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)


Minority governments in Canada.

October 18, 2015

canadian-flag-blowing-in-the-wind-PublicDomanThe Canadian election is tomorrow, October 19, 2015. The present government is the Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper. They have had a majority government since the election of May 2, 2011. Prior to that the Stephen Harper and his Conservatives were elected twice before, but both times with minority governments.

In 2006 for the first time, but were 30 seats short of a majority. This government lasted 2 years, 207 days (total 937 days) before another election was held. Then in the subsequent election held October 14, 2008 the Conservatives again failed to obtain a majority. This time they fell 12 seats short. This time the minority government lasted 2 years, 4 months, 9 days (total 859 days).

Finally in the next election of May 2, 2011 the Conservatives won the majority they were seeking. The two minority governments he and his party formed are the two longest lasting in Canadian history.

There are pros and cons to both majority and minority governments. Failing to obtain a majority government forces the winning party to work with the other parties on important legislation. This need to compromise is not easy, but if important legislation such as a budget are defeated then the government must resign and another election called. With a majority these is no need to compromise. However, if the government doesn’t take other parties and stakeholders concerns into account then at the next election they may be defeated or lose their majority. Minority governments require a deft balancing act to remain in power.

Here are some interesting facts about minority governments in Canadian history since 1867,
– the longest consecutive term was 937 days (2 years, 6 months, 24 days) by the Stephen Harper Conservatives. Elected January 23, 2006 and dissolved September 7, 2008.
– the shortest duration of a minority government was the John Diefenbaker Progressive Conservatives elected April 12, 1957 and dissolved February 1, 1958. It lasted just 177 days (5 months, 25 days).
– smallest minority was the Stephen Harper Conservative government elected in 2006.
– average duration of minority governments in Canada is 479 days (about 1 year, 140 days)
– first minority government in Canadian history was William Lyon Mackenzie King led Liberals in the election of October 8, 1921. Initially this government held an exact number of seats for a majority but lost two seats in by-elections of 1924 and then continued as a minority government until later in 1924 when another by-election returned them to a majority.

The election of 2015 is too close to call at this writing, but polls show the Liberals led by Justin Trudeau forming a minority government. The other two parties having a realistic chance are the incumbant Conservatives led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the New Democratic Party (NDP) led by Thomas Mulcair. It would be a huge surprise if a majority government is elected on October 15th. Voter turnout is anticipated to be heavy based on the Advance Polls so anything can happen.

** Update – Liberals pull off upset majority government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau) will be sworn in November 4, 2015.


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.

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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


What happens if no presidential candidate gets 270 Electoral votes?

November 6, 2012

In an extremely close presidential election it is possible that no candidate could get the needed majority of 270 Electoral votes. The Constitution of the United States makes provision for this scenario.

The Twelfth Amendment (ratified June 15, 1804):

This states in layman’s language that if no one presidential candidate gets the required majority, than the House of Representatives would choose immediately, by ballot, the President. However, it is important to note the vote would be by states, the representation from each state would have one vote. So each Representative does not get one vote, rather each state represented in the House gets one vote.

Again if no one vice-presidential candidate gets a majority of Electoral votes, then the Senate would choose the Vice-President from the two candidates with the most Electoral votes.

This system raises an interesting scenario. If both the presidential and the vice-presidential candidate did not receive a majority of Electoral votes, both would be elected by Congress, the House of Representatives the President, and the Senate, the Vice-President. This election if the Senate stays Democratic and the House stays Republican as expected then the likely scenario in this rare case would be President Romney and Vice-President Biden for the next four years.

What an interesting administration those would be. History consists of what-if scenarios. Some come true and others don’t. Watch closely to see what happens here.


Campaign bus revamped.

March 24, 2012

This is the design painted on the bus when they kicked off the party’s provincial election campaign a week ago. In the Calgary Herald it now says they have repainted the bus and located the leader’s picture more towards the middle of the bus.

Most liked it the original way. It injected a little humor into the political arena.

The Wildrose Party is a relatively new, but powerful party here in the Province of Alberta and they are hoping to knock off the long serving Progressive Conservatives. Wildrose is a right leaning party. The election will most certainly come down to a battle between Wildrose and PC both whom have female leaders interesting enough.


Kennedy Sworn in as President – 50 yrs Ago Today

January 20, 2011

President Kennedy - official White House photo

 Fifty years ago today John Fitzgerald Kennedy took the oath of office at exactly 12:00 p.m. Eastern time in Washington, DC.

Kennedy’s inauguration signaled a new generation ascending to power. His predecessor, President Eisenhower was of a previous generation and had served 8 years, since 1954-1961.

Kennedy, or JFK as he was affectionally known, was the youngest man ever elected president at age 43. Teddy Roosevelt was younger when he became president, but he became president after McKinley’s assassination.

Kennedy was also the first person of the Roman Catholic faith to be elected to the office.

The other fascination for people was his young family and his war service. He exuded personality and vigor. New ideas and renewed energy brought hope to young people.

When he was elected it was the height of the Cold War. The United States and the USSR had enough nuclear tipped missiles targeted at each other to destroy the world several times over. This wasn’t just an American or a Soviet issue, but a world living in the shadow of destruction. In fact the official policy of both nations was Mutually Assured Destruction or M.A.D. for short. Simply put if one country attacked the other it was assured both would be destroyed. Sounds crazy, but it was a fact that all of us lived with during that period. No wonder people were looking for new ideas and fresh hope.

Although his presidency was short-lived Kennedy began the dialogue with the Soviet Union on disarmament signing the Test Ban Treaty. This was a first step towards reducing nuclear arsenals.

I remember President Kennedy today for those steps he initiated towards reduction of nuclear tensions.


John Kennedy Wins Nomination – 50 years ago

July 13, 2010

JFK and Caroline in August 1963-White House photo

I can’t let this anniversary pass. On this day in 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination for president at their convention in Los Angeles, California.

Of course, he went on to win the general election in November 1960 by the slimmest of margins to become president-elect. On January 20, 1961 he was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States. He was also the youngest elected president to take office and the first person of the Roman Catholic faith to become president.

Tragically, he became the youngest president (46 years of age) to die in office when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963 while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas.


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