On this day in 1784, future President Zachary Taylor is born in Barboursville, Virginia.
The American Revolution had been over barely a year when Taylor, a distant relative of founding father and America’s fourth president, James Madison, was born. He grew up on his parents’ plantation in Kentucky and at age 23 left home to become a soldier in the U.S. Army. Taylor served in the War of 1812, the Blackhawk War (1832) and second Seminole War (1835-1837). In the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Taylor gained popularity for his heroism and for the camaraderie he shared with even his lowliest subordinates. When the war ended, Taylor decided to run for the presidency. He narrowly won a race that included former President Martin Van Buren and Democratic nominee Lewis Cass. His subsequent administration is best known for his failure to address the divisive issue of slavery—although he adamantly opposed slavery and vowed to personally lead a military attack against any state that threatened to secede from the Union–and for his untimely death after only 16 months in office.
Although the exact cause of his death, on July 9, 1850, continues to be debated by historians, it is likely that Taylor succumbed to a case of cholera. On a scorching Fourth of July in Washington, D.C., Taylor had attended festivities at the newly dedicated grounds upon which the Washington Monument would be erected. According to several sources, Taylor gulped down a large quantity of iced milk and cherries and then returned to the White House, where he quenched his thirst with several glasses of water.
Outbreaks of cholera, a deadly disease caused by bacteria, occurred frequently during the summer months in hot, humid Washington during the 1800s, when sewage systems were primitive at best. The dangerous bacteria were mostly likely present in the water or iced milk Taylor drank, though other sources have claimed that Taylor died of gastroenteritis, food poisoning or typhoid fever. It appears that no one at the time even suggested foul play, despite Taylor’s controversial stance on slavery.
Taylor left behind his beloved wife Peggy, two daughters and a son. Another daughter, Sarah, had married to future Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1835, but died of malaria three months into her marriage. Davis, a southerner and supporter of slavery, had been a subordinate officer in Taylor’s regiment. He resigned his commission and married Sarah over Taylor’s objections. Taylor did not live to see his only son, Richard, join the Confederate Army.
Taylor was succeeded by his vice president, Millard Fillmore, who went on to serve until 1853.