The One-Day Presidency: Senator David Rice Atchison

March 1, 2016
David_Rice_Atchison_by_Mathew_Brady_March_1849

Senator David Rice Atchison in 1849. Photo Public Domain.

In the circus of a Presidential Election Year of 2016 in the United States the electorate gets to see all types on individuals seeking the office. As a Canadian these characters and Presidential oddities of history and today fascinate me. That isn’t to say Canada hasn`t had its share of strange political characters and oddities through the years. More on some of those in later posts, but for now I’ll stick with the American Presidential ones.

Sunday March 4, 1849 at noon President James K. Polk’s term in office expired. President-elect Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn into office.Why because it was Sunday, a holy day to him.

The situation is such that the incumbent President is no longer in office, the president-elect will not take the oath of office, so who is the president, or is there a power vacuum? The next person in the line of succession is the President pro tempore (chairman of the Senate). The President pro tempore is a U.S. Senator elected by his fellow senators. On Sunday March 4, 1849 that person is Senator David Rice Atchison a Democrat from Missouri. His fellow senators believe that he automatically becomes the Acting President until President-elect Zachary Taylor takes the oath of office.

Senator Atchison was a strong advocate of slavery and territorial expansion. He fought for new States to be designated pro-slavery namely Kansas and Nebraska. This was prior to the Civil War of 1860-1865. He also served as a general in the militia during the Civil War on the Confederate side.

Many believe to this day that Senator Atchison was in fact the President of the United States for one day; however, this claim is dismissed by nearly all historians, scholars, and biographers. This originates from the belief by many that the office of the President is vacant until the taking of the oath of office.

The fact is Senator Atchison’s term also ended on March 4th. He was not sworn in for another term, or re-elected President pro tempore of the Senate until March 5th. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t require the President-elect to take the oath of office to hold the office, just to execute the Presidential powers. Senator Atchison never took the oath of office, nor was he asked to, therefore he was never Acting President.

Historians and scholars assert when the outgoing President’s term ends, the President-elect automatically assumes the Presidency. In this case it was confusing because everyone went strictly by the Constitution. Zachary Taylor took the oath of office at noon on Monday March 5, 1849. Constitutionally he in fact became the President at noon on Sunday March 4, 1849. History shows he was inaugurated on March 5th. Confused yet? No wonder people of the time wondered about this. Of course the good people of Missouri, Senator Atchison’s constituents claimed him as the President, at least for one day in 1849.

Atchison was 41 years and 6 months old at the time of the alleged One-Day Presidency, younger than any official President. Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest to serve, was 42 years and 11 months old when sworn in after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. John F. Kennedy was the youngest elected at 43 years and 7 months old at his inauguration in 1961.

So officially and legally Senator Atchison was never the President of the United States, however, his gravestone reflects the belief of his supporters that he was history`s only one-day President.

Grave-Atchison_David_Rice_-_Plattsburg_MO_3

Grave of Senator Atchison/see photo credits below.

(By The original uploader was AmericanCentury21 at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=267600)


America’s First Female President

August 12, 2015
492px-President_Woodrow_Wilson_portrait_December_2_1912

President Woodrow Wilson-photo Library of Congress

With all the talk of the possiblity of Hillary Clinton becoming the first female President of the United States here’s a look back to 1919. Many historians believe that from 1919 to 1921 the United States had an “Acting President” who was a female. Her name was Edith Wilson. She was the wife of President Woodrow Wilson. Here’s how it happened and the circumstances leading up to it.

Background:
Thomas Woodrow Wilson (December 28, 1896 – February 3, 1924) served as the 28th President of the United States from March 4, 1913 to March 4, 1921. Wilson served during the World War I period. When the war began he declared the U.S. to be neutral keeping them out of the war. Isolationism dominated American politics and society in the early 20th century. Eventually events forced the U.S. to enter the war in April 1917. Wilson focused on diplomacy and financial considerations during the war letting his generals plot strategy and run the day to day operations.

One of his chief accomplishments was endorsing the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This gave women the right to vote when it was ratified in 1920.

In 1918 near the end of the war he issued his Fourteen Points a proposed framework for peace. After the armistice he went to Europe in 1919. There he signed the Treaty of Versailles. A key part of the treaty was the formation of the League of Nations. This forerunner was an attempt to ensure peace on a go-forward basis.

Edith_Wilson-nBolling=PublicDomain

Edith Wilson-photo Library of Congress

Incapacity:
He returned to the United States and began a nationwide tour to promote ratification of the Treaty of Versailles by Congress. In the end Senate Republicans rejected the Treaty. The U.S. never did ratify and didn’t take part in the League of Nations. Wilson’s power dimished as a result of this defeat.

This tour and the effort to get his proposals endorsed exhausted him. On October 2, 1919 in Pueblo, Colorado he collapsed and never fully recovered. He’d suffered a serious stroke. It paralyzed his left side and left only partial vision in the right eye. This left President Wilson bedridden in the White House effectively incapacitated.

His fitness for the presidency came into serious question. No one, not even his wife, his doctor or personal assistant was willing to start the process of certification of fitness for office as mandated in the Constitution, his “inability to discharge the powers and duties of said office”. Vice President Thomas Marshall was ignored and not even considered to take over until Wilson regained his health.

Wilson`s wife and first lady Edith (nee Bolling) took over many routine duties and details of the Presidency. Edith decided which matters of state were important to bring to the bedridden Wilson. In her biography she wrote,

“I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband”.

This sure sounds like she was “acting” as president. Many in Washington began referring to her as “the Presidentress”.

Even though Wilson was secluded in the White House in 1920 due to his stroke he still formulated a strategy for reelection. This attempt at a third term deadlocked the 1920 Democratic Convention. The party ignored his reelection attempt and he withdrew. Eventually the Democrats nominated Governor James Cox of Ohio. The general election was won by Republican candidate Warren Harding and Edith Wilson’s quasi-presidency ended.

Obviously not officially recognized Edith Wilson was “Acting President” from October 1919 until 1921, the end of her husband`s second term. Eventually this complex example formed part of the argument for passage of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment clarifies the incapacity issue and provides a clear mechanism for certification of a president`s ability to discharge his duties.

References:
McCallops, James S. Edith Bolling Galt Wilson: The Unintended President, New York: Nova History Publications, 2003

Wilson, Edith Bolling Galt. My Memoir. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1939


Presidential Oddities: “Natural born Citizen” what does it mean exactly?

April 3, 2015

seal-presidential-colorThe Constitution of the United States (Article II, Section I) outlines minimum qualifications a person must meet to be eligible to serve as the President of the United States. The Constitution states that to be President a person must,

  • Be at least thirty-five years of age
  • Have at least fourteen years of residency in the United States
  • Be a natural born citizen.

Over the years the first two have never been an issue. The last condition of being a “natural born Citizen” has several times been contentious.

It’s all in how the clause in the Constitution is interpreted. Some think it means born within the borders of the United States. The Constitution did not define “natural born Citizen”, and the Supreme Court has never ruled on its meaning. The vagueness has been used for political purposes by many opponents of the candidates.

Taken literally it would mean no one born outside the borders of the United States could be president. Scholars of the Constitution do not believe this to be the true intent. Most believe natural born extends to anyone born to U.S. citizens no matter where the birth occurred. To clarify the clause once and for all recommendations have been made to amend the Constitution.

In the race to the 2016 Presidential Election another example has arisen. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas who recently announced his candidacy was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He was born to an American mother and a Cuban father. Under U.S. law he automatically became an American citizen at birth because one of his parents was a citizen. Is this considered natural born? Therein is the ambiguity of the Constitutional clause. Without an amendment or a Supreme Court ruling the parameters of the clause remain uncertain.

Here are some examples of history,

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California was born in Austria to Austrian parents. Because neither parent was an American citizen he was not an American citizen at birth. He attained citizenship by naturalization after he immigrated. It is clear he would not be eligible to be president unless the Constitution was amended to enable it.

Senator John McCain of Arizona was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Both his parents were American citizens and also he was born on an American military base. Some questioned his qualifications when he ran in 2008, but in the end most agreed he met the natural born criteria. In fact in April 2008 the Senate passed a resolution declaring that McCain was a natural born citizen under the Constitution. This may have reassured many, but it had no real legal significance.
McCain Ineligible to be President?

Back in 1964 the natural born issue was raised against Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. He was born in Arizona prior to statehood. Arizona at the time was only a territory. Therefore was he natural born? Once again this was never resolved. Had he become president it may have been challenged in the courts.

Once again in 1968 legal actions threatened candidate George Romney, former Governor of Michigan, who was born in Mexico. Although he was born to parents who were both American citizens many arguments against his eligibility were made. His candidacy was unsuccessful and again no court ruling resulted.

During the 2008 and 2012 Presidential Elections so-called “birthers” challenged Barack Obama’s natural born credentials. In his case he was born in Hawaii to an American mother and a Kenyan born father. They even argued that he wasn’t born in Hawaii an American state since 1960, but actually in Kenya. The State of Hawaii produced a copy of his birth certificate.

President Chester Arthur ascended to the Presidency on the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881. His opponents dogged him with the issue of not being a natural born citizen.

He was born October 5, 1829 in Fairfield, Vermont according the family bible held by the U.S. National Archives, but no birth certificate exists. His father was Irish born and emigrated to Lower Canada, present day Quebec in 1818. Arthur’s mother was born in Vermont. They were married in Lower Canada in 1821. They moved to Fairfield in 1828 where Chester was born. The family’s many moves led to accusations Chester Arthur was not a natural born citizen of the United States. Once again these claims were never ruled on or proven.
Illegal President? Chester Alan Arthur.

To clarify and rid American politics of these arguments Sarah Helene Duggin from the Catholic University of America, who is an acknowledged expert on this topic believes the Constitution should be amended. The issue is not going away and is likely to arise again in the future.

What if someone is elected or becomes President and someone files in court to have them removed from office because of the natural born clause. If this filing is ruled legitimate and proceeds then what happens until the ruling is made? Does the person still continue be president or are they removed until a ruling is made? What if the ruling goes against the sitting president? As you can see confusion and potential gridlock may result. This is the reason most Constitutional scholars such as Ms Duggin believe the solution is an amendment.


McCain Ineligible to be President? You be the Judge.

February 28, 2008

aboutmccain_picts_1.jpgThe New York Times published an article February 28, 2008 by Carl Hulse that may throw the proverbial wrench into Republican John McCain’s bid to become President of the United States. (left: photo of Senator McCain campaigning. Taken  from his website.)

McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936 to American-born parents. The Canal Zone was a Territory of the United States, not a State or even a Possession. His birthplace was a U.S. military base within the Zone.

The Constitution of the United States states that to be eligible to be President a person must be “natural born”. The exact wording is found in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution,

“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”

Most Constitutional experts seem to feel that McCain would win any court challenge, but clearly a challenge could prove messy and the outcome unpredictable. If it was legally challenged before or during the election it could hurt his election chances, and a challenge after his inauguration could prove disastrous for the country. What would happen if he became president, a challenge was mounted and the Supreme Court ruled against him? He would be forced to resign the presidency or be removed from office. What a shocking development that would be.

The crux of the issue relates to the definition of “natural born Citizen” in the Constitution. This would be the clause that the legal interpretation would hinge on. Several things should be in his favor in any challenge,

1) The Panama Canal Zone was a Territory of the United States. Anyone born there would likely be considered “natural born”.

2) He was born on an America military base. Surely this would be considered American soil by the court.

3) He was born to parents who were both “natural born Citizens”, that is they were born in the contiguous fifty United States of America.

If there is no challenge, at the minimum it should be clarified at some future date simply to avoid confusion. Some interesting factoids illustrate confusion that has already occurred. Fortunately, nothing major has occurred to date. However, McCain is a formidable candidate who has a very strong chance of becoming president.

  • Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona was the Republican nominee for president in the 1964 election. He was born in 1909 in the then Arizona Territory, three years before it became a state.
  • George Romney who was a presidential candidate in 1968 was born in Mexico. Sure seems to me this wouldn’t meet the criteria, but again it wasn’t tested, likely because he didn’t become the nominee of his party.
  • FDR, Jr. who once considered running was born on Campobello Island in Canada was definitely ineligible in my opinion. 
  • President Chester Arthur, whose official birthplace was Vermont, was rumored to be Canadian born. The only official proof of his place of birth is an entry in the Arthur family bible held by the Library of Congress. In fact it is very likely he was not eligible to be president. He was challenged on the issue, but never legally. See my posting in the archives of this blog which delves into that issue.
  • Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California has aspirations to be president. He was born in Germany. He has been told he is not eligible, but what about George Romney in 1968. Why was he even eligible to run when he was born in Mexico?

If a challenge is mounted this year against McCain look for a special sitting of the Supreme Court to quickly resolve the issue one way or the other. To have a major controversy develop during this important presidential election would be untenable.

Further Reading:
Constitution of the United States of America, Article II, Section 1

New York Times, February 28, 2008, Carl Hulse
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/28/us/politics/28mccain.html


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