Zachary Taylor was a soldier’s soldier, a man who lived up to his nickname,
“Old Rough and Ready.” Having risen through the ranks of the U.S. Army, he
achieved his greatest success in the Mexican War, propelling him to the nation’s
highest office in the election of 1848. He was the first man to have been
elected president without having held a lower political office.
John S. D. Eisenhower, the son of another soldier-president, shows how Taylor
rose to the presidency, where he confronted the most contentious political issue
of his age: slavery. The political storm reached a crescendo in 1849, when
California, newly populated after the Gold Rush, applied for statehood with an
anti- slavery constitution, an event that upset the delicate balance of slave
and free states and pushed both sides to the brink. As the acrimonious debate
intensified, Taylor stood his ground in favor of California’s admission—despite
being a slaveholder himself—but in July 1850 he unexpectedly took ill, and
within a week he was dead. His truncated presidency had exposed the fateful rift
that would soon tear the country apart.