The Case for President David Rice Atchison
Historians have long debated whether or not Missouri Senator David Rice Atchison held the distinction of "President for a Day." This article looks at all sides of the story that has rattled presidential history.
March 4, 1849 dawned another day for the United States of America. A lot had changed since the Declaration of Independence was signed more than seventy-two years before. Factory workers in New England helped spur on rapid industrial innovation. In the South, unpaid and brutal slave labor helped boost an agrarian economy. And a little over one year prior to that morning, a rugged carpenter found gold flakes in the American River at Sutter’s Mill. A new day promised hope that the budding country would continue on its path towards world domination.
Which begs the question: who was leading the charge from the Executive Mansion? At this consequential moment in history, who was at the head of this bustling empire that is growing at breakneck speed?
Well, not exactly. The answer to this question was debated for years by senators and constitutional scholars. Some believed that the office was indeed vacant on March 4, 1849. Others gave the honor to the rightfully elected twelfth president, Zachary Taylor. But there are still a few that insist that there was another man who inherited the dubious distinction of being the only “President for a Day.” His name? David Rice Atchison.
The Senator from Missouri
The man who has graced the pages of numerous publications for his unsubstantiated title was born on August 11, 1807 near Lexington, Kentucky. He proved to be a gifted student, attending Transylvania University alongside five others that would become Senators. After Atchison passed the bar exam in 1829, the young lawyer moved out to western Missouri to farm and practice his profession.
Atchison quickly made a name for himself in the frontier state of Missouri. He soon counted among his clients Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon faith, and helped settle land disputes around the countryside. His reputation earned him a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives and appointment of Major General in the Missouri militia during the infamous Mormon War of 1838.
At the age of 36, Atchison was called to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat. His appointment exemplified the youth and expansion of America - he was both the youngest and first western Missourian to enter that storied chamber. Despite his youth, Atchison won friends and confidants in Washington. In 1845, less than two years into his first term, his fellow Senators elected him President pro tempore (1).
This title usually held little sway. Atchison’s duties were simply to stand in place for the Vice President if the official were not around to do so. Generally, the Vice President was around to conduct his duties, which were very minimal. According to Article I, Section III, Clause IV of the Constitution, “[t]he Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided” (2). There were very rare moments in which the Vice President was called to contribute to any debate, which prompted the first vice president, John Adams, to claim that the job was “the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived” (3).
Yet, the President pro tempore held a lucrative position politically, if the circumstances were dire enough. Due to the succession processes of that time, the President pro tempore was second in line to the President. This may seem to be an anomaly - it may baffle readers to comprehend that one of the closest lifelines to the most important position in the history of the Western Hemisphere was at one point someone who rarely performed any executorial decisions. But the theory was sound. Senators were supposed to represent the most distinguished legislators in the country, and the President pro tempore was supposed to represent a Senator capable enough and respected enough to preside amongst his distinguished colleagues. Atchison was affable, well-liked, and disposed to support Southern causes - which was necessary for nearly any type of congressional leadership during the time period. No wonder the Missouri Senator was chosen for that position 13 times (4)!
Just as another stormy session of Congress was wrapping up, Vice President George M. Dallas decided to depart before the final push for last-ditch bills. On March 2, he took leave of the Senate. At that very moment, Thomas Hart Benton, “Old Bullion” and fellow Missouri Senator, rose and nominated Atchison to fill the chair of President pro tempore. Atchison, as he had previously done, took his seat in the presiding chair, giving a short speech. “I cannot refrain from returning to you my heartfelt thanks for the repeated honors you have conferred on me,” Atchison remarked, “and I can only renew the pledge that I made when this honor was first conferred on me - that I will endeavor to discharge the duties of the station faithfully and impartially” (5). With that, Atchison gave his inaugural address and was officially first in the line to the presidency.
It was on March 4, 1849, when Atchison felt the power that the President pro tempore wielded in American government.
The notion that Atchison may have been “President for a Day” arises from two confusing sources of constitutional overlap and interpretation.
One root cause of the confusion laid in the conclusion of the administration of President James K. Polk. Starting in 1793, the date of the congressional and presidential inauguration was set on March 4. After a period of four years, the next federal term would commence, with the inauguration again taking place on the fourth of March. Long-standing tradition insisted that these terms ended at midnight on the evening of March 3, just as the interval was wrapping up. The 30th Congress, however, had other plans. On the night of March 3, 1849, Congress didn’t adjourn at midnight. As time passed and morning drew nearer, the House and Senate continued attempting to rapidly produce any bills left over from the session. President Polk, who awaited these bills at the Capitol, grew uneasy as his term arguably expired. Nevertheless, he continued processing and signing bills into law past the twelve o’clock threshold. By the time Polk set his pen down on his desk, effectively closing his “official term as President,” it was 6 AM. Congress would finally adjourn less than an hour later, the Senate suspending operations under the gavel of Atchison just before seven in the morning (6). Keep this in mind for later….
This confusion was compounded on by another tradition that dated back to 1821. March 4, 1821 fell on a Sunday, and Sunday had always been (and continues to be) a day of rest from the stresses of everyday life in the Christian tradition. James Monroe, who had been reelected almost unanimously to a second term, was confused on how he should proceed. He sought out the advice of his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Chief Justice John Marshall. Adams favored postponement, and Marshall gave his verdict. The Chief Justice was in “favor of postponing the oath till Monday unless some official duty should require it being taken on Sunday” (7). Monroe acted on the recommendation, and was sworn in for his second term on Monday, March 5, 1821.
Zachary Taylor was a man that sought to respect his predecessors’ examples and adhere to tradition. Since March 4, 1849 fell again on a Sunday, Taylor ultimately honored Monroe’s precedent and informed Congress that he would similarly refrain from taking the oath until noon on Monday the fifth. Had he known the pains of historians years later, he may have acted differently. But the triviality of the situation was so minute that neither Taylor nor any other politician paid attention to it at the time.
In the midst of confusion, it seems logical that someone was the rightful leader of the United States on March 4. And so, we return to our hero and President pro tempore Atchison, the man that would cement his name in the history books through his valiant leadership in this hour of importance. Being “President for a Day” stimulates the minds of many Americans, hoping to hold an office and live a lifestyle that has become unmatched in the political world. How did our David spend the day?
Remember how Sunday has been considered the day of rest in the Christian faith? “President” Atchison adhered to that principle during his infamous twenty-four hours of fame. “I went to bed,” Atchison recounted to a newspaper reporter years later. “There had been two or three busy nights finishing up the work of the Senate, and I slept most of that Sunday” (8).
Any proclamations? No. Important foreign treaties? Nope. Legislative agendas? Zero. “President” Atchison rather accomplished what drowsy teenagers crave: a long and peaceful nap. Many a president must have also desired that indulgence multiple times throughout their administration.
At least “President” Atchison was methodical in his approach to the office. He could reliably recount that his was “the honestest administration this country ever had” (9) Indeed, Atchison never lied to or misled the public. His integrity remained beyond reproach after his “presidency” ended, which no other president could rightfully claim.
March 4, 1849 passed peacefully in the United States. The next morning saw thousands of interested onlookers gathered under an overcast sky to witness the swearing-in of “Old Rough and Ready,” the war hero turned President. A well-rested Atchison must have exchanged glances with the tourists on his way to the Capitol that morning and chuckled. He must have delighted in the knowledge that his unique position was unknown to nearly all around him.
Historical and logistical debates would follow, but after witnessing the ceremonies and inauguration of Vice President Millard Fillmore and then finally President Zachary Taylor, Atchison’s shaky claim to his prosperous administration evaporated into thin air. His day in the sun - or under the covers - was no more. He would go back to his post in the Senate, and return to the normal task of legislating for his constituents.
A Final Verdict
As normalcy returned to Washington and President Taylor settled in, politicians and scholars began their investigation into the dynamics of the Presidency on March 4, 1849. It didn’t take too long for senators to remark upon the interesting conundrum. Senator Hopkins Turney from Tennessee suggested that “at the very moment that the third day of March terminated… [the United States was] without a Chief Magistrate” (10). Another line of reasoning delineated from Lewis Cass, the Michigan Democrat who lost the election to Taylor in 1848. Taylor indeed was President of the United States starting on March 4 because he had “just as much right to be sworn in at one o’clock in the morning of Monday, as he had at ten, eleven, or twelve o’clock” (11). But where did Atchison enter this discussion?
A Philadelphia Press article from over a century ago provided this entrance, sparking the arguments and narratives that were to follow. The most striking theme from the article rests in the certainty of Atchison’s claim. According to the publication, “it was held by Congress that the functions of the President must devolve upon [Atchison] from Sunday noon till Monday noon, and for these twenty-four hours he had the distinction of being President of the United States, having all the functions and powers of that office.” Later on, the author declares that “there was no doubt” that Atchison considered himself President, “for on Monday morning, when the Senate reassembled he sent to the White House for the seal of the great office and signed one or two official papers as President.” These papers were inconsequential and solely had to deal with Taylor’s inauguration, but the claim that Atchison used the presidential seal to officially imprint his approval of documentation is definitely intriguing.
The publication also stated that Atchison joked with his Democratic cronies about “calling the army to his back and preventing ‘Old Ironsides’ [Taylor] from being sworn in.” Of course, Atchison could never have realistically exercised these ambitions even if he tried to - but the article’s premise asserts the possibility and theoretical execution (12).
With the exposition of this newfound claim, historians and scholars had their curiosities piqued. They began to scan our founding documents to see if we had to revise our books and count Atchison alongside Washington and Lincoln.
The stickier situation was the validity of Polk’s continuance in office after midnight on March 3. Chief Justice Marshall had commented on this transition process when advising Monroe in 1821. Marshall stressed that the time of the swearing-in ceremony was at the discretion of the officer. But he did specify what time a new president could take the oath of office. “The term of the actual President will expire, and that of the President elect commence, at twelve in the night of the 3d of March” (13). According to this reading, Polk had no business signing bills into law six hours past midnight on the morning of March 4, 1849. But his cabinet and other senators had persuaded him to remain at his post and to take a more lenient view of the wording in the Constitution (14). In doing so, Polk and his advisors made their final mark in the expansion of executive power by disobeying the Court’s prior ruling in the name of efficiency. It would take until 1933 for the Twentieth Amendment to officially designate that the presidential cycle would reset at noon of Inauguration Day, leaving any dated precedent out to pasture (15).
“Few words are needed to dispose of any claim for a place for Atchison in the line of presidents. Atchison’s term as Senator had expired with the ending of the thirtieth Congress, early on the morning of Sunday March 4” (16). Therefore, as Atchison caught Z’s and completed what had been previously considered to be one of the most subjectively successful presidential administrations in history, he in fact had no title to the Presidency whatsoever. This, in addition to multiple other factors (ambiguities in the devolution of the title of President to a lineal successor, strict reading into the four year term delineated by the Constitution, Atchison’s failure to affirm or swear the oath of office, and the proposal by historian Charles Warren that a lack of a presidential oath doesn’t prevent the new administration from commencing), has helped historians widely agree that David Rice Atchison was not the twelfth President of the United States (17).
But in this junior historian’s opinion, the case for President Atchison is not totally lost. Here is some food for thought; during the nearly hour-long period between the moment President Polk signed his last official document and the adjournment of the 30th Congress, there was one man that held the prestigious office of President pro tempore. And on March 5, just before Vice President Fillmore took his oath of office, that same man was called to preside over the proceedings (18). Atchison truthers could point to these precious moments and theoretically state that their “President” was indeed the highest officer and enforcer in American government, and consequently the driver behind progress in America. It isn’t the magical twenty-four hours worth of peace and harmony that they are accustomed to citing. But, that little hour may be able to actually justify their creed. As the Rolling Stones once said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”
After his storied stint, Atchison would be once again considered an important figure in the succession practices of the Presidency. After Vice President William R. King of Alabama passed away in April 1853, President pro tempore Atchison would yet again be first in line to the office under Franklin Pierce until December 1854 (19).
His reputation became scarred by the effects of the sectional tensions that were threatening to tear the country apart. Atchison purportedly worked alongside Stephen Douglas to craft the lethal Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the two territories to decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery or not.
After failing to retain his Senate seat in 1855, Atchison returned to western Missouri, where he would personally get involved in the conflict that he helped to create. To ensure slavery’s adoption in Kansas, Atchison took charge of pro-slavery forces in his home state. He led Border Ruffian invasions into the territory to taint the natural voting processes, telling his compatriots to “kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district” if necessary. For this, Atchison was vilified by men that once admired him in Congress. The final nail in the coffin came at the time of crisis. Atchison sided with secessionists, and actively led Confederate forces in the fight to maintain slavery. He passed away on January 26, 1886, troubled by the effects of his decision to leave the Union during the great struggle of the Civil War (20).
But despite the treachery, David Rice Atchison’s life and legacy lives on. Although the Senator verifiably emphasized that he “made no pretense to the office,” a plaque upon his gravestone reads “President of the United States for One Day, Sunday, March 4, 1849” alongside his name. The Clinton County Courthouse displays a similar marker engraved in a statue (21). Towns and counties have been named in his honor. The most intriguing enshrinement, however, is the David Rice Atchison Presidential Library, which is the self-promoted “world’s smallest presidential library” run by the Atchison County Historical Society (22). These monuments may be small, but it is refreshing to see how good people continue to keep history alive through local historical initiatives. The legacy of “President” Atchison is being preserved by those who have the resources to do so, and it is comforting to find. The Zachary Taylor Project hopes that all presidents may one day have that same luxury.
David Rice Atchison. (2020, January 29). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Rice_Atchison
Grave of David Rice Atchison. (2017, January 9). Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/grave-of-david-rice-atchison
Klein, C. (2013, February 18). The 24-Hour President. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/the-24-hour-president
Mikkelson, D. (n.d.). President for a Day. Retrieved from https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/president-for-a-day/
President for a Day. (2019, July 23). Retrieved from https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/President_For_A_Day.htm
Stathis, S. W. (1985). Our Sunday Inaugurations. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 15(1), 12–24.
Townsend, J. W. (1910). History of David Rice Atchison of Kentucky. Register of Kentucky State Historical Society, 8(23), 37–44.
U.S. Constitution. Art. I, Sec. III, Cla. IV. Retrieved from the National Constitution Center.
1. Wikipedia “David Rice Atchison”
2. Constitution I.III.IV
3. NPG “Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams”
4. U.S. Senate “President for a Day”
5. Townsend 43
6. Stathis 14-15
7. Stathis 14
8. Mikkelson “President for a Day”
9. U.S. Senate “President for a Day”
10. Stathis 14
11. Stathis 16
12. Townsend 43
13. Stathis 13
14. Stathis 15
15. Stathis 13
16. Stathis 15
17. Stathis 16
18. Klein “The 24-Hour President”
19. Townsend 43
20. Wikipedia “David Rice Atchison”
21. Atlas Obscura “Grave of David Rice Atchison”
22. Klein “The 24-Hour President”