President for a Day

David Rice Atchison: few people know the name. Yet some claim that David Rice Atchison was a president of the United States, and that history books should recognize him as such.

The claim is made on the basis of this evidence:

Zachary Taylor won the presidential election of 1848. The four-year term of the outgoing President, James K. Polk, and his Vice President, George Mifflin Dallas (for whom the City of Dallas, Texas, is named), was to end at noon on March 4, 1849. Zachary Taylor was scheduled to take the presidential oath of office that same day.

But Taylor decided that he didn't want to take the oath of office on March 4 because it was a Sunday. He announced he would wait until the next day, Monday, March 5.

That mean that from noon on March 4, 1849, when Polk's term expired, until noon of March 5, when Taylor would be sworn in, there would be no elected President or Vice President in office.

A law had been enacted by Congress on March 1, 1792, that provided that "in case of the removal, death, resignation or disability of both the President and Vice President of the United States, the President of the Senate Pro Tempore shall act as President." (The Vice President resides over the Senate. The Senate selects a President Pro Tempore, a temporary President, who presides during the absence of the Vice President.)

The President of the Senate Pro Tempore at the time that Polk's term of office came to an end was David Rice Atchison. He served from noon on March 4, 1849, until Zachary Taylor took the oath of office at noon on March 5. David Rice Atchison was President for a day.

Although Atchison was never actually sworn in as President, never signed any legislation, and never lived in the White House, some people think that he deserves to be listed with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, Reagan and all the others.

Atchison died in 1886. The state of Missouri erected a monument in his honor. It bears this inscription: "David Rice Atchison. President of the U.S. for one day. Lawyer, statesman and jurist."

 

Adapted from Facts and Fun About the Presidents, by George Sullivan. (Copyright 1987. Published by Scholastic.)

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