Commentary Magazine


Topic: David Atchison

Sunday Inaugurations and Immortality

Today is the seventh time that Inauguration Day has fallen on a Sunday. As in the past, the president will be sworn in a small ceremony in the White House and the public inauguration, inaugural address, and parade will be held tomorrow.

There was one exception, Sunday March 4, 1849, when president-elect Zachary Taylor refused to take the oath on a Sunday. The vice president-elect, Millard Fillmore, also declined to take his oath. Since James K. Polk’s term of office as president and George M. Dallas’s term as vice president certainly ended at noon that day, who was president?

There has long been a claim that it was David Rice Atchison, Senator from Missouri, a Democrat, who was president pro tempore of the Senate, and thus, under the succession law then in place, next in line. Atchison’s tombstone describes him as having been “President of the United States for one day,” and the Atchison County Historical Museum in Atchison, Kansas, which was named for him, contains what it describes, more or less tongue-in-cheek, as the country’s smallest presidential library.

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Today is the seventh time that Inauguration Day has fallen on a Sunday. As in the past, the president will be sworn in a small ceremony in the White House and the public inauguration, inaugural address, and parade will be held tomorrow.

There was one exception, Sunday March 4, 1849, when president-elect Zachary Taylor refused to take the oath on a Sunday. The vice president-elect, Millard Fillmore, also declined to take his oath. Since James K. Polk’s term of office as president and George M. Dallas’s term as vice president certainly ended at noon that day, who was president?

There has long been a claim that it was David Rice Atchison, Senator from Missouri, a Democrat, who was president pro tempore of the Senate, and thus, under the succession law then in place, next in line. Atchison’s tombstone describes him as having been “President of the United States for one day,” and the Atchison County Historical Museum in Atchison, Kansas, which was named for him, contains what it describes, more or less tongue-in-cheek, as the country’s smallest presidential library.

Actually, the claim for Atchison fails simply because his own term as president pro tempore had expired when Congress had adjourned sine die the morning of March 4. Atchison himself said later that having been up most of the night dealing with last-minute Senate business he had slept most of that Sunday when he was supposedly president.

In fact, Zachary Taylor was president from the stroke of noon, March 4. The Constitution requires that “Before he enter on the Execution of his Office,” the president must take the oath. In other words he can’t exercise the powers of the office without taking the oath, but he is nonetheless president. In the middle of the 19th century the country could well make do for a day with a president who had no power to act.

David Atchison, like most politicians prominent in their own day, is now completely forgotten. However his name lives on because Atchison County, Kansas, and its county seat, were named for him. And Atchison, Kansas, became the eastern terminus of the world’s most poetically, indeed onomatopoeically, named railroad, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. The railroad, in turn, gave its name to the song “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” which, sung by Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls, won the Academy Award for best song in 1946.

It’s not much of a hook upon which to hang one’s immortality, perhaps, but politicians have to take what they can get.

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