The Other 12th U.S. President David Rice Atchison Part 2

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


The Other 12th President



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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