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The One-Day President (?)

By Rebecca Price Janney, May 23 2018 01:24PM

Maybe each of us gets our “fifteen minutes of fame” at least once during our lifetimes, but one 19th century fellow’s claim to fame leans in the direction of twenty-four hours.

David Rice Atchison actually had a pretty illustrious (if not controversial) career—attorney, Democrat member of U.S. House of Representatives, Major General in the Missouri State Militia, Brigadier General (Confederate) during the Civil War.

In 1845 he became President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, placing him third in the line of succession to the Presidency. Whenever the Vice President was absent, Atchison presided over the Senate for him. Back in 1849, the Kentucky native became caught up in a rather loopy chain of events just as his Senate term was ending. At noon on March 3rd, President James K. Polk’s tenure ended. However, the incoming Chief Executive, Zachary Taylor, refused to be inaugurated on a Sunday.

In a September 1872 newspaper article, Atchison discussed what happened, with a slight tongue in cheek:

It was in this way: Polk went out of office on 3 March 1849, on Saturday at 12 noon. The next day, the 4th, occurring on Sunday, Gen. Taylor was not inaugurated. He was not inaugurated till Monday, the 5th, at 12 noon. It was then canvassed among Senators whether there was an interregnum (a time during which a country lacks a government). It was plain that there was either an interregnum or I was the President of the United States being chairman of the Senate, having succeeded Judge Mangum of North Carolina. The judge waked me up at 3 o'clock in the morning and said jocularly that as I was President of the United States he wanted me to appoint him as secretary of state. I made no pretense to the office, but if I was entitled in it I had one boast to make, that not a woman or a child shed a tear on account of my removing any one from office during my incumbency

of the place.

Most historians say that technically Atchison never really served as President for one day, but I think this is one quirky, historical asterisk worth repeating.

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