Just as you can’t unpet a dog, you can’t unsing the praises of David Rice Atkinson, mainly because no praises have been sung of him.
He is the man who has the distinction of being the so-called “President of the United States For A Day” – serving from noon on Sunday, March 4, 1849 through noon on Monday March 5, 1849. In honor of Presidents Day, let’s take a look at the unremarkable man who became the 11-1/2 President.
David Rice Atchison was born on August 11, 1807 in Frogtown, Kentucky, a town named for an abundance of frogs in a nearby stream. The town’s name was later changed to the more sensible Kirklevington (the names Monkey’s Eyebrow, Booger Branch and Beaverlick having been already taken by other Kentucky towns).
Atchison went to college at Transylvania University, which was not in Romania but in Lexington, Kentucky. It didn’t have anything to do with vampires but Atchison went there to be a lawyer so it did have something to do with evil bloodsuckers.
He entered politics and in 1843 was appointed to the US Senate to fill a vacancy left by the death of the previous Senator. Apparently the Constitution requires sitting Senators to be alive, although from listening to many of them speak, it’s obvious that they can be spineless and brain-free.
In 1849, Atchison was elected to a full term and chosen to be President pro tempore of the Senate because he was popular with his Democratic colleagues, especially junior Senator Dianne Feinstein.
Being President pro-tempore of the Senate meant he was in charge of the Senate when the Vice President was travelling or being chased into the bowels of the Capitol by a mob that wanted to hang him. And according to the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, (not to be confused with the movie Sister Act of 1992), being President pro tempore made him second in line for presidential succession after the VP — and the next to be hanged.
In the election of 1848, Zachary Taylor won the Presidential election with Millard Fillmore as his running mate – two men whose faces will never be on coins unless they are Chuck E. Cheese tokens.
Back then, new Presidents were inaugurated on March 4. Today Presidents are sworn in on January 20 and by March 4, they’re usually being sworn at.
In 1849, the March 4 Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday and the slave-owning, Indian-fighting Zachary Taylor was a religious man who wouldn’t take office on the Sabbath, which is what Sunday was called before there was football. So his inauguration was scheduled for Monday, March 5.
But there was a problem. The term of the current president James Polk and his Vice President, whose name no one remembers anyway, ended at noon on March 4. So until Zachary Taylor was sworn in the next day, some people (mostly friends of his) thought David Rice Atchison — the President pro tempore — was in charge.
Whether he was or not, during the 24-hours he held the post, he didn’t start any wars, didn’t raise any taxes, didn’t tell anyone to drink bleach, and didn’t have a son with a problematic laptop.
But could David Rice Atchison have really been elected president sometime in his life? Let’s look at his qualifications.
Besides being President pro tempore of the senate, he was also pro something else – slavery. He owned lots of slaves and did his best to turn the then-territory of Kansas into a slave state. To that end, he led 5,000 heavily armed men into Kansas on March 30, 1855, the state’s election day. They were called the “Border Ruffians” or in modern-day English, “Proud Boys.” They seized control of all polling places at gunpoint, cast tens of thousands of fraudulent votes for pro-slavery candidates, and elected a pro-slavery legislature.
So by today’s standards, yes, he did have what it takes to run for the highest office.
And in reality, he did float his name as a Presidential candidate – but that was shot down like a Chinese balloon. Why? Because of some innocuous statements he made urging his followers to “draw blood” and kill all the abolitionists. He said his remarks were taken out of context. He was really urging his followers to “draw blood” from the anti-slavery faction so it could be checked for life-threatening cholesterol and thus he was performing a public service.
When the Civil War broke out, Atchison volunteered to fight for the Confederate side and was appointed Brigadier General in 1861. The next year, however, he resigned his commission over a disagreement with the Army. He wanted to be called “Stonewall Rice Atchison” but they were calling him “Minute Rice Atchison” instead.
David Rice Atchison died on January 26, 1886 after which his political life slowed to a crawl. Today, his memory lives on at his Presidential Library – which is located in a Qwik-Mart in Balderdash, Kansas. You’ll find his official papers in the fourth pocket of the second tier of the map rack near the salty snack aisle.