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.

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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)

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America’s First Female President

August 12, 2015
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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


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.


Presidential Oddities: James Madison the 4th President 1809 – 1817.

March 28, 2015

All American Presidents have some kind of oddity associated with them or their administration. The 4th President of the United States, James Madison was no exception.

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President James Madison-WhiteHouseHistoricalAssn-PublicDomain

Madison was President from 1809 to 1817. He was elected twice under the Democratic-Republican banner. By today’s standards that party name alone is an oddity. In that era two main parties contested the Presidency. The Federalists who stood for a strong central government and the Democratic-Republicans who stood for States rights first, and believed the national government must respect those rights.

When he was nominated and ran for President in 1808 his running mate was George Clinton. The oddity was that he was the sitting Vice President. He served under President Thomas Jefferson. He ran for the presidential nomination against Madison, but ended up being nominated by his party as Madison’s vice presidential candidate. This was the first of two times this happened, the other being the re-election of John C. Calhoun in 1828. Madison himself served under Thomas Jefferson, the incumbent president, as his Secretary of State. When Jefferson did not seek a third term, Madison ran for his party’s nomination.

In 1812 Madison was again nominated, but Vice President George Clinton died April 20, 1812. His party’s caucus nominated Governor John Langdon of New Hampshire to be his new running mate. Governor Langdon declined the nomination because of his age, 70 years at the time. A second caucus nominated Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts for vice president and he accepted even though he was relatively old at 68 years. This ticket of Madison-Gerry was elected and inaugurated.

On November 23, 1814 Vice President Gerry fell ill while in the Capitol. He went to his boarding house nearby and died later in the day.

President James Madison is the only President to have two Vice Presidents die in office. During both his terms the Vice Presidency was vacant for some time. There was no provision for filling the vacancy at that time. Over the years the office of Vice President has been vacant many times. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution ratified February 10, 1967 established procedures for filling a vacancy in the office of Vice President.

President Madison was the first president to,

  • Have served in the House of Representatives.
  • Requested a Declaration of War from Congress (1812).
  • Be a wartime Commander-in-Chief (War of 1812)
  • Have an Inaugural Ball.
  • Wear long trousers instead of knee breeches.

I find these oddities and what-ifs of history to be fascinating. Stay tuned for more posts. Comments are always appreciated.


11/22/63: End of Innocence

November 22, 2013

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Fifty years ago today President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was gunned down on the streets of Dallas, Texas. He and his wife Jackie rode in a open-topped Lincoln. Spirits soared as the crowds cheered the young president and his beautiful wife as the presidential motorcade moved through the streets of the city. The morning of November 22, 1963 started out overcast and rainy, but when they arrived in Dallas the sun came out and it was a bright, sunny day.

Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president at age 43. He exuded energy, hope and new ideas. In October 1962 he saved the world from nuclear holocoust by defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was the first president to speak publicly on the issue of civil rights, and in fact gave a televised speech on the subject, something no American president dared do to that point.

The Cold War between the two superpowers, the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union, dominated the world in 1963. Both countries had enough nuclear warheads and missiles to destroy mankind several times over. After the crisis of 1962 Kennedy and the Soviets had made progress to begin to reduce tensions. The first treaty of any kind related to nuclear weapons, The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty abolishing atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, was signed by Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. There was hope.

Then the Lincoln entered Dealey Plaza and shots rang out. The president was mortally wounded. Hope died. The world went into shock.

The weekend was spent entranced by television images, the assassination, the capture of a suspect, the body lying in state in Washington, the murder of the suspect, the funeral, and the burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Especially poignant were the images of Jackie and Caroline kneeling at his casket in the Capitol saying their goodbyes, his young son John saluting his father’s casket as it rolled by, and the lighting of the eternal flame at his grave. Even now these images tear at my heart.

It all seemed so surreal. It was unbelievable back then and still is today 50 years later. John Kennedy was only 46 years of age. He had been President of the United States and leader of the Free World for just over a thousand days.

As of today over 150 million people have visited his gravesite in Arlington. Most I am sure like me reflecting on the what-ifs.

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The eternal flame on President Kennedy’s grave in Arlington.


“Near Miss: The Attempted Assassination of JFK” – Smithsonian Documentary

September 20, 2013

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Smithsonian Channel, part of the Smithsonian Museum, just announced they will air a documentary November 17, 2013 on the Kennedy assassination attempt. It is called “Kennedy’s Suicide Bomber” and was produced by Raw Cut TV a UK company. I provided much of the information to one of Raw Cut’s researchers many months ago. This movie is based at least partly on my book referenced in the title of this blog posting.

The problem is they never notified me of the final production and I’m not sure if they will be crediting me with my contribution. I realize that they almost certainly did additional research but I put them on to many of the sources and also furnished them with so-called rare documents related to this. I am presently making contact with both companies to discuss my concerns. Fortunately I documented my research every step of the way. I also documented all my contacts with Raw Cut. Smithsonian and Raw Cut need to make sure I am credited somewhere in this documentary. That’s all I ask.

In any event the show will be great publicity for this “near miss”. Just remember “Near Miss: The Attempted Assassination of JFK” is the only book ever written concerning this and its potential impacts. The book was published in December 2010 and is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Googlebooks, Kobobooks and others. The author is me – Steve B. Davis.

Link:

Near Miss – The book by Steve B. Davis


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.


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