Monday, June 18, 2012

The Man Who Was President for a Day

In the United States, the process of succession for the presidency is taken seriously. So seriously in fact, that there are 18 people in line to take over...should anything happen to the person in front. Every precaution is taken to ensure that there is no chaos in the event that the president should die. (An event that has happened four times, with Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy.)

Zachary Taylor, 12th president
Up until the 1930s, all presidential and congressional terms would commence at noon on March 4 of the year following an election year. Zachary Taylor, former major general from the Mexican-American War, was elected president in 1848. The following year, March 4 fell on a Sunday. Taylor refused to be sworn in on a Sunday, choosing instead to wait until the following day, Monday, for his inauguration.

This left the United States in a positon it had never been before. If things stayed as President-elect Taylor wanted, there would have been a single day when there was no president.

In today's line of succession, the vice-president is next in line, followed by the speaker of the house and then the president pro tempore of the Senate. The Constitution of the United States says that the vice-president is also the president of the Senate and presides over the Senate sessions. The president pro tempore is elected to preside over the Senate when the vice-president is absent. 

David Rice Atchison, 12th president?
In 1849, the president pro tempore was third in line of succession, and in that role was Senator David Atchison, a Democrat from Kansas City, Missouri. Senator Atchison was elected to the Senate in 1843 and was elected president pro tempore 13 different times, including on March 2, 1849.

With no president or vice-president from noon on March 4, 1849 until noon on March 5, 1849, Atchison technically became acting president. Opponents of the president for a day theory say that, technically, Atchison's Senate term also expired on March 4 at noon, and he never took the oath of office.

On an interesting side note, when Franklin Pierce, 13th President of the United States, suffered through his vice-president, William King, passing away after six weeks in office, Atchison, technically, became acting vice-president. Pierce wouldn't officially appoint another vice-president until his second inauguration, on March 4, 1857, when he selected John C. Breckinridge.

Atchison never stopped talking about and embellishing the story of his "one-day presidency." A statue in Kansas City, erected in his honor at the Clinton County Courthouse, has an inscription on it that reads: 

David Rice Atchison, 1807-1886, President of United States One Day.


  1. Interesting thought, but on terms of technicality I think congressional terms also ended on the 4th of March at noon right? That is what I noticed. I would embellish that stuff too!

  2. Right you are, Quackster. I think the coolest part of this story was that Atchison was also acting vice-president! Even if he never took the oath, he has more of a legit claim to being a vice-president than a president. Still, an interesting part of U.S. history. Wild, but 100 percent true!