12 – ZACHARY TAYLOR
Presidential Years: 1849-1850
Political Party: Whig
Vice President: Millard Fillmore
Ran Against: Lewis Cass (Democrat), Martin Van Buren – again (Free Soil Party)
First Lady: Margaret Smith Taylor
Quote: “I have no private purpose to accomplish, no party objectives to build up, no enemies to punish—nothing to serve but my country.”
Best known for: Dying in office, under unusual circumstances.
Random Fact: When he was nominated as a candidate by the Whig Party, he didn’t find out for weeks, because he refused to pay for the postage on the letter notifying him.
Bio: There’s no denying that Zachary Taylor aka “Old Rough and Ready” was one of the toughest soldiers of his era. He fought in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War AND the Mexican-American War. The guy basically single-handedly won California and New Mexico for President Polk. He once led a handful of soldiers and a rag-tag band of settlers against hundreds of hostile Indians. General Taylor had absolutely no qualms about doing what needed to be done, and was known for publicly executing spies and traitors. None of that changed when he was elected to the nation’s highest office.
President Taylor was the last American President to own slaves, but despite his apparent pro-slavery stance, it seemed that Taylor had a change of heart when he urged California and New Mexico to apply for statehood. If Cali and NM both became abolitionist states it would undoubtedly shift the balance of power to the North, which caused many states to threaten to secede. Regardless of his attitudes on the slave issue, there was no doubt that Taylor was much more interested in keeping the United States together. He once threatened to hang anyone with thoughts of rebelling against the Union, with less reluctance than the traitors and deserters he had hung during the Mexican War.
Henry Clay proposed a compromise in 1850 that would only admit the state of California, but before it could be debated, President Zachary Taylor fell ill and died. On July 4th, 1850, President Taylor was attending a ceremony at the construction of the Washington Monument, on a particularly hot day – where he reportedly ate ‘copious amounts’ of raw cherries and then downed gallons of cold milk and lemonade.
After eating an ungodly amount of cherries and drinking more milk than humanly possible, Zachary Taylor’s stomach started to hurt. (Unfortunately Pepto wasn’t created until 1901.) Three days later, Taylor officially died of cholera morbus brought on by gastroenteritis and exasperated by unsanitary conditions… (and eating way too many cherries) but there are some who believe that Taylor was poisoned by the Southern opposition. In fact, his body was examined one hundred years later where they found traces of arsenic, but supposedly not enough to kill him.
Either way, it now fell to Vice President Millard Fillmore to fill his shoes.
13 – MILLARD FILLMORE
Presidential Years: 1850-1853
Political Party: Whig
Vice President: <Vacant>
Ran Against: <Non applicable>
First Lady: Abigail Powers Fillmore
Quote: “An honorable defeat is better than a dishonorable victory.”
Best known for: The Fugitive Slave Act (Yay? *Sarcasm*)
Random Fact: The last Whig candidate to become President.
Bio: Vice President Millard Fillmore became the 13th President of the United States when Taylor croaked.
Fillmore was only ever chosen as Zachary Taylor’s running mate because he balanced out Taylor, no one thought much of him, until he was the President. Upon taking office, his entire cabinet immediately resigned.
In nearly every way, Fillmore was Taylor’s opposite. He rolled over for the Southern states and signed the Compromise of 1850. Then in 1853, to make matters even worse, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law. The Fugitive Slave Act required that any slaves who escaped to the North were to be captured and shipped back to their ‘owners’. Abolitionists in non-slave states were now legally bound to enforce slavery. Rather than easing tensions over the issue, Millard Fillmore managed to light a fuse on the coming Civil War.
Suffice it to say, Millard Fillmore was not a very good president.
In fact, Millard Fillmore was a crappy enough President that he wasn’t even nominated by his own party to run again the next time around – and is often cited as the single reason behind the collapse of the Whig Party. He later wandered off and formed the ‘Know Nothing’ Party, an anti-immigrant party that was super racist against German and Irish immigrants, but especially Catholics.
Long story short, Millard Fillmore kinda sucks.
14 – FRANKLIN PIERCE
Presidential Years: 1853-1857
Political Party: Democrat*
*As pointed out earlier, the Democratic party of today has very little resemblance to its previous incarnation, since both major parties switched platforms in the 1930’s.
Vice President: William R. King
Ran Against: General Winfield Scott (Whig Party)
First Lady: Jane Appleton Pierce
Quote: “There’s nothing left to do, but get drunk.”
Best known for: Being the only American President ever arrested… for running over a lady with a horse.
Random Fact: Has the most tragic backstory since The Punisher first showed up in Marvel Comics.
Bio: Franklin Pierce was elected President because of his moderate stances on a lot of issues, able to get along with just about everyone, but when he left office he was hated by just about everyone.
During his tenure in office, he could best be described as charming, indecisive, and alcoholic.
Pierce’s life was one of constant tragedy. All three of his children died young. Two of them from disease, and then his son, Benny, was killed in a train wreck in front of his parents not long after the election. Then just six weeks after the inauguration, his Vice President, William R. King, died.
Things went from bad to worse when Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the head of the Democratic Party, strong-armed him into supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would repeal the Missouri Compromise – allowing slave states to exist in the north, which furthered the schism over the abolitionist movement.
Did I mention that he once accidentally ran over an old lady with his horse?! He also became the first President ever to be arrested by the police! And what’s even crazier, even though he had a record of horse-related incidents, the courts dismissed the case over insufficient evidence. The newspapers speculated that he was probably drunk riding at the time. (Similarly, President Ulysses S. Grant was later pulled over for speeding – on a horse)
The Union deteriorated around him and he was abandoned by his own party. As he was leaving the White House, Franklin is quoted as saying, “There’s nothing left to do, but get drunk.” And that’s exactly what he did. Pierce returned home in defeat. After his wife passed away, he took up binge-drinking as a full-time gig and became a hermit. He died of cirrhosis of the liver, due to the insane amounts of alcohol he consumed towards the end of his life.
The irony was that his wife once asked him to promise not to get involved in politics. This is why you should always listen to your wife. Happy wife = happy life.
15 – JAMES BUCHANAN
Presidential Years: 1857-1861
Political Party: Democratic
Vice President: John C. Breckinridge
Ran Against: John C. Fremont and (former President) Millard Fillmore
First Lady: None…
Quote: “What is right and what is practicable are two different things.”
Best known for: Being a completely terrible President
Random Fact: Was probably a closeted gay man (which has literally no bearing on his being a terrible President)
Bio: Suffice it to say, James Buchanan was no spring chicken. The guy was old enough at the time he was elected in 1857 to have fought in the war of 1812. He was Andrew Jackson’s Minister to Russia and James K. Polk’s Secretary of State. Franklin Pierce nominated him to be the Ambassador to the UK. So, say what you will about the guy, but at least he had some experience under his belt.
As I mentioned in another article (Top 10 Historical Drunks), Buchanan was one of the nation’s most alcohol-fueled Presidents to ever stumble into the White House. In fact he didn’t do much other than drink, smoke cigars, throw some parties and drink some more during his term in the Oval Office.
Another thing of note was that James Buchanan was probably our first LGBTQ President, even though he was very much in the closet. He was a life-long bachelor (the only non-married President) and very private about his personal affairs. He was at one point engaged to Anne Caroline Coleman, but spent very little time together before her unusual death brought on by… ‘hysteria’? For reasons unknown, Anne’s father forbade Buchanan from attending her funeral. It is speculated that he may have had a decades-long affair with William Rufus King (who later became Franklin Pierce’s Vice President), evidenced by their long letters to one another – and the fact that they actually lived together for over 10 years.
During his tenure as President, Buchanan supported Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in his decision concerning the Dredd Scott case – which stated that the Federal government had no right to regulate slavery and that African-Americans could not be American citizens. It has since been lauded as the single worst Supreme Court decision in the history of the United States and is cited by many historians as the catalyst for the Civil War. Further, the “Bleeding Kansas” Crisis, Utah War, and Panic of 1857 all happened under Buchanan’s watch.
Following Lincoln’s election in 1860, 7 states seceded from the union before his inauguration: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas!
James Buchanan did nothing.
Nothing at all.
While President Buchanan didn’t agree with secession, he also thought it was unconstitutional to start a war over it. Buchanan’s do-nothing attitude towards the whole thing was likely what caused the Civil War, because he didn’t attempt to fix the problem before it got out of hand and left it for the next guy to clean up…
Luckily that next guy was a tall and lanky bearded dude in a top hat named Abraham Lincoln.
Thanks for reading! If you’re a fan of the blog, be sure to listen to the Epik Fails of History podcast and check out my all new “EPIC FAILS” book series – available now wherever books are sold! “EPIC FAILS: Not-So-Great Presidents” hits shelves on January 15th.
American Presidents: Life Portraits (C-SPAN)