Senator David Rice Atchison is President For a Day: March 4, 1849

David Rice Atchison in 1849
Mathew Brady

Missouri Senator David Rice Atchison was US President for one day on this date in 1849. Or so it was claimed by Atchison’s friends and associates. The truth is a little bit more complicated. On March 4 at noon, outgoing president James K. Polk’s term ended. However, because the 4th was a Sunday, the inauguration ceremony (and thus the oath of office) was put off until the next day, March 5. Zachary Taylor was the incoming president, and he did not take the oath of office until March 5. As Atchison explained to a reporter in 1872: “It was then canvassed among Senators whether there was an interregnum (a time during which a country lacks a government). 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.”

Those who have claimed Atchison was president for the day say that because he was President pro tempore of the Senate at the time, and because the previous vice president, George M. Dallas, had also exited office, he was next in line for the White House. It should be noted that in 1849, President pro tempore was ahead of Speaker of the House in succession.

Unfortunately for Atchison, legal scholars and historians almost unanimously dispute that he was ever acting president. The common view is that the incoming president’s term begins regardless of if they have taken the oath of office or not. Even if one does hold that the oath is required, scholars argue, Atchison himself never took it, so he could no more have been president that day than Taylor according to this logic. Furthermore, Atchison’s previous senate term had ended on March 4 as well, and a new congress was sworn in the following day, rendering the claim that he had been President pro tempore for that 24-hour period dubious. For his own part, Atchison never asserted with certainty that he was president for a day, just that the possibility existed within the US legal framework. “I made no pretense to the office,” he was quoted as saying. “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.” Regardless of his position on the subject, David Rice Atchison’s grave still bears the epitaph “President of the United States For One Day.”