Sunday, March 27, 2011

David Rice Atchison (President for a Day)

Congratulations to Roger (aka RTD), winner of yesterday's Person-of-Mystery contest!  And our first four time winner!

Imagine if you were President for a day?  What would you do?  My guess is that you probably wouldn't sleep the entire day, but that's exactly what David Rice Atchison did when he got the chance.

It all came about when James K. Polk's term expired at noon, March 4, 1849.  However, this was a Sunday, and President Elect Zachary Taylor, for religious reasons, refused to be sworn in until the next day.  So who was president?  No one really.  Times were different back then.  A little slower.

Technically, the presidential succession rules at the time had the President pro tempore of the United States Senate second in line after the Vice President (today this office is third in line).  David Rice Atchison was the former President pro tempore, so some people jokingly refer to him as President for the day of March 4, 1849, even though Atchison never considered himself President.

In September of 1882, "The Lever," a Plattsburg, Missouri newspaper ran an interview with Atchison about his famous day.  Atchison explained, "It was in this way:  Polk went out of office on the 3d of 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 Magnum 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.  A great many such questions are liable to arise under our form of government".

Atchison later told another reporter, that here had been no President that day and described his day, "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."

Atchison died in 1886 and is buried in Plattsburg, Missouri.  His grave marker reads, "President of the United States for One Day."