Monday, January 16, 2012

Hail To The Chief...David Rice Atchison?

William Henry Harrison is in the record books for having the shortest term of all the American Presidents. President Harrison served only one month as Commander in Chief, but did you know someone else served an even shorter term? Well there is a debate whether or not the shortest Presidential term is one day. How could someone be President for a day? Did they win some kind of mail-in contest? In reality, it only happened because of one man's refusal to be inaugurated on a Sunday. So here is to our, umm... 12th President, President David Rice Atchison.

Who is this mysterious former President of ours and how did he become President? David Rice Atichison was a career politician. He was born and raised a good ol' boy, and quite the pro-slavery advocate. He was born in Lexington, Kentucky and raised in Liberty, Missouri. He is a graduate of Transylvania University, where he rubbed elbows with many other future southern leaders, the most prominent being Jefferson Davis. He was a a very successful lawyer and was thrust into the spotlight after representing Joseph Smith in a land dispute case. With his achievements in the court rooms of Missouri, Atichison was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1834. There he worked the deal which would expand Missouri as far west as the Missouri River, which is it's current border today. He was also appointed as Major General of the Missouri State Militia and suppressed the Mormon War of 1838. By 1843 all of Atichison's work had got him elected to the U.S. Senate. Again, by the use of his character and hard work, Atichison had impressed his fellow Democrats and was made President pro tempore in 1845. It would be in 1849 that Atchison's life would be turned upside down... well at least for a day it was.

So Mr. President Atchison moved right on in the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave...sorta. How exactly did Atchison get the unique title of "President for One Day?" It all started when President James Polk, our 11th President, made his way out of office on Sunday March 4, 1849. Why did this happen? Well it has to do with incoming President Zachary Taylor, technically our 13th President, and his refusal to be sworn into office on a Sunday. Why was Taylor so against being sworn in on a Sunday? Well it wasn't a superstition of bad luck but it was his Christian faith which reserves Sunday as mankind's day of rest. The President's refusal to be sworn in wasn't that big of a deal, Vice President Millard Fillmore could be sworn in... but he sided with Taylor and also refused to be sworn in. What to do, what to do, the United States had no President and was surely on it's way to self destruction. Alas! There is a man who can run our nation in a time when there is no Presidential party in office, and that man is the President pro tempore a.k.a. David Rice Atchison. This position made Atchison acting Vice President and thus President of the United States. He was sworn in though on Sunday March 4, 1849 at twelve noon. Unfortunately for him and his Presidential term, he was sworn in only 24 hours before both President Taylor and Vice President Fillmore were officially sworn in thus ending Atchison's term. So can we say Atchison was the 13th President? I mean this argument could last days, so let's get Atchison's own view on what happened:

"It was in this way: Polk went out of office on the 3rd 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. 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. A great many such questions are liable to arise under our form of government."
Useless Information: David Atchison

That Monday, March 5, 1849 at 12pm eastern standard time Zachary Taylor was sworn in as President of the United States and David Rice Atchison's term was over. Yet even though he was no longer President, Atchison remained in Washington D.C. as President pro tempore until 1854. Atchison spent the rest of his time in D.C. and in politics defending the institution of slavery. Former Presidents usually take on a cause after their service to America... but slavery? I mean, I did mention before Atchison was a born and raised southerner. Atchison went on to be a leading voice for the annexation of Texas and the Texas War of Independence, which was directly a cause in support of the use and spread of slavery. He also tried to overturn the Compromise of 1850 and extend slavery into the newly formed states of Kansas and Nebraska. It was Atchison himself that influenced the popular sovereignty clause in the Missouri Comprise with the intended result begin the extension of slavery into the western states. Atchison was such a believer in his cause that he even formed his own militia, better known to history as "Border Ruffians." He and his "Ruffians" head out into Kansas and took over a voting station and forged over 10,000 votes in favor slave labor in Kansas. Atchison also established the pro-slavery settlement of Atchison, Kansas. Yet even with the actions of Atchison and many who shared his views, Kansas would enter the Union as a free state after an official vote was held. After his shenanigans in Kansas Atchison returned the Missouri and sough re-election for his senatorial set, which he would lose to James S. Green. With his political career over, what could Atchison do? Well the fight over slavery was boiling over, so he joined the ranks of the Confederate Army. There he was a general in the Missouri State Guard and saw limited action. He remained in service to the Rebel cause until retiring in 1862.

Atchison lived out the rest of his life on his farm outside Plattsburg, Missouri. He received no honoring burial that all former Presidents receive, but his grave markers heading says "President of the United States for One Day." And that is it, nothing more and nothing less. No statue or bust in Washington, not even on the honorable mention list for important names in American History. Usually I like to add something we can take away, but in the case of David Rice Atchison it is more just a really interesting fact about the U.S. Presidency. Atchison's name may be forgotten, well mainly because as President he did nothing but "go to bed." However, Atchison took on the responsibilities of President knowing it was just a temp position for him, but he still did it with pride, honor and tradition. Atchison's memory is big in Missouri and Kansas having a city and two counties named for him, a railroad line that runs from Atchison to Santa Fe and a bronze bust in the Missouri capital building. However to other Americans the name means nothing and his duty to America is unknown. Now, I am not saying Atchison needs a monument on the Mall or have his Presidential portrait hanging in the halls of the White House, but maybe his picture in a small frame on a credenza or maybe the Presidential Seal on his grave. President Atchison can be seen as America's greatest President to some extent, there was no economic problems, wars, social issues, natural disasters, or scandals during his Presidency. I know I am really reaching with that but it's true, name one other President that had results like that. So here is to the 12th President of the United States David Rice Atchison, may he be the example of how anyone at anytime can become President of the United States. 


  1. Mike this is a wicked article thanks for sharing, I found it really useful.. so much so that I have taken the liberty of referencing it and copying some comments into my own blog article, please could you let me have your permission (or not) many thanks for your consideration of my request. Thanks :-) Sincerely Steve

  2. Steve,it's not a problem, thanks for checking it out and I'm glad it could help you out