David Atchison never campaigned for president, was not inaugurated and slept most of what some consider the most important day of his life-the day he was president.
It was the appointment of Atchison–a former state legislator and circuit court judge–by the Missouri governor in 1842 to fill the unexpired term of one of the state’s senators that propelled Atchison to national importance. He remained in the Senate until 1855, eventually becoming the elected president of the body. As President Pro-Tem of the Senate, Atchison was a national leader whose opinion was very important in shaping legislation.
Country Was Between Presidents
Then came that unique set of circumstances on March 4 of 1849.
President James Polk’s term expired at noon Sunday and newly elected President Zachary Taylor refused to take the oath of office on a Sunday. Normally the vice president of the United States would fill this role, but vice president George Dallas’ term expired when Polk’s did. By law, the presidency then fell to the President Pro-Tem of the Senate, David Rice Atchison.
Some say he should not be considered president since he never took the oath of office. Others counter by asking, “Who then was president?”
What Did Atchison Believe
When interviewed by his hometown newspaper, Atchison said:
“It was plain that there was either an interregnum (a time when a country lacks a government), or I was the President of the United States, being chairman of the Senate, having succeeded Judge Magnum of North Carolina. The judge waked me up at three o’clock in the morning and said jocularly that I was President of the United States and he wanted me to appoint him as Secretary of State. I made no pretense to the office, but if I was entitled in it I had one boast to make: that not a woman or child shed a tear on account of my removing anyone from office during my incumbency.”
Atchison had been putting in long hours getting Senate business cleaned up and used the day to catch up on his sleep.
He also called his presidency “the honestest administration this country ever had.”
Atchison was born August 11, 1807, in Frogtown, Kentucky. A bright young man, he attended Transylvania College (later incorporated into the University of Kentucky) when he was only fourteen. He was a classmate of the future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. By 1830 Atchison had moved to western Missouri to practice law, and four years after that he was in the Missouri State Legislature.
Missouri historians say he is more renowned for helping Missouri acquire the Platte Purchase, which today forms the six counties in the northwestern “neck” of the Show-Me State. One of those counties is named for him, as are the city of Atchison, Kansas, and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway.
Atchison stepped down from the U. S. Senate in 1855. A pro-slavery Democrat, he supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.
He died in 1886 at his home near Gower in Clinton County, MO, and is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery at Plattsburg, MO. His grave marker reads “David Rice Atchison — President of the United States for One Day.”
So, was Atchison really president? The Congressional Record says so. In any case, his reign is a lively footnote to history and fodder for the trivia buffs.
- Parrish, William E., David Rice Atchison of Missouri: Border Politician, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1961; U. S. Senate Historical Office