President for a Day

Jan 24th / 45

To the President of the U.S.


Mr. Aristides Welch a citizen of the State of Missouri is an applicant for the office of Purser in the Navy; I have but a slight personal acquaintance with Mr Welch, but have been informed by gentlemen in whom I have every confidence that Mr Welch is in every way worthy and well qualified for the station he seeks, I would therefore recommend with the utmost respect a favourable consideration of his claims.

Very respectfully your
obt. servt.
D R. Atchison

In this letter, David Rice Atchison (1807-1886) writes President John Tyler, recommending Aristides Welch to the office of purser in the Navy.  Fortunately, Welch was appointed a purser in the Navy on June 27, 1846, but that is not the story I want to focus on here.

At the time of this letter, Atchison served as a Senator from Missouri -- in fact, he was the first senator from western Missouri and the youngest senator at the time.  He had been appointed to fill a vacancy left by the late Lewis F. Linn, and he was re-elected in 1849 and went on to serve in the Senate until 1855.  He was instrumental role in the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, but his claim to fame in American history is his day-long presidency.


If someone had told Atchison on that January day in 1845 he was writing to one of his predecessors, the 37-year-old pro-slavery Democrat would have laughed.  But by the end of the year, Atchison’s fellow Democrats would take control of the Senate and would choose him to be President pro tempore (and this was only the first time -- the Senate elected him for this position 12 more times during his Senate career!).  As President pro tempore, Atchison presided over the Senate when the Vice President was absent and stood in second place in the presidential line of succession.

Until the 1930s, presidential and congressional terms began on March 4th at noon.  In 1849, March 4th happened to be a Sunday, and incoming president Zachary Taylor and vice president Millard Fillmore refused to be sworn in to office on a Sunday.  So from noon of March 4th to noon of March 5th Atchison (who had once again been elected President pro tempore two days before) was President of the United States.  Of course, Taylor could have taken the oath privately and begun to execute his presidential duties on the fourth, but Atchison’s supporters claimed that the expiration of James Polk’s term and the delay of Taylor’s inauguration made Atchison the President, fair and square.  Though Atchison was never exactly sure how to view those 24 hours (he slept most of the day), he enjoyed telling the story of his “presidency,” describing it as the "honestest administration this country ever had."

But it seems that even a 24-hour administration can’t escape controversy.  Some say that Atchison couldn’t have been president because Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states that the incoming chief executive must take an “Oath of Affirmation” before assuming duties, which Atchison admittedly never did.  Others believe that Atchison was president, but only for a few minutes rather than 24 hours.  According to this viewpoint, Atchison’s newest term as President pro tempore did not officially begin until he was sworn in on March 5th, which means his presidency ended a few minutes later when Millard Fillmore was sworn in as Vice President.

Regardless, the inscription on Atchison’s gravestone reads: “President of the United States for One Day.”


-Hannah Jarrett '12

Works Consulted:

Joseph H. Bloom.  “David Rice Atchison.” American History 37.6, Feb 2003.