The Missourian who claimed ‘President for a Day’

Wes Franklin
Neosho Daily News

Last week I wrote about Missourian Champ Clark’s chance at the White House decades before Missourian Harry S Truman took that office. 

Clark almost got the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912, and if he had he would have won the election because of the fractured Republican Party that year. 

Long before Clark, though, there was another Missourian who it’s claimed was actually “President for a day.” 

David Rice Atchison (1807-1886) was a Democratic US Senator from Missouri from 1843 to 1855. Back then, the president pro tem was second in line of succession to the President, after the Vice-President (today it is Speaker of the House). Atchison was elected president pro tem on March 2 to fill in for the Vice-President, who by custom would leave the chamber in the last days of the session. 

Also back then, the President and Vice President took office at noon on March 4. Well, in 1849, March 4 fell on a Sunday. President-elect Zachary Taylor didn’t want to be sworn in on the Lord’s Day, which pushed back his inauguration to the following day. 

At the time it was claimed that that technically made Atchison, as Senate pro tem, President of the United States from noon March 4 to noon March 5. 

The reality is Taylor automatically became President on March 4, and could have began executing his duties of office after a private swearing in ceremony, if necessary. Also, Atchison’s Senate term technically expired at noon March 4, along with the President’s and Vice President’s. 

But the story of how Atchison was “president for a day” was one he liked to tell for years. Atchison used to joke that his 24-hour “presidency” was “the honestest administration this country ever had.”

-Wes Franklin writes a weekly column, That History Guy, for The Neosho Daily News.