Senator David Rice Atchison: The Real Twelfth President of the United States

David Rice Atchison

David Rice Atchison was President of the United States for a single day, between the terms of James Polk and Zachary Taylor. America’s most honest president.

David Rice Atchison. Born 1807, died 1886.

His is a name most people have probably never before heard, unless they are students of American history. This is despite the fact that he was a truly important figure in American history.

Atchison’s Story

He was born in Frogtown, Kentucky. The town was later assimilated into the larger town of Lexington (one wonders why they refused to keep the original name). He moved to Missouri after college, where he became both a Lawyer and a Farmer. From here, his story moves along at a steady pace, parallel to that of so many other politicians.

In fact, Atchison’s story is so much like so many others of his time that it seems hardly worth mentioning, but for the sake of completion; he began working as a circuit judge in Missouri, as well as a member of the state Legislature (those who are familiar with the early career of Abraham Lincoln have surely already noted the similarity). In 1843, Atchison was elected to the Senate, where he would remain until 1854. During this time, Atchison held the distinct honor of being named President Pro Tempore of the Senate – meaning that, apart from the Vice President of the United States (who is the tie-breaking vote on any close issue), he was the most powerful man in the senate.

It was a position of great power in Washington, to be sure, and during a time when the nation was ebbing closer and closer to Civil War over the issue of slavery and the sovereignty of the southern states. Surely, the very fact that a young man from the frontier lands of Kentucky could ever reach such a position is reason enough for one to learn his story.

Atchison Becomes President

Perhaps the most important part of the life of Atchison has become merely an amusing footnote in American History.

This is the fact that David Rice Atchison, despite the fact that his name has become almost unrecognizable, was, technically speaking, the acting President of the United States for a single day. The laws of Presidential Succession at that point in history named President Pro Tempore to be the third in the line to the Presidency (after, of course, the President and the Vice President; though this fact changed with the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, which placed the Speaker of the House of Representatives ahead of the President Pro Tempore).

On that fateful day, Sunday March 4th, 1849, James K. Polk’s presidential Term officially expired, making him merely a private citizen for the first time in four years. His successor, Zachary Taylor of Virginia, refused to be sworn in on that day, on account of it being the Sabbath, and so, for the remainder of that day, there was neither a President of the United States, nor Vice President (for Millard Filmore, the new Vice President elect, had also not yet been sworn in). The duties, therefore, technically fell to the next in the line of succession.

That’s right. David Rice Atchison.

The real twelfth president of the United States.

But Was He Really President?

Atchison’s presidency his has always been a disputed fact. And in reality, the fact is that it really wasn’t considered to be very remarkable at the time, nor is it now. No big fuss was made, and Atchison performed no official duties (and he wasn’t exactly officially sworn in), besides remarking later that his had been by far the most honest Presidential Administration up until this point – a fact which few could deny.

And if we follow through with this little piece of trivia, assuming Atchison to truly have been president for a day, this would also make him the youngest president this nation has ever seen, beating out John F. Kennedy by more than a year.

Despite having had a career which, apart from this one little piece of interesting trivia, was for the most part fairly ordinary (as far as those of noteworthy politicians go), Atchison was apparently quite beloved, as the good people of Kansas went and named an entire town and county after him. Atchison, Kansas. Which seems odd, considering the fact that Atchison was born in Kentucky and grew up in Missouri. Within this city lies the Atchison County Historical Museum, a section of which is devoted to the man who was President for a single day. It is considered by many to be the world’s smallest Presidential Library (the next smallest would then be the Herbert Hoover Museum in Iowa. The largest is the Lyndon B. Johnson Museum in Texas).

Atchison, Kansas was also the birthplace of Amelia Earhart, in case anyone was wondering.