WootBot


quality posts: 14 Private Messages WootBot

Staff

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.

dwootshrute


quality posts: 2 Private Messages dwootshrute

Gerald Ford was never elected to President or VP.

ugomona


quality posts: 4 Private Messages ugomona

In Plattsburg, Missouri (where David R. Atchison supposedly lived at one time), there is a statue of him in front of the courthouse, proclaiming DRA "President for a Day." Going to school in Plattsburg, when we were taught the U.S. Presidents, he was included between Polk and Taylor. And when given a test of the Presidents in order, we didn't dare leave DRA out, lest it be marked wrong.

I always thought it was nonsense, but, hey, not much else the town had to claim. Thanks for the debunking. Makes me laugh at those hag teachers that taught that crap.

scifantasy


quality posts: 0 Private Messages scifantasy

To answer the Quick Quiz: Ford. Nixon chose him to be VP after Spiro Agnew left office (he was properly confirmed by Congress), and he became President upon Nixon's resignation.

jai151


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jai151

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

Since people already answered the question, I'll just point out the grammatical mistake. The "who" in that sentence makes it incomplete. It either needs to lose the who or gain a predicate.

JayBofMA


quality posts: 0 Private Messages JayBofMA
jai151 wrote:"Quick Quiz: Which U.S. president who was never elected president or vice president?"

Since people already answered the question, I'll just point out the grammatical mistake. The "who" in that sentence makes it incomplete. It either needs to lose the who or gain a predicate.



Well done!

NascarDad


quality posts: 21 Private Messages NascarDad

Regardless of when his term expired, if he never took the oath of office as President, then he wasn't the President either.

timwatson


quality posts: 0 Private Messages timwatson
jai151 wrote:"Quick Quiz: Which U.S. president who was never elected president or vice president?"

Since people already answered the question, I'll just point out the grammatical mistake. The "who" in that sentence makes it incomplete. It either needs to lose the who or gain a predicate.



It's feedback like this that makes me aware my attention to detail must be completely lacking. I had to read it twice, even after the comment, to see the error.

If one added a predicate, wouldn't there need to be commas too?

Which U.S. president, who was never elected president or vice president, was a horrible golfer? [that's what my parents taught me about Gerald Ford.]

adamant628


quality posts: 8 Private Messages adamant628

1846-1849 = 13 years?

bigbrother0074


quality posts: 0 Private Messages bigbrother0074
adamant628 wrote:1846-1849 = 13 years?


timwatson wrote:It's feedback like this that makes me aware my attention to detail must be completely lacking.



jcolag


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jcolag
NascarDad wrote:Regardless of when his term expired, if he never took the oath of office as President, then he wasn't the President either.



I don't think that's true, actually. The Vice President gains the position as soon as the President is permanently incapacitated, no? It'd stink if there were no Commander-in-Chief due to a wartime assassination.

So, it makes sense that such a passage works further down the line of succession in the same way.

Somewhat related, I never liked the "official" succession rules passed later. The very idea that a replacement VP can be an appointee and that succession runs through the Cabinet has an air of the Will of the People being far less important than party politics.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

Mea culpa on the extra floating "who" and especially Atchison's dates. Those dates are his first term as Prseident Pro Tempore of the Senate. In total, he served just over a decade, from 1844 to 1855.

I was told there would be no math.

alanhwoot


quality posts: 38 Private Messages alanhwoot
jcolag wrote:I don't think that's true, actually. The Vice President gains the position as soon as the President is permanently incapacitated, no? It'd stink if there were no Commander-in-Chief due to a wartime assassination.


The point is that the Atchison claim relies on the belief that you cannot be president if you haven't been sworn in. If Taylor wasn't president because he hadn't taken the oath, then neither was Atchison. There's no exception in the Constitution for people that get the position by succession.

So either Taylor was president despite not having taken the oath yet, or no one was.

jcolag


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jcolag
alanhwoot wrote:The point is that the Atchison claim relies on the belief that you cannot be president if you haven't been sworn in. If Taylor wasn't president because he hadn't taken the oath, then neither was Atchison. There's no exception in the Constitution for people that get the position by succession.

So either Taylor was president despite not having taken the oath yet, or no one was.



I get what you're saying, but I'm not sure about the details.

My point is that nobody would argue that, say, Johnson didn't become President until he took a formal Oath of Office for the Presidency when Kennedy died. He's already in a position for which his duties include becoming President if the need arises.

Atchison is in an analogous position. His job (assuming he wasn't ousted at the end of his term, as suggested by Ken's article) included becoming President, meaning that he shouldn't need an oath to cement it other than traditionally.

However, the elected President may or may not "really" be President. I agree that nothing says that the oath is a prerequisite for taking office (insert obligatory snide comment about abiding by the oath, and various unliked Presidents), but if you believe that it is, then succession rules seem like they would apply.

But again, not to Atchison, because he was also out of a job at about the same time. Buchanan would be the best bet, under those conditions, as someone in an existing office that would dodge any need to take an oath of office.

Or more appropriately, he'd be "acting President," since the elected President was merely delayed, not indisposed. He wouldn't be listed as actually holding the office, any more than Poppy Bush was the President when Hinkley shot Reagan.

(Or we could start a rumor that Mr. Bush was ineligible to run for his second term, due to having been President in a prior term...)

editorkid


quality posts: 92 Private Messages editorkid

32 years ago to the week, this was being debated as well.

BuffBillsFan


quality posts: 7 Private Messages BuffBillsFan

I like the question "Who was the only King to lead the United States?"

The answer is Gerald Ford, whose last name at birth was King.