Taylor was born on on November 24, 1784, in Orange County, Virginia, to a prominent family of planters. During his youth, he lived on the frontier in Louisville, Kentucky, residing in a small cabin in a wood during most of his childhood, before moving to a brick house as a result of his family's increased prosperity. He shared the house with seven brothers and sisters, and his father owned 10,000 acres of land that was tended to by twenty-six slaves by 1800.
Taylor gained prominence as a soldier, first in the war of 1812, and later in the Mexican War. He had no political allegiances and considered himself as an independent, though in actuality he was someone who had never even voted prior to his own election. But as the 1848 Whig Party convention approached, Taylor said that he had always been a Whig in principle, although he considered himself a Jeffersonian-Democrat. Many southerners believed that Taylor supported slavery, and its expansion into the new territory absorbed from Mexico, and some were angered when Taylor suggested that if he were elected President he would not veto the Wilmot Proviso, which proposed against such an expansion. This position did not enhance his support from activist antislavery elements in the Northern United States, as these wanted Taylor to speak out strongly in support of the Proviso, not simply fail to veto it. Most abolitionists did not support Taylor, since he was a slave-owner.
Taylor received the Whig nomination for President in 1848. Millard Fillmore of New York was chosen as the Vice Presidential nominee. Taylor's homespun manner and his status as a war hero were seen by the Whigs as huge political assets. Taylor defeated Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate, and Martin Van Buren, the Free Soil candidate. He was the last Southerner to be elected president until Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
At the time Taylor became President, the issue of slavery in the western territories of the United States was the number one political issue of the day. Debate between extreme pro and antislavery viewpoints had become very bitter. In 1849, Taylor told the residents of California, including the Mormons around Salt Lake, and the residents of New Mexico to create state constitutions and apply for statehood in December when Congress met. He correctly predicted that these constitutions would come out against slavery in California and New Mexico. In December 1849, and January 1850, Taylor told Congress that it should allow them to become states, once their constitutions arrived in Washington D.C. He opposed attempts to develop territorial governments for the two future states, because he worried that this might increase tension between pro and antislavery activists regarding a congressional prohibition of slavery in the territories (the very thing that would occur in Kansas years later.)
The slavery issue dominated Taylor's short term. Although he owned slaves on his plantation in Louisiana, he took a moderate stance on the territorial expansion of slavery, angering fellow Southerners. He told them that if necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would lead the Army. He said that if anyone was "taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang ... with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico." He never wavered from this position. Henry Clay then proposed a complex Compromise of 1850. Taylor died as it was being debated.
When Taylor died on July 9, 1850, reportedly of cholera, many believed that Taylor had actually been poisoned by those angered by his moderate position on slavery. Over 140 years after his death, on June 17, 1991, Taylor's remains were exhumed and transported to the Office of the Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner, where radiological studies were conducted and samples of hair, fingernail and other tissues were removed. Neutron activation analysis conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory revealed arsenic levels several hundred times lower than they would have been if Taylor had been poisoned, and the coroner ruled out poisoning as a likely cause of death.
Despite these findings, assassination theories continue in some quarters. Author Michael Parenti devoted a chapter in his 1999 book History as Mystery to "The Strange Death of Zachary Taylor." Parenti argues that Taylor was assassinated because of his moderate stance on the expansion of slavery. As for the 1991 autopsy, according to Parenti, that was botched.