Yesterday, I wrote about Warren G. Harding, one of eight U.S. presidents to die in office. Harding was one of the four who succumbed to natural causes. The others were William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Franklin Roosevelt. (Four other presidents were felled by assassins' bullets. You know their names: Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy.) But Zachary Taylor is who we're interested in this morning: He passed away on this date in 1850.
If you live in or around the nation's capital, as I do, perhaps the recent beastly weather has reminded you of how difficult life was in Washington, D.C., in earlier times. It was very hot on July 4, 1850, too, and at a time without air conditioning or refrigeration. The latter probably helped kill the president. To keep cool while attending Independence Day festivities at the site of the under-construction Washington Monument, Taylor ate quantities of iced milk and fresh cherries. After returning to the White House, he followed that up with copious amounts of water. Five days later, he was gone. Was it cholera that killed him? Heat stroke? Food poisoning? Gastroenteritis? Typhoid fever? Foul play?
No one knows for certain, but the water supply and the sewer system in the fetid capital city were sketchy in those days.
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Elected as a Whig in 1848, Zachary Taylor, like Dwight Eisenhower a century later, was a public servant with little experience -- or even interest -- in party politics. A military lifer, U.S. Army general, and hero of the Mexican-American War, Taylor was essentially a manager, albeit a very able one.
He was popular, too. His nickname was "Old Rough and Ready," and one of the things he had been readying for in his 16 months as president was quashing any possible Southern rebellion. Although born in Virginia and raised in Kentucky -- and the owner of a Mississippi cotton plantation with 100 slaves -- Taylor's 40 years in the Army had made him an ardent nationalist with no sympathy for Southern sectionalism. Mere talk of secession infuriated him. At a meeting in February with Southern politicians, Taylor warned them against trying to leave the Union, suggesting that he'd personally command the federal armies against them. He also vowed matter-of-factly to execute those who took up arms against the United States with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in the war with Mexico.
In the late 20th century, conspiracy theories arose that Taylor was murdered on account of these political views, as Vice President Millard Fillmore was rightly assumed to be a more pliant politician. An exhumation of Taylor's body determined no evidence of arsenic or any other toxins, however, leaving the blame for his death where it had always been: on the capital city's poor sanitation and the obtuse medical care the president received after he took ill.
But the question of what influence Taylor might have exerted had he lived remains an intriguing one. He was the last president elected as a Whig, the political party that gave way to the anti-slavery Republicans, and the Civil War he feared did indeed come. If he had lived, "Old Rough and Ready" would have been a 76-year-old ex-president in 1861. Still, no commander-in-chief would have had much luck keeping him from leading troops in the field. But in this parallel universe, Zachary Taylor may well have faced an army led by his son Gen. Richard Taylor, a brigade commander in the Confederate Army.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.