The Other 12th U.S. President David Rice Atchison Part 1

About the man who was president for a day David Rice Atchison, history and biography.


The Other 12th President



Born: Aug. 11, 1807. He was the eldest of six children. His father came from Ireland, his mother from Georgia. The place of his birth was Frogtown, Ky., which changed its name to Fayetteville after a visit by the Marquis de Lafayette 18 years later. Today the town is called Kirklevington.

Died: Jan. 26, 1886, Gower, Mo. Several years before his death, he wrote a friend: "I will be 75 years of age in three months, my health is not good. I have been more or less paralyzed for two years and can scarcely write at all. My senses & faculties are more or less blunted. My head is white as snow. My face wrinkled, I am ready for the narrow house."


After graduating from Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., Atchison was expected to enter the ministry. Instead, he studied law, practiced it, and took up acting as an avocation. At 23 he moved to Missouri. There he was elected to the state legislature. He was appointed a major general in the Missouri militia. At 35 he was made a circuit judge, holding court in five counties. At 36 he was appointed to the U.S. Senate to replace a senator who had died. Atchison served in the Senate for 12 years, from 1843 to 1855.

His Person: He never married. After giving up politics, he boarded with a deceased brother's widow and was her son's guardian.

He was a tall, handsome man with bushy black hair, a high brow, full eyebrows, large eyes, a straight prominent nose, wide mouth, and slight jowls. A military friend described Atchison at 36 as "a man of imposing presence, six feet, two inches high. He was the soul of honor, a fine conversationalist, and possessed a great memory. As a man he was plain, jovial, and simple in his tastes."


Atchison was never elected president of the U.S. He succeeded to the office by accident--and is renowned for having served as president for one day. The facts are these: Atchison had been elected president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate 15 times, and he was president pro tempore in March, 1849. Pres. James K. Polk spent his last day as president on Mar. 3, 1849, and as midnight tolled and Sunday, Mar. 4, began, Polk was out of office. Meanwhile, his successor, Gen. Zachary Taylor, a staunch Episcopalian, refused to be sworn in on Mar. 4 because it was a Sunday, and preferred to celebrate his inauguration on Monday, Mar. 5. The U.S. was faced with a full-day gap between presidents. According to the law, when the presidential and the vice-presidential offices were not filled, the president pro tempore of the Senate automatically became the president of the U.S. Since Senator Atchison of Missouri was president pro tempore of the Senate, he automatically became president of the U.S. for the single day of Mar. 4, 1849.


What happened during his 24-hour term of office? There was no domestic or foreign crisis to disturb him. Several Senate colleagues jestingly suggested policies he should pursue or requested cabinet posts. But for most of his abbreviated term, Atchison slept. As he told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat some years later: "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."


George Stimpson, a Washington, D.C., writer and researcher, insisted Atchison was never actually president. Wrote Stimpson: "The Constitution says that the President shall be elected in a certain manner and that before he shall enter upon the execution of his office he shall take a prescribed oath, but it does not say when this oath shall be taken. The Constitution gives Congress the power to provide by law who shall act as President in case of the death, removal, resignation or disability of both President and Vice-President at the time when Atchison is supposed to have been President. Atchison was never elected President and the so-called Presidential succession law could not go further than the Constitution itself. There is no more reason for saying that Atchison was President for a day than there is for saying that Secretary of State Hughes was President under the present law for the brief time between Harding's death and the time Vice-President Coolidge took the oath at Plymouth, Vt."

Atchison himself seemed to be of two minds about his unusual term as chief executive. On one occasion he seemed to agree that he had been president for a day (although he may have been joking). On another occasion, he doubted that he could legally have succeeded to the presidency since his period as president of the Senate had expired on Mar. 3 and he was not reelected president pro tempore until Mar. 5, so he, too, may have been out of his office and the line of succession on Mar. 4, 1849.

Nevertheless, the Biographical Congressional Directory, published in Washington, D.C., in 1913, called Atchison the "legal President of the United States for one day."

In 1928 the governor of Missouri and other state dignitaries went to Plattsburg to dedicate a $15,000 statue to Atchison and his brief term as chief executive of the nation.


Atchison was devoted to farming and to the cause of slavery. In his later years, he managed a 1,500-acre farm. Preemancipation, he owned 16 slaves and four slave cabins. He once said, "As a senator from Missouri, and as a citizen of a slave state, it is my duty to resist every attempt to change her institutions, and every assault upon her rights." He fought briefly for the Confederacy in the Civil War.


Beyond his disputed occupancy of the office of president, the highest position Atchison ever held was that of unofficial vice-president of the U.S. When Franklin Pierce was elected president in 1852, his vice-president was William R. King. After the election, King fell ill with tuberculosis and went down to Cuba for his health. On inauguration day, King was too sick to return to Washington, D.C. Therefore, Congress passed a special act allowing King to be sworn in as vice-president on foreign soil. King remained ill in Cuba, unable to serve, and shortly after he returned to the U.S., he died in Albama. Atchison unofficially succeeded him as vice-president and held his position of first in line of succession from April, 1853, to December, 1854.

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