President for a Day

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | January 21, 2013

January 21, 2013
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When it comes to inaugurating a President, the Constitution has less to say than almost anyone. Article II, Section I simply states: “Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation:–“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Everything else about the investiture is left to interpretation – and this, as much as anything, explains why a little-known Senator was, arguably, President of the United States for a day without his, or anyone else, knowing it. The man was David Rice Atchison and Zachary Taylor’s Inauguration Day, then as now, fell on a Sunday, pushing the date of the Presidential swearing-in to Monday – raising the question: who is in charge, when the presidential term ends on noon on the Sunday, but the Oath isn’t taken, until Monday?

“President For a Day” David Rice Atchison Sets the Record Straight

Everyone knows that there have been, to date, forty-four American presidencies; except, that is, those who know that there have been forty-five. A Senator from Missouri had, arguably, the eleventh-and-a-half presidency, for a term of one day – most of which, he said, he slept through, unaware. How David Rice Atchison, through a glitch in the calendar, became President, is with this remarkable letter, written late in his life, told here…

Constitutional scholars can, have and will ever continue, to debate exactly when the office of the presidency devolves on the Vice President or, absent a Vice President, upon the Speaker of the House or – going back before the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 – upon the President pro tempore of the United States Senate.  When a presidential term expires on a Sunday, and a new one is then expected to begin forthwith, this contentious issue becomes even more fraught. That the government is closed on a Sunday is the least of it: the chief problem is that traditional Sabbatarianism decrees both business and pleasure improper on the Sabbath Day. Thus a term of office can end on a Sunday and, a Sabbath observer refusing to take the Oath of Office until Monday, the presidency will be unoccupied…

This crisis was first faced – for what would, ultimately, be  seven times – by President James Monroe on March 4, 1821. That date was, until 1933, the day set aside for presidential inaugurations and it fell, that year, on a Sunday. Monroe, perplexed about what to do, decided on the advice of  the justices of the Supreme Court, to postpone his second-term swearing-in for one day. This led John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, to note that the country was therefore, strictly speaking, without a president for 24-hours – but thought this harmless enough (for, after all, Monroe was the incumbent). The delay, he wrote in his diary, was “a sort of interregnum during which there was no [constitutionally] qualified person to act as President.”

Senator David Rice Atchison
David Rice Atchison, taken by photographer Mathew Brady at the United States Capitol at Washington, D.C., March 1849. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

The next time this constitutional conundrum arose, at noon on Sunday, March 4, 1849, it seemed there was someone whom Adams might have deemed a “qualified person” – David Rice Atchison – to act, albeit briefly, as President. Polk’s term had just expired; President-Elect Zachary Taylor, rather than break the Sabbath, put off taking the Oath for a day. This led Atchison, a Senator from Missouri who was then President pro tempore of the Senate, to jokingly claim – after the fact, mercifully – that the office of the presidency, by the terms of the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, was his. This was true – almost.  The Act did say that in the absence of a President or Vice-President, the office devolved on the President pro tempore of the Senate – Atchison. But what was not true was that Atchison was any more in office than Polk at noon on March 4  – for the Senate had adjourned, sine die,at 7:00 a.m. that morning and Atchison, technically out of office, went home to sleep. In fact, he didn’t take his Oath of Office, as President pro tempore, until a few minutes before Taylor, so for once, what often feels true in Washington, was: no one, really, was in charge.  Here Atchison himself, who liked to joke about being President and sleeping through his term, explains what (never) happened…

I never for a moment acted as President of the US, although I was President of the Senate, at the expiration  of Mr. Polk’s term and inauguration of Genl Taylor [nor] yet for one moment did I ever consider that I was the legal President of the US, Genl Taylor was the legal Pres, & Millard Fillmore Vice President, either of whom had the legal right, to the Presidency although 31 hours elapsed between the egress of Mr. Polk and the taking of the oath by Genl Taylor.

Not surprisingly, though, this being a story about Washington, the crisis engendered by what to do when an Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, was not resolved by precedent. Rutherford B. Hayes faced the same problem in 1877 –  after, that is, he faced  the exigencies of his ferociously contested election, in which the race was, by dint of neither candidate reaching an undisputed majority of the electoral college, thrown into the Congress, which threw it upon an Electoral Commission, which threw the election, by a one vote margin, to Hayes, on March 2nd. This hardly quieted the uproar and hence Hayes, rather than wait a potentially explosive three more days to be sworn-in, opted to take the Oath of Office in a private ceremony at the White House on Saturday, March 3rd – which meant, of course, that for one day, the United States had two Presidents in office, Grant and Hayes.  On Monday, March 5th, Hayes took the Oath publicly, although predictably, opposition Democrats boycotted the Inauguration on principle.  When the dread Sunday, March 4th next appeared on the Inaugural calendar, it was devout Woodrow Wilson on the spot – but he nonetheless decided to be sworn-in, in a private ceremony in the Capitol, on Sunday – and to do it again, on Monday, in public. Some forty years later Dwight D. Eisenhower was set to take the Oath for the second time, and did so, twice, on Sunday January 20, 1957 inside the White House and again, on the 21st, outside at the Capitol. Ronald Reagan, too, was an Inaugural two-fer: on Super Bowl Sunday, January 20, 1985, he took the Oath of Office in the White House shortly before noon –  had a party, tossed the coin (by television) to open the Super Bowl, entertained the Inaugural gala cast – and like the trouper he was, did it all again the very next day.

Tombstone of Senator David Rice Atchison, inscribed
David Rice Atchison's tombstone. AmericanCentury21 at English Wikipedia.

When President Obama is sworn-in for the second time, it will be in private, on Sunday, January 20, 2013, and when he is sworn-in for a third time, it will be in public on Monday, January 21, 2013. That will mark the 66th occasion, public and private, on which a United States President has taken the Oath of Office.

DAVID RICE ATCHISON. 1807 – 1886.  United States Senator and, as President pro tempore of the Senate believed by many, incorrectly, to have technically been President of the United States during the interregnum between the expiration of Polk’s term and the swearing-in of President Taylor.

Autograph Letter Signed (twice: as “D.R. Atchison” and with initials), 1 page, octavo, Plattsburg, Clinton County, Missouri, no date. To Jos. W. Howarth, Esq.