The Debunker: Was David Rice Atchison President for a Day?

by Ken Jennings

Every schoolchild learns how John Quincy Adams used to deliver the State of Union address wearing only an oversized diaper and a velvet sash reading “BABY NEW YEAR 1823.” My fellow Americans, that’s just not true! And neither are the other four presidential misconceptions author and Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings will impeach this month.

Presidential Myth #4: In 1849, a Senator Named David Rice Atchison Was President for a Day.

Ah, the roll call of legendary American chief executives: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Atchison. Wait, Atchison?

David Rice Atchison was a Kansas lawyer and anti-abolitionist leader who represented his state in the U.S. Senate for twelve years, from 1844 to 1855. But today his fame mostly hinges on the historical claim that he, not Zachary Taylor, was the actual 12th President of the United States. In this version of history, Atchison is said to have served his term in office for twenty-four hours, between James Polk and Zachary Taylor. Also, the little guy was really tuckered out, so he spent most of his term asleep.

Here’s how it went down: the Polk presidency ended, as per federal law, on March 4. (The ceremony traditionally took place at noon, but the exact time wasn’t enshrined in the Constitution until the Twentieth Amendment was ratified in 1933.) But in 1849, March 4 was a Sunday. President-elect Zachary Taylor wasn’t a particularly religious man, but public Sabbath-day observance made a full inauguration bash impossible, so Taylor waited until noon Monday to take the oath, just as James Monroe had done when he was re-elected in 1821.

But hold on—if Polk’s term was up, but the new president and vice president hadn’t been sworn in yet, who was president? Third in line to the presidency would have been the Senate’s “President pro tempore” (a largely ceremonial post given to the most senior senator of the majority party). Atchison was the senior Senate Democrat in 1849, so for the rest of his life he dined out on the fact that he had been President of the United States for 24 hours—most of which, he said, he had spent asleep. He jokingly called his presidency “the honestest administration this country ever had.”

Historians and constitutional scholars, however, don’t buy it. The main problem is that Atchison’s congressional term also expired legally when Congress adjourned on March 4, so he wasn’t in the line of succession anymore. So who was president for that one day? Future president James Buchanan, as Polk’s Secretary of State in 1849, was theoretically next up to bat, since Cabinet terms don’t expire until their replacement takes office. But most historians agree that the legal president that day was—Zachary Taylor. In other words, being the legally elected president when the other guy’s term expires is what makes you president, not putting your hand on a Bible. (The Constitution only says the the new guy can’t execute his duties until he says the oath.) Sorry, David Rice Atchison. I’d buy you a beer anyway.

Quick Quiz: Which U.S. president was never elected president or vice president?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.