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President for a Day?

Of the 44 men who have so far served as President of the United States, Historians generally agree that the term of William Henry Harrison, which lasted from March 4, 1841 to his death on April 4, 1841, was the shortest.  “But wait!” says the trivia collector at the end of the bar, ready to take bets from all patrons, because he knows that’s wrong. “I can name a president who held the job less than that!” “No!” respond the other customers, sure that the old souse doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  But he does—sort of. So when the bar patrons place their bets, the old souse offers up a name, and the arguing begins.

The name, of course, is David Rice Atchison, a Democratic senator from Missouri, and the storied “president for a day.”  Your school textbooks and restaurant placemats with the portraits of all the presidents might never have mentioned him, but he was real, and quite popular in his day.  He was popular enough in the Senate for his colleagues to elect him President Pro Tempore in 1846, a position he held until 1849. The President Pro Tempore is the second-in-command of the Senate, sort of the vice president of the Senate, if you will.  The Vice President of the United States is the President of the Senate, so when the Vice President isn’t around, the President Pro Tempore runs the show. The powers of this position have varied throughout the history of the country, but the one aspect of the President Pro Tempore that is identified in the Constitution that is germane to this story is that he or she is second in line to the presidency, after the Vice President.  (This was the case in 1849, anyway. The law has since been changed, and today, the Speaker of the House is second in line; the President Pro Tempore is third.)

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Senator David Rice Atchison (D-MO).

In 1848, President James K. Polk kept a campaign promise and declined to seek a second term.  That year, General Zachary Taylor was elected to succeed him, but as he got his new administration in order, President-Elect Taylor saw a problem: his Inauguration Day, March 4, 1849, would fall on a Sunday.  The Constitution has no problem with this, but Taylor, a religious man, refused to be inaugurated on the sabbath. Taylor would give his inaugural address on Monday, March 5, and his soul could rest easy.

So who was President on Sunday?  President Polk’s term was over, so he and Vice President Dallas were private citizens again.  If the President-Elect hadn’t yet met with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and been sworn in, who was President?  Obviously it was the next person on the presidential succession list, right? Some then believed that Atchison was the Acting President of the United States, and would be until the inaugural the next day.

Constitutional scholars dispute the claims of our barfly, and hold that even though Taylor didn’t take the oath of office right away, he was still President, whether or not he wanted to do anything about it right away.  Atchison himself never made a serious claim to having held the office, though even at the time, some people thought he could. Atchison had nothing to say about it on March 4, 1849. For his part, he’d just finished a few long days of work in the Senate, and spent most of his “presidency” sleeping.  His colleague and former Senator Pro Tem Willie Magnum of North Carolina is said to have woken him up that Sunday afternoon to jokingly congratulate him on becoming President, and could the new President perhaps appoint him as his Secretary of State?

President Taylor was sworn in on Monday, March 5, and Senator Atchison went back to (well, technically, stayed in) the Senate, and Zachary Taylor, not David Rice Atchison, is remembered as our twelfth President.  This hasn’t stopped some from claiming that Atchison held the office of the presidency, though. Even his gravestone notes that he was “President of the United States for one day”.  In 2006, the Atchison County Historical Museum opened in Atchison, Kansas (which was named for David Rice Atchison) and immediately started billing itself as “the smallest presidential library”.  This seems appropriate for a man who was said to have been president for such a small amount of time, and who is actually believed to have been president by such a small number of people!

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The grave of “President” Atchison.  Note how it gives the day of the week his “presidency” fell on.

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