Zachary Taylor was born on a farm on November 24, 1784, in Orange County, Virginia, to a prominent family of planters of English ancestry. He was the third of five surviving sons in his family, and had three younger sisters. His mother was Sarah Dabney (Strother) Taylor, and his father, Richard Taylor, had served as a lieutenant colonel in the American Revolution. Taylor was a descendant of Elder William Brewster, the Pilgrim colonist leader and spiritual elder of the Plymouth Colony, and passenger aboard the Mayflower and one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact; and Isaac Allerton Jr., a Colonial merchant and colonel who was the son of Mayflower Pilgrim Isaac Allerton and Fear Brewster. Descended from the same lineage was Taylor's second cousin, future President James Madison.
During his youth, Taylor lived on the frontier in Louisville, Kentucky, residing in a small woodland cabin during most of his childhood, before moving to a brick house as a result of his family's increased prosperity. The rapid growth of Louisville was a boon for Taylor's father, who would come to own 10,000 acres throughout Kentucky by the turn of the century, in addition to twenty-six slaves. Since there were no formal schools on the Kentucky frontier, Taylor had a sporadic education growing up. Although one of his schoolmasters would recount Taylor as a quick learner, his early letters show a weak grasp of spelling and grammar, and his handwriting would later be described as "that of a near illiterate".
On May 3, 1808, Taylor joined the U.S. Army, receiving a commission as a first lieutenant of the Seventh Infantry Regiment. He was among the new officers commissioned by Congress in response to the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair. Taylor spent much of 1809 in the dilapidated camps of New Orleans and nearby Terre aux Boeufs. He returned to Louisville in May 1810, where he married Margaret Mackall Smith and purchased his first land in Jefferson County. He was promoted to captain in November 1810. His army duties were limited at this time, perhaps limited to recruiting, and he attended to his personal finances. Over the next several years, he would begin to amass slaves and a good deal of bank stock in Louisville. In July 1811 Zachary Taylor was called to the Indiana Territory, where he assumed control of Fort Knox after the commandant fled. In only a few weeks, he was able to restore order in the garrison, for which he was lauded by Governor William Henry Harrison.
During the War of 1812, Taylor successfully defended Fort Harrison in Indiana Territory from an attack by Indians under the command of Shawnee chief Tecumseh. Taylor made a name for himself in the battle, and received a brevet (temporary) promotion to the rank of major. Later that year he joined General Samuel Hopkins as an aide on two expeditions: the first into the Illinois Territory, and the second to the Tippecanoe battle site, where they were forced to retreat in the Battle of Wild Cat Creek. Taylor moved his family to Fort Knox after the violence subsided, but in spring 1814 he was called back into action under Brigadier General Benjamin Howard. That October Zachary Taylor built and commanded Fort Johnson, the last toehold of the U.S. Army in the upper Mississippi River Valley, but upon Howard's death a few weeks later, he was forced to abandon it and retreat to Saint Louis. Reduced to the rank of captain when the war ended in 1814, he resigned from the army, but reentered it after he was commissioned again as a major a year later.
In anticipation of the annexation of the Republic of Texas, Taylor was sent in April 1844 to Fort Jesup in Louisiana. He was ordered to guard against any attempts by Mexico to reclaim the territory, which they had lost in 1836. He remained until July 1845, when annexation became imminent, and President James K. Polk directed him to deploy into disputed territory in Texas, "on or near the Rio Grande" near Mexico. Taylor chose a spot at Corpus Christi, and his Army of Occupation encamped there until the following spring in anticipation of a Mexican attack
Taylor's men advanced to the Rio Grande in March 1846. Polk's attempts to negotiate with Mexico had failed, and war appeared imminent. Violence broke out several weeks later, when some of Captain Seth B. Thornton's men were attacked by Mexican forces near the river. Polk, learning of the Thornton Affair, told Congress in May that a war between Mexico and the United States had begun. That same month, Taylor commanded American forces at the Battle of Palo Alto and the nearby Battle of Resaca de la Palma, defeating the Mexican forces which greatly outnumbered his own.
These victories made him a popular hero, and within weeks he received a brevet promotion to major general and a formal commendation from Congress. The national press compared him to George Washington and Andrew Jackson, both generals who had ascended to the presidency, although Taylor denied any interest in running for office. "Such an idea never entered my head," he remarked in a letter, "nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person."
In September, Taylor was able to inflict heavy casualties upon the Mexican defenders at the Battle of Monterrey. The city of Monterrey had been considered "impregnable", but was captured in three days, forcing Mexican forces to retreat. Taylor was criticized for signing a "liberal" truce, rather than pressing for a large-scale surrender. Afterwards, half of Taylor's army was ordered to join General Winfield Scott's soldiers as they besieged Veracruz. Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna discovered, through an intercepted letter from Scott, that Taylor had contributed all but 6,000 of his men to the effort. His remaining force included only a few hundred regular army soldiers, and Santa Anna resolved to take advantage of the situation. Santa Anna attacked Taylor with 20,000 men at the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, inflicting around 600 American casualties at a cost of over 1,800 Mexican. Outmatched, the Mexican forces retreated, ensuring a "far-reaching" victory for the Americans. Taylor remained at Monterrey until late November 1847, when he set sail for home. While he would spend the following year in command of the Army's entire western division, his active military career was over. In December he received a hero's welcome in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and his popular legacy set the stage for the 1848 presidential election.
In 1848, Taylor was nominated by the Whigs to run for president with Millard Fillmore as Vice President. Taylor did not learn abut his nomination for weeks. He was opposed by Democrat Lewis Cass. The main campaign issue was whether to ban or allow slavery in territories captured during the Mexican War. Taylor did not take sides and Cass came out for allowing the residents to decide. The third party candidate, former President Martin Van Buren, took votes from Cass allowing Taylor to win.
Slavery had been the driving issue of the campaign, and it would be the central challenge of Taylor's brief presidency as well. The nation was polarized over the question of whether to extend the institution to the new western territories. Taylor believed that the people of California—in which he hoped to include the Mormons around Salt Lake—and New Mexico should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to permit slavery by writing constitutions and applying immediately for statehood. In this way, he hoped to avoid the increasingly rancorous sectional debate over congressional prohibition of slavery in any territorial governments organized in the area. Many in the South, however, feared that the addition of two free states would upset the delicate North-South balance in the Senate.
Some southern Democrats called for a secession convention, and Taylor's reaction was a bristling statement that he would hang anyone who tried to disrupt the Union by force or by conspiracy. In this heated atmosphere, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and others began to cobble together a compromise in the Senate. To placate the South, they proposed the enactment of a second Fugitive Slave Law that would mandate the return of escaped slaves apprehended anywhere in the nation. This effort would become the Compromise of 1850.On July 4, 1850, after attending celebrations in Washington, D.C., Taylor contracted a virulent stomach ailment that may have been cholera. He died on July 9, and more than 100,000 people lined the funeral route to see the hero laid to rest. He left behind a country sharply divided and a vice president, Millard Fillmore, who supported the Compromise of 1850. In the end, Taylor had limited personal impact on the presidency, and his months in office did little to slow the approach of the great national tragedy of the Civil War.