David Rice Atchison

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David Rice Atchison

David Rice Atchison (August 11, 1807 - January 26, 1886) was a mid-19th century Democratic United States Senator from Missouri. Frequently serving as President Pro Tempore of the Senate, he is best known as the focus of an urban legend claiming that, for one day, he was de jure President of the United States.


Early Life and Senate Career

Born in Frogtown (now named Kirklevington), Fayette County, Kentucky, Atchison became a lawyer and farmer in western Missouri who also served in the state legislature and as a circuit-court judge. He was appointed to the United States Senate to replace a Missouri Senator who had just died. He held this office from 1843 to 1855. He became the first senator from western Missouri and at age 36 the youngest Missourian at that time to enter the U.S. Senate.

President for a day... or was he?

Basis of the Urban Legend

Some claim that Atchison technically was President of the United States for one day - Sunday, March 4, 1849. Outgoing President James Polk's term expired at noon on that day, and his successor, Zachary Taylor, refused to be sworn into office on the sabbath (Sunday). Taylor's Vice Presidential running mate, Millard Fillmore, likewise was not inaugurated.

As President Pro Tempore of the Senate from the prior U.S. Congress, under the presidential succession law in place at the time Atchison could have been seen as next in line.

Facts behind the Legend

While it is true that the offices of President and Vice President were vacant, Atchison in fact was not next in line. While the terms of James K. Polk and Vice President George Mifflin Dallas expired at noon on March 4, Atchison's tenure as President Pro Tempore did as well. He also never took the oath of office, although there is no constitutional requirement, then or now, for an Acting President to do so. No disability or lack of qualification prevented Taylor and Fillmore from taking office, and as they had been duly certified as President-elect and Vice-President elect, if Taylor was not President because he had not been sworn in as such, then Atchison, who hadn't been sworn in either, certainly wasn't.

The highest-ranking officer who legally continued in office during the interim was Polk's Secretary of State, James Buchanan, so one could argue that he was President for a day. Interestingly, Buchanan was actually elected President in his own right in 1856.

Atchison was sworn in for his new term as President Pro Tem minutes before both Fillmore and Taylor, which might theoretically make him Acting President for at least that length of time; however, this also implies that any time the Vice President is sworn in before the President, the Vice President is the de facto Acting President. Since this is a common occurrence, if Atchison is considered President, so must every Vice President whose inauguration preceded that of the President. Obviously this is not the case. Therefore, while one could argue that Atchison was legally President for a few minutes (though even this much is debatable), claims that he should be considered an "official" President are absurd.

When asked what he did on March 4, 1849, Atchison replied, "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." He jokingly boasted that his "presidency" was the "most honest administration this country ever had."

President pro tempore

Atchison served as President pro tempore of the United States Senate during thirteen sessions of that body. During the time of Atchison's service, a President Pro Tempore was elected at the start of each session:

David Rice Atchison's tombstone.
David Rice Atchison's tombstone.


He is buried in his home of Plattsburg, Missouri, where a statue honors him in front of the Clinton County Courthouse. His grave marker reads "President of the United States for One Day."

Atchison, Kansas is named for him. The town subsequently gave its name to the famous Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad.

External links

de:David Rice Atchison pl:David Rice Atchison


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