
26. Theodore Roosevelt
41. George H. W. Bush
12. Zachary Taylor
27. William Howard Taft
42. William J. Clinton
13. Millard Fillmore
28. Woodrow Wilson
43. George W. Bush
14. Franklin Pierce
29. Warren G. Harding
44. Barack Obama
15. James Buchanan
30. Calvin Coolidge
45. Donald Trump


  • Freidel, F., & Sidey, H. (2009). Zachary Taylor. Retrieved April 22, 2016, from
  • Kelly, M. (2015, September 01). Top 10 Things to Know About Zachary Taylor. Retrieved April 30, 2016, from
  • Sullivan, G. (2001). Mr. President: A book of U.S. presidents. New York: Scholastic.

© 2016 Angela Michelle Schultz


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