One Day as President

With the election coming up, I was thinking on a piece of trivia I once heard, that David Rice Atchison (1807-1886) served as President of the United States for a total of one entire day, from noon on March 4, 1849 until noon on March 5, 1849. It must be true, because it says so on his headstone.

How do they figure?

Senator / President Atchison was the last elected president pro tempore of the Senate, and rules of succession to the presidency at the time were that, after the vice president, the president pro tempore take over acting as president.

When March 4, 1849, fell on a Sunday, President Zachary Taylor said he would wait one day before his public inauguration. Same with the vice president. So who was “in charge” for that 24-hour period of time?

If we argue that you must be “sworn in” before you can be president, then nobody was. But it made a fun story for Senator / President Atchison to tell, that because there was no president and no vice president, he served a 1-day administration as acting president.

But in reality, the Constitution doesn’t say that you have be sworn in to “be” president; only to “act” as president. So, President Taylor was the president, Sabbath day or not.

Besides, to further deflate Senator / President Atchison’s claim to fame, his term as a senator (and thereby as president pro tempore) also expired at noon on March 4, 1849. A little fact he failed to mention when he re-told his story later in life.

But it makes a fun story.

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