Sliding in at No. 10, Zachary Taylor was more a forgettable president than a failed one. And the reason is simple: The 12th president was probably the least politically attuned man to occupy the White House in American history, ignorant, one might say, to the point of innocence.
Born in Virginia and raised in Kentucky, he was a country boy and a fearless soldier who fought and commanded in major actions spanning the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Jealous fellow generals mocked his lack of learning and polish—he seldom wore his uniform and was often mistaken for a farmer—but no less than Abraham Lincoln praised the steady judgment that enabled him to overcome unfavorable odds in numerous battles.
The Whigs saw a good thing when they picked him as their candidate in 1848. A slaveholder who defended the "peculiar institution" in the South, he opposed its extension into new states as vigorously as he objected to the idea of secession.
Some think his opposition to what became the Compromise of 1850—which began to undo the Missouri Compromise—might have precipitated the outbreak of the Civil War. If it had, Taylor would not have hesitated to take on the would-be seceders. And his war record might have given them pause.
But the test never came. He died after only a little more than a year in office.