Some United States presidents are famous for their chronological number. George Washington is famously the first. We all know that Abraham Lincoln is 16. We differentiate the Bushes by not only middle initial, but also their numbers in presidential order, 41 and 43.
But what if we’re all wrong? What if what we had taken for granted as indisputable fact, was anything but? Could it be that we’ve actually had 45 presidents?
It’s common knowledge amongst history buffs that William Henry Harrison had the shortest tenure of any United States chief executive. “Old Tippecanoe” gave his two-hour inaugural address on a cold and wet March day in 1841 with neither a coat nor hat and subsequently caught a cold that took him to his grave the next month. But what if there was a presidential tenure that was even shorter? Like, perhaps, one day?
Meet our real 12th president: David Rice Atchison.
Atchison was a Democratic Senator from Missouri, taking his seat in 1843. He quickly made political friends, and by 1845, he had risen to the position of President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
In 1848, President James K. Polk was defeated in the election by Mexican-American War hero, “Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor. In those days, inauguration took place on March 4 of the following year. Polk’s term ended at noon on that day in 1849, but because the date fell on a Sunday, neither Taylor nor his Vice President John Tyler was sworn in until the following day.
Under the presidential succession law of the day, the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate was third.
The official U.S. Senate website explains that due to the constant threat of death present during those days, maintaining presidential order of succession was a priority, and led to the re-election of Atchison to that position on Friday, March 2.
With no sworn-in President or Vice President, Atchison rose up the ranks.
This was met by Atchison and those around him with humor, not as a serious undertaking of the duties and responsibilities of the highest office in the country. He considered it to be a fluke in the system.
In an 1882 article in The Lever newspaper quoted by Helen Russell on the Clinton County (Mo.) Historical website, Atchison states that Senator Willie Mangum of North Carolina “waked” him at 3 o’clock in the morning to jokingly ask the new president to appoint him as Secretary of State.
Atchison then stated that “I made no pretense to the office, but if I was entitled in it I had one boast to make, that not a woman or a child shed a tear on account of my removing any one from office during my incumbency of the place.”
While I wish that this story didn’t have a technicality, it does. Scholars have almost universally dismissed the idea that Atchison actually held the office. It is common belief that while President-elect Taylor may not have taken his oath, and therefore was unable to actually act in a presidential capacity, he did in fact hold the position immediately following the conclusion of Polk’s term.
Combined with the fact that Atchison’s Senate term also ended at noon on May 4, it appears that a strong argument can be made against Atchison ascending to the presidency.
Atchison continued his Senate career until 1855, a supporter of slavery, and a supporter of Stephen Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was passed in 1854.
He also was a leader of the “Border Ruffians” which terrorized the Kansas territory and contributed to the “Bleeding Kansas” violence between anti- and pro-slavery movements before the Civil War.
In death, a few small tributes have been built around his “President for a day” fame. In Atchison, Kan., a town named in his honor, a library was constructed for him as part of the Atchison County Historical Society Museum. It is publicized as the “world’s smallest presidential library.” A gravestone laid on his burial site refers to him as “President for One Day.”
Senate.gov, quoting a biography by William Parrish, states that Atchison described his term as “the honestest administration this country ever had”—his tongue firmly in-cheek.
It makes me wonder how many of our actual presidents kept their administrations honest for even the first day.