Friday, August 11, 2006

President for a Day -- Not!

A lawyer, slave-holding farmer, Democratic Missouri state legislator and judge, David Rice Atchison was appointed to the U.S. Senate to replace a senator who had died in 1843. His election to 5 consecutive terms as president pro tempore of the Senate beginning in 1845 made him eligible to take part in a persistent myth of presidential trivia.

The myth goes that after the expiration of President James K. Polk's term in office on Saturday, March 3, 1849, Polk's successor, president-elect Zachary Taylor, refused to be sworn in on Sunday, March 4 for religious reasons; under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, so the theory goes, in the event of a vacancy, the president pro tempore would act as president.

Not unlike the claims the Continental Congress president John Hanson was the true first president of the U.S., the legal analysis upon which many people seem to conclude that Atchison (as president pro tempore) was president for a day is flimsy at best: nothing in the Constitution at that time required an incoming president to take the oath of office on any particular day (only that the oath be taken before the assumption of actual duties); certainly Atchison didn't take an oath of office to fulfill the duties of the president on March 4, 1849; and there is even some question as to whether Atchison was officially serving as president pro tempore on March 4 (his term having expired, technically, on March 3, his reelection occurring on Monday, March 5). Atchison, for his own part, never seriously believed that he had acted as president for the day, and in fact spent most of March 4, 1849 asleep.

Subsequently, however, some have stubbornly clung to the myth, including the 1913 edition of the Biographical Congressional Directory as well as Missouri governor Sam Baker, who in 1928 went to Atchison's home town of Plattsburgh to dedicate a $15,000 statue of Atchison commemorating his 24-hour presidency.

David Rice Atchison was born on this day in 1807 in Frogtown, Kentucky, and died on January 26, 1886 in Gower, Missouri.

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