On November 24, 1784, Zachary Taylor was born on a plantation in Orange County, Virginia, to a prominent family of planters of English ancestry. His birthplace may have been Hare Forest Farm, the home of his maternal grandfather William Strother, though this has not been determined with certainty. Taylor was the 12th President of the United States, serving from March 1849 until his death in July 1850. Taylor previously was a career officer in the United States Army, rose to the rank of major general and became a national hero as a result of his victories in the Mexican–American War. As a result, he won election to the White House despite his vague political beliefs. His top priority as president was preserving the Union, but he died sixteen months into his term, before making any progress on the status of slavery, which had been inflaming tensions in Congress.
Taylor was born into a prominent family of planters who migrated westward from Virginia to Kentucky in his youth. He was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army in 1808 and made a name for himself as a Captain in the War of 1812. He climbed the ranks establishing military forts along the Mississippi River and entered the Black Hawk War as a Colonel in 1832. His success in the Second Seminole War attracted national attention and earned him the nickname “Old Rough and Ready”. In 1845, during the annexation of Texas, President James K. Polk dispatched Taylor to the Rio Grande in anticipation of a battle with Mexico over the disputed Texas–Mexico border. The Mexican–American War broke out in April 1846, and Taylor defeated Mexican troops commanded by General Mariano Arista at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and drove his troops out of Texas. Taylor then led his troops into Mexico, where they defeated Mexican troops commanded by Pedro de Ampudia at the Battle of Monterrey. Defying orders, Taylor led his troops further south and, despite being severely outnumbered, dealt a crushing blow to Mexican forces under Antonio López de Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista. Taylor’s troops were transferred to the command of Major General Winfield Scott, but Taylor retained his popularity.
The Whig Party convinced the reluctant Taylor to lead their ticket in the 1848 presidential election, despite his unclear political tenets and lack of interest in politics. At the 1848 Whig National Convention, Taylor defeated Scott and former Senator Henry Clay to take the nomination. He won the general election alongside New York politician Millard Fillmore, defeating Democratic Party candidates Lewis Cass and William Orlando Butler, as well as a third-party effort led by former president Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, Sr. of the Free Soil Party. Taylor became the first president to be elected without having served in a prior political office.
As president, Taylor kept his distance from Congress and his cabinet, even though partisan tensions threatened to divide the Union. Debate over the status of slavery in the Mexican Cession dominated the political agenda and led to threats of secession from Southerners. Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not push for the expansion of slavery, and sought sectional harmony above all other concerns. To avoid the issue of slavery, he urged settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood, setting the stage for the Compromise of 1850.
On July 4, 1850, Taylor reportedly consumed copious amounts of raw fruit and iced milk while attending holiday celebrations during a fund-raising event at the Washington Monument, which was then under construction. Over the course of several days, he became severely ill with an unknown digestive ailment. His doctor “diagnosed the illness as cholera morbus, a flexible mid-nineteenth-century term for intestinal ailments as diverse as diarrhea and dysentery but not related to Asiatic cholera”, the latter being a widespread epidemic at the time of Taylor’s death. The identity and source of Taylor’s illness are the subject of historical speculation, although it is known that several of his cabinet members had come down with a similar illness.
Fever ensued and Taylor’s chance of recovery was small. On July 8, Taylor remarked to a medical attendant:
“I should not be surprised if this were to terminate in my death. I did not expect to encounter what has beset me since my elevation to the Presidency. God knows I have endeavored to fulfill what I conceived to be an honest duty. But I have been mistaken. My motives have been misconstrued, and my feelings most grossly outraged.“
Despite treatment, Taylor died at 10:35 p.m. on July 9, 1850, with his administration having accomplished little aside from the ratification of the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty. He was 65 years old. After his death, Vice President Fillmore assumed the presidency and completed Taylor’s term, which ended on March 4, 1853. Soon after taking office, Fillmore signed into law the Compromise of 1850, which settled many of the issues faced by the Taylor administration.
Taylor was interred in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., from July 13, 1850, to October 25, 1850. It was built in 1835 to hold remains of notables until either the grave site could be prepared or transportation arranged to another city. His body was transported to the Taylor Family plot where his parents were buried on the old Taylor homestead plantation known as “Springfield” in Louisville, Kentucky.
Historians and scholars have ranked Taylor in the bottom quartile of U.S. presidents, owing in part to his short term of office (16 months), and he has been described as “more a forgettable president than a failed one.”
Taylor was the last president to own slaves while in office. He was the third of four Whig presidents, the last being Fillmore, his successor. Taylor was also the second president to die in office, preceded by William Henry Harrison, who died while serving as president nine years earlier.
In 1883, the Commonwealth of Kentucky placed a 50-foot monument topped by a life-sized statue of Taylor near his grave. By the 1920s, the Taylor family initiated the effort to turn the Taylor burial grounds into a national cemetery. The Commonwealth of Kentucky donated two adjacent parcels of land for the project, turning the half-acre Taylor family cemetery into 16 acres (65,000 m²). On May 6, 1926, the remains of Taylor and his wife (who died in 1852) were moved to the newly constructed Taylor mausoleum, made of limestone with a granite base and marble interior, nearby. The cemetery property has been designated as the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.
The United States Post Office Department released the first postage stamp issue honoring Zachary Taylor on June 21, 1875, 25 years after his death. In 1938, Taylor would appear again on a US postage stamp, this time on the 12-cent Presidential Issue of 1938. Taylor’s last appearance (to date) on a U.S. postage stamp occurred in 1986, when he was honored on the AMERIPEX presidential issue. After Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln, Zachary Taylor was the fifth American president to appear on a stamp.
Scott #817 was released on September 14, 1938, in sheet form as part of the Presidential Issue (nicknamed the “Prexies”), a 12-cent bright violet stamp. The series was issued in response to public clamoring for a new Regular Issue series. The series that was current at the time had been in use for more than a decade. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed, and a contest was staged. The public was asked to submit original designs for a new series picturing all deceased U.S. Presidents. Over 1,100 sketches were submitted, many from veteran stamp collectors. Elaine Rawlinson, who had little knowledge of stamps, won the contest and collected the $500 prize. Rawlinson was the first stamp designer since the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began producing U.S. stamps who was not a government employee.
The Zachary Taylor stamp was widely used. Rates which could be paid with a single 12-cent stamp included the following: special delivery for a local letter (in effect March 26, 1944, through October 31, 1944); four times the domestic first-class rate (in effect July 1, 1932, through July 31, 1958); two times the 6-cent domestic airmail rate (in effect July 1, 1934, through March 25, 1944, and January 1949 through July 31, 1958); and two times the 6-cent WW II military airmail rate. Half-ounce letters prepaid with this 12-cent postage could be sent by air to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, with rates in effect December 1, 1937, through March 31, 1946. Scott #817 was printed on the rotary press by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in a quantity of 664,333,800 stamps, perforated 11 x 10½.