Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor was born on January 28, 1948, in the Liberian town of Arthington outside Monrovia. His mother was a native of the country's Gola tribe, and his father was a descendent of the African-Americans that had settled in Liberia in the nineteenth century. Taylor's childhood was uneventful, save for having been expelled from prep school as a teenager. He developed an interest in the country's history and its connections with the United States, and in 1972 received a student visa to study there. He chose to arrive in Boston specifically because many of the freed slaves that colonized Liberia had left on ships from Massachusetts.

While studying at Newton's Chamberlayne Junior College, Taylor held a variety of odd jobs. In 1977, he graduated with a B.A. in economics from Bentley College. While a student at Bentley, he joined the Union of Liberian Associations and eventually became its national chairman. When William Tolbert, then the president of Liberia, visited the U.S. in 1979, Taylor led a demonstration outside the New York City mission of Liberia. Having noticed Taylor's protest, Tolbert invited him to a debate. Taylor was successful in the debate, but then got out of hand and wound up in jail. Rather than pressing charges against him, Tolbert invited Taylor to return to his homeland.

Taylor arrived in Liberia in the spring of 1980, just before the April 12 murder of the country's president. When army sergeant Samuel Doe took over the government, he selected Taylor as head of the General Services Agency. This post put Taylor in charge of purchasing for the Liberian government, but in May 1983 he was accused of embezzling nearly one million dollars into a Citibank account. He fled back to Massachusetts in October, but was arrested in 1984. Taylor was held in the Plymouth House of Corrections while awaiting extradition, but somehow managed to escape in September of 1985.

For the next four years, Charles Taylor remained underground. On Christmas Eve 1989, he returned to Liberia leading several hundred men , whom he called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. He claimed that he had returned to take over the government, and over the next seven months gained recruits and land along a path to Monrovia. When the NPFL entered Monrovia in July 1990, it split into two groups - one led by Taylor, and one led by Prince Johnson. It was Johnson's group that occupied the capital and executed Doe when he attempted to leave the country. A civil war followed for a few years, and a peace agreement was eventually signed in 1995. In July 1997, elections were held and Taylor was chosen as President with 75.3% of the vote.

Although he was not without troubles at home, Taylor chose to begin assisting rebel forces in nearby Sierra Leone. On June 4, 2003, a United Nations tribunal announced that they had indicted Taylor for war crimes connected to the ongoing unrest in West Africa. Taylor promised to give up his presidency and leave the country, possibly accepting asylum in Nigeria. He finally did so on August 11, relinquishing control of the country to Moses Blah, who had served as Taylor's vice president.