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President for a Day

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David Rice Aitchison. Photo by Mathew Brady, between 1844-1860. Prints and Photographs Division.
David Rice Atchison. Photo by Mathew Brady, between 1844-1860. Prints and Photographs Division.

All eyes turn to Washington this week, as the nation’s 45th president is inaugurated on January 20. However, until the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1933, inauguration day was always March 4 in order to allow enough time after Election Day for officials to gather election returns and for newly elected candidates to travel to the capital. With modern advances in communication and transportation, the lengthy transition period proved unnecessary and legislators pressed for change.

In 1849, March 4 fell on a Sunday, and incoming president Zachary Taylor moved the ceremony to the following day. This was the second instance of the inauguration being rescheduled because of observing Sunday as the Sabbath – the first being in 1821 and the reelection of James Monroe.

Precedent had already been set in 1821 with Monroe officially taking up his duties one day after his term constitutionally began. Yet, 25 years later, Taylor’s start was a point of contention. Some historians have argued that Sen. David Rice Atchison, a Democrat from Missouri, was president during those intervening hours. He was president pro tempore of the Senate, and according to the 1792 law in effect at the time, the Senate’s president pro tempore was directly behind the vice president in the line of succession.

Today, most historians and constitutional scholars dispute that claim. At the time, his first term as senator was finished, and he hadn’t yet been sworn in for his second term. So, he didn’t exercise any power.

Atchison spoke with the Plattsburgh Lever in 1792 that he “made no pretense to the office.”

The inauguration of Gen. Zachary Taylor. 1849. Prints and Photographs Division.
The inauguration of Gen. Zachary Taylor. 1849. Prints and Photographs Division.

John Wilson Townsend, writing for the Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society would have you believe otherwise. In an article from the May 1910 issue of the register, Townsend cited a story that appeared in the Philadelphia Press that had been “rather thoroughly circulated and has actually been accepted by several otherwise reliable biographical dictionaries.”

Stated the article, “That Senator Atchison considered himself President there was no doubt, for on Monday morning, when the Senate reassembled he sent to the White House for the seal of the great office and signed one or two official papers as President. These were some small acts in connection with the inauguration that had been neglected by President Polk.”

While Atchison may or may not have been “president for a day,” by right of succession, he was vice president from April 18, 1853, until December 4, 1854, when President Franklin Pierce’s vice president, William R. King, died.

The Library has numerous collections and presentations related to U.S. elections, presidents, politics and government, including this great resource guide on presidential elections from 1789-1920 that includes resources on the 1848 election.

Also, you can check out all the Library’s digital collections on government, law and politics, which include the papers of Zachary Taylor.


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