(ODD)yssey, Blog Post

The man who was U.S. president for a day

Have you ever heard of the man who was president of our nation for one day? I’d heard the story before, about a politician from Missouri, and was reminded of it recently when Sweetums and I saw a marker near his birthplace while visiting Lexington, Kentucky.

So who was he and was he really president for a day?

David_Rice_Atchison_by_Mathew_Brady_March_1849 Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library Yale University
This 1849 photo of David Rice Atchison was taken by Mathew Brady. (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library Yale University)

David Rice Atchison was born in 1807 in Frogtown, near Lexington. He graduated from Transylvania University (yes, it’s real; more on that in another post). Atchison later moved to Missouri and became a lawyer and politician.

He was serving as president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate in March 1849 when there were a few hours between the presidency of James Polk and Zachary Taylor.

Polk’s time in office expired on March 3, a Saturday. Taylor did not want to be inaugurated on a Sunday and was scheduled to take the oath on Monday, March 5, as was his vice president, Millard Fillmore, according to History.com. That left Atchison, as senate president, third in line for the presidency.

Some claim that, for those few hours, Atchison was president by default.

Atchison-statue clinton county courthouse miss Americasroof wiki
A statue of David Rice Atchison at the Clinton County Courthouse in Plattsburg, Missouri. (Americasroof/Wikimedia Commons)

However, most historians agree that taking the oath of office before entering the presidency was a formality and that Taylor was officially president the minute Polk left office. Others say Atchison’s time as senate president had expired when Congress adjourned on March 3 so he was not in line for president. (He returned to his seat when Congress was once again in session).

It’s possible no one was president on March 4, 1849. Thankfully, not much happened. In fact, Atchison says he slept much of the day. Click here to see what the U.S. Senate has to say about the strange case.

Lexington’s marker is not the only tribute to Atchison. A statue in his likeness was erected outside the Clinton County Courthouse in Plattsburg, Missouri. Atchison died in 1886 and is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery in Plattsburg.

atchison wardnkathy waymarking
David Rice Atchison died in 1886 and is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery in Plattsburg. (Wardnkathy/Waymarking,com)
pres for day 2 we
A marker in a parking lot in Lexington, Kentucky, tells the story of David Atchison, a Missouri politician who may have been president for a day. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)

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