Saturday, October 24, 2015

President for a Day?

Listen to a Podcast of this episode.

The shortest term of office in the White House was President William Henry Harrison, who died after a mere 32 days in office.  Pres Harrison gave the longest inaugural address ever, clocking in at 1 hr 45 minutes.  He gave it outside, in a snowstorm, without wearing a hat or coat.  As a result, he caught pneumonia and died a month later.

David Rice Atchison
Unknown President?
But there are some trivia buffs who argue another President served an even shorter term.  David Rice Atchison, by some accounts was the 12th President of the United States, serving a term of one day.

Wait, who the heck is David Rice Atchison?  Atchison was a Senator from Missouri.  He was also the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, a largely ceremonial position that is today given to the most senior Senator in the majority party.

On March 4, 1849 the Presidential term of James K. Polk expired and he left town.  The problem was, March 4 was a Sunday.  The newly elected President, Zachary Taylor refused to take the oath of office on the Sabbath.  His Vice President also refused.  As a result, there was no one serving as President.

Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, the next in line to be President was, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, our good old friend Sen. David Rice Atchison.  By some accounts, Sen. Atchison was jokingly sworn in as President, appointed a few of his buddies to high cabinet positions, had a few drinks and then went to sleep, attending Pres. Taylor's inauguration the following morning.  Sen. Atchison himself spread many of these stories over the years.  In an 1872 newspaper interview, Atchison said:

"It was in this way: Polk went out of office on 3 March 1849, on Saturday at 12 noon. The next day, the 4th, occurring on Sunday, Gen. Taylor was not inaugurated. He was not inaugurated till Monday, the 5th, at 12 noon. 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. The judge waked me up at 3 o'clock in the morning and said jocularly that as I was President of the United States 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 a child shed a tear on account of my removing any one from office during my incumbency of the place."
Plaque from a Statue of Atchison in Plattsburg, Missouri
acknowledging his Presidential claims

On another occasion he joked about having "the honestest administration this country ever had."   Despite the jokes, Atchison was always careful to make clear that he never attempted to assume the powers of the President or make any sort of pretense to the office.  In another letter written years after his "presidency", Atchison wrote:

"I never for a moment acted as President of the US, although I was President of the Senate, at the expiration  of Mr. Polk’s term and inauguration of Genl Taylor [nor] yet for one moment did I ever consider that I was the legal President of the US, Genl Taylor was the legal Pres, & Millard Fillmore Vice President, either of whom had the legal right, to the Presidency although 31 hours elapsed between the egress of Mr. Polk and the taking of the oath by Genl Taylor."

There are also many good arguments why even technically Atchison never assumed the Presidency, though I think that many of these "mythbusters" make the argument with more certainty than is justified.  Atchison had been sworn in as President Pro Tempore days earlier to maintain his position. He was next in line after the terms of the outgoing President and Vice President expired.  By some accounts, he did take the Presidential oath, albeit as a joke.  It is a pointless argument at this time though since he never actually attempted to exercise the powers of President.

The Presidential Inauguration has fallen on a Sunday seven times. The first was under President James Monroe.  But since it was for the beginning of his second term, there is a good claim that he never left the office and was not required to swear the oath again to continue in office.  Subsequent Presidents have resolved this dilemma by being sworn in during a private ceremony either on Saturday the day before, or on Sunday, then opting for a public swearing in on Monday.

Life Before and After the Presidency

While one may question his claim to the Presidency, David Rice Atchison did have a long and distinguished career.  He served as a State legislator in Missouri, as a Circuit Court Judge and twelve years in the US Senate.  He also served a a General in the State Militia.  As a pro-slavery politician, he fought as an active duty General for the Confederates during the Civil War.

Both the city of Atchison and Atchison County, Kansas as well as Atchison County, Missouri, are also named for him.  His name also indirectly became part of the famous Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. The railroad being named after the city of Atchison, Kansas.

Listen to a Podcast of this episode.

For Further Reading:

http://www.history.com/news/the-24-hour-president

http://www.thecivilwarmuse.com/index.php?page=david-rice-atchison-memorial

http://www.shapell.org/this-day-in-history/january/president-obamas-inauguration

http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/President_For_A_Day.htm


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