Be sure to check out the David Rice Atchison Family Tree. Includes additional links.
A nice summary can be found in the book The People's Almanac #2 by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace (1978, William Morrow and Company, pages 178-179).
There is a brief discussion about Atchison's presidency in the book The Straight Dope by Cecil Adams (p. 134-35, Ballantine Books, 1984).
of the United States for just one short day.
Quick: Who were the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth Presidents of the United States (under our current Constitution)? If you're like the typical American, you probably have no clue.
So here's a refresher for you:
#11 was James K. Polk
#12 was David Rice Atchison
#13 was Zachary Taylor
Hold it! I can hear you screaming all the way over here - David Rice who?
They never taught you about this guy in history class. In fact, they said that Taylor was Prez #12, not #13.
What's going on here?
First, a bit of background:
David Rice Atchison was born on August 11, 1807 in a place named Frogtown, Kentucky. Today it is called Kirklevington (They should have stuck with Frogtown).
At the young age of 36, Atchison was appointed to the United States Senate to replace a Missouri Senator that had just died. He held this office for 12 years, from 1843 to 1855.
Then it happened:
President James Knox Polk was scheduled to step down from office at noon on Sunday, March 4, 1849.
Uh, oh! BIG problem!
It seems that President-elect Zachary Taylor was a religious man and refused to be sworn in on a Sunday. It was the Sabbath. Taylor insisted on waited until the following day.
The big question arose: Who was going to serve as the President during this twenty-four hour period?
Normally, the Vice-President (George M. Dallas at the time) would fill the position, but his term expired along with Polk's. Dallas had actually resigned as President of the Senate on Friday, March 2nd.
Under the law, the Presidency then fell to the President Pro Tem of the Senate. You can guess who that was - David Rice Atchison! Atchison had just been elected for an additional term to this office during the closing hours of the Thirtieth Congress.
As a result, Atchison legally became the President for a twenty-four hour period, even though he was never elected to this office or sworn in. That's a daguerreotype of Atchison on the right.
Now if you were President for a day, what would you do? Declare war on some dinky little nation? Bomb your enemies? Appoint your friends to office? Make some weird executive decision?
Atchison did none of these things. When asked what he did on this day, he commented "I went to bed. There had been two or three busy nights finishing up the work of the Senate, and I slept most of that Sunday."
In other words, this particular day was uneventful in American history. No major executive decisions needed to be made.
Many, including Atchison, have questioned whether or not he was actually President. Technically, Atchison was appointed as President Pro Tem for each session of the Senate. Since the previous session of the Senate had been dismissed, one could claim that Atchison's term had expired (even though he was to continue in this role when the Senate reconvened for the next session).
This leads to a very interesting question: If there was no President, Vice-President, President Pro Tem, a dismissed Senate, and a dismissed House of Representatives - Who in the world was running this country?
Even if one could prove that Atchison wasn't President for the twenty-four hour period between the two Presidents, he definitely had the job for several minutes.
On Inauguration Day the first person to be sworn in was David Rice Atchison as President Pro Tem. So now he was definitely President (congratulations!). Atchison then ended this short stint as President with the swearing-in of the new Vice-President, Millard Fillmore (he would become President in just sixteen months following the natural death of Zachary Taylor). The entire Senate then proceeded to the east portico for the inauguration of the new President.
So ends the reign of one David Rice Atchison as the leader of the United States. We may never truly know for sure if he actually was President for that short period of time, but, let's face it, it makes for a better story to think that he was.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
If you liked this story, please check out