David Atchison’s Very Short Presidency

David Atchison, the 12th president of the United States of America, was born this week (Aug. 11) in 1807, in Frogtown, Kentucky.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  Frogtown, Kentucky?

No, no, actually, what you’re thinking is, who the heck is David Atchison and when was he president? It’s quite a story.

Atchison was a United States senator from Missouri who had advanced to become president pro tem of the Senate in 1849, just when James K. Polk was set to step down as U.S. president and Zachary Taylor, who had won the presidential election of 1848, was set to replace him. In those days presidents were inaugurated on March 4 – not until Franklin Roosevelt’s time were presidents inaugurated in January – and as it happened, March 4, 1849, fell on a Sunday.

Which was a big problem for the deeply religious Zach Taylor, who refused to be sworn in on the Sabbath, meaning that there was some question as to who would serve as president of the United States between Sunday, when Polk stepped down, and Monday when Taylor could be sworn in.

The question was answered on March 4th. Since, back then, the president pro tem became president of the United States in the event the elected president and vice president were unable to serve – and since Atchison, having retained his senate seat and his job as president pro tem, was the first person to be sworn in on Inauguration Day – he was, technically speaking, the president of the United States.

Several minutes later, the vice president-elect, Millard Fillmore, was sworn in, at which point he became acting president of the United States under Article 2, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution. Atchison happily went back to being president pro tem, and the next day, Zachary Taylor was sworn in as president, restoring the political order.

Interestingly, President Taylor would die just sixteen months later from a gastro-intestinal disorder that was probably caused by eating a bowl of cherries too quickly and gulping down a glass of milk after a hot 4th of July celebration. That made Fillmore president once again, and his decision to support the Compromise of 1850 – Zachary Taylor had adamantly opposed it – helped avert a civil war at a time when the North was much less ready to fight such a war than it would be in 1860. Such is the fickleness of fate.

As for Frogtown’s most famous native son, and president-for-three-minutes, David Atchison, he seems not to have been unduly affected by his (admittedly brief) stint as the most powerful man in the country. After technically assuming, and then relinquishing, presidential power, he spent the rest of the day in bed sleeping.