The One-Day Presidency: Senator David Rice Atchison

March 1, 2016

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 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,

11/22/63: End of Innocence

November 22, 2013


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.


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

Prince William as King: Not very soon

November 17, 2010

Kate and William discussing engagement/Photo MSNBC

Everyone is excited about Prince William and his new bride-to-be Kate Middleton. Both are young and vibrant. What a great king he would make for the 21st century. Sorry to dash your hopes, but it will likely be a long time before he is king, and he will be old when he ascends the throne.

Queen Elizabeth II is now 85 and aging well. Her mother lived in excess of 100 years. Health is not a problem. The heir to the throne, her son Charles is 62 and again health is not an issue.

Assume the Queen lives at least another 10 years. Charles will ascend the throne at age 72. Barring anything unexpected he will likely live into his 80s. Assume he will live until 90. Do the math, that’s another 30 years before William becomes king, he will ascend the throne at age 58 years, no more the young man he is now. Some thoughts on this situation,

1. Would Charles consider stepping aside or abdicating to allow his son William to become king at a younger age.

Not likely. Charles is very much a traditionalist. He has trained all his life to be king and wants to be king.

2. Would the Queen consider stepping down if her health fails? Again not likely as she too is a traditionalist. It could happen though. She may defer to relative youth. Still Charles will likely not be king until he is in his late 70s or early 80s.

Bottom line, the English monarchy is an hereditary institution and will continue to be so. The only modern abdication took place when King Edward VIII decided he wanted to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, rather than remain king. This opened the way for his younger brother George to become King George VI and subsequently his daughter Elizabeth to become the present Queen.

Ah but wouldn’t it be something to have a King William who was 28 or 30. It will never happen.

November 22, 1963 Remembered

November 23, 2009

Believe it or not it has been 46 years since the tragic events of the weekend of November 22 – 25, 1963.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected November 8, 1960 as the youngest president at 43 years of age. (Teddy Roosevelt was youngest to take office, but he assumed office after McKinley’s assassination.) John Kennedy took office January 20, 1961 with a promise of his New Frontier. Together with his beautiful wife Jackie and young children they charmed the nation and the world.

In preparation for the election of 1964 Kennedy wanted to win the electoral votes of the populous state of  Texas. He decided to make a trip to Texas in late November 1963.

On the morning of Friday November 23, 1963 he and his wife took breakfast in Fort Worth and flew to Dallas afterwards. Their arrival at Love Field was greeted by a large crowd.

A motorcade then left from the airport with a planned arrival at the Trade Mart around 1:00pm local time. Kennedy, his wife, and Governor John Connally of Texas and his wife rode in an open Lincoln limousine through the downtown. On their way they passed the Texas School Book Depository.  As they turned the corner from Houston to Elm Street shots rang out. Kennedy was struck in the back with an exit out the neck. This would have been a nonfatal shot. Seconds later he was hit by a bullet in the head effectively killing him.  The time was 12:30 pm Central Standard Time. He was taken to Parkland Hospital where he was pronounced dead at around 1:00 pm local time.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Vice President effectively became the 36th president upon Kennedy’s death. He took the oath of office in Air Force One just before departing for Washington, D.C.

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested several hours later in a Dallas movie theatre. He was charged with Kennedy’s murder.

Oswald was being moved from the jail to more secure quarters on Sunday November 24th. While being escorted through the basement of police headquarters, Jack Ruby a local nightclub owner with mob ties, stepped forward and shot Oswald at point-blank range. Oswald died later at Parkland Hospital. The truth died with him.

Monday November 25th the funeral of President Kennedy took place in Washington, D.C. Millions watched the event on television in disbelief that this young president could have been taken from us so suddenly.

He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

To this day there remain many unanswered questions and mysteries surrounding his assassination.

Kennedy Assassination, November 22, 1963: Reflections

November 22, 2007


(Frame from Zapruder Film shows Kennedy clutching his throat as the first shot strikes him.)

November 22, 1963 – where were you? I know exactly where I was when I heard the shocking news of the death of the young American President. I was in high school and just finishing classes that Friday afternoon when the announcement came over the public address system that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.

I for one can’t believe it is now 44 years later and still the man and the event fascinates. To my children it is just something they hear about in history books, but to me it is living history. The events of that tragic weekend created a new awareness in my fourteen year old mind. History, politics and world affairs were suddenly thrust into my everyday consiousness. Seeing world leaders from almost all the countries of the world marching in the solemn funeral procession made me realize how deeply we can be affected by world events.

We gathered around the television that entire weekend like moths to a lamp, hungering for news and trying to come to grips with the reality of the fact that Kennedy was dead. For me, as a young person, it was disbelief that this young and vital world leader had been cut down in his prime and replaced with a much older leader.  All this in just six seconds of gunfire in Dallas.

In 1963 the Cold War was at its height and to have the leader of the so-called Free World assassinated was chilling. At the time no one had any inkling of what would happen next. His successor, President Lyndon Johnson, did an admirable job of reassuring the American people and the world that an orderly transfer of power had taken place. He made sure his taking of the oath of office was photographed and witnessed by the media and others. He did this almost immediately after Kennedy was pronounced dead. It was imperative that the world know that government in the United States was still functioning and able to respond to any threat.


(Dealey Plaza, the scene of the assassination. Where the people are standing on the sidewalk in the middle of the photo is the location of  Kennedy’s limousine when he was fatally struck. The red building in the middle, top is the Texas School Book Depository location of the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.)

To understand the fear and panic of the moment let’s put this tragic story in the perspective of todays high-tech news world. This event occurred before camcorders, the internet, and cable news like CNN. On that fateful day television cameras were not even covering the president’s motorcade through downtown Dallas. Besides the cameras of that era were so bulky and unwieldy that their mobility was severely limited. Remote broadcasts with the portable video cameras of today were non-existent. People in the crowd along the route certainly did not have video camcorders. Pictures that do exist of the event are primarily from photographic stills. Fortunately Abraham Zapruder had his 8 mm home movie camera running from a relatively good vantage point in Dealey Plaza. He managed to capture the moment for posterity. This is the famous “Zapruder Film” now held by the National Archives. It is the only film record that captured the entire event. This inability to see live news feeds only added to the uncertainty of what was transpiring.zaprudercamera.jpg (Abraham Zapruder’s home movie camera, state of the art in 1963)

In our time this same event would be instaneously covered by the media. Many of the spectators lining the motorcade would be actively recording the scene with either a camcorder or a high quality digital camera. Images and reports from the scene would be transmitted live as they happened to the world via television and the internet. The unknown would clearly not be a factor. A significant amount of photographic evidence would exist that would show more clearly what happened that day. The assassination would certainly have been recorded as it happened from a myriad of angles and viewpoints throughout Dealey Plaza. Contrast the Kennedy Assassination with coverage of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks in 2001 and you can see the point I am making. Historical events in the 21st century come into our lives in more detail because of today’s technology. Always remember though that we still need to draw our own conclusions based on the evidence presented from various viewpoints. This is sometimes difficult when we are being bombarded with so much information so rapidly.

If only CNN et al had been there on that fateful Dallas day in 1963.

Illegal President? Chester Alan Arthur

October 24, 2007

chester-arthur-picture.jpgChester Arthur became the twenty-first President  on September 19, 1881 when President James Garfield succumbed to his gunshot wounds.  Garfield was shot in a Washington, DC train station by Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881. Arthur was elected Vice President of the United States on a ticket with Garfield in 1880. The Constitution of the United States requires that to be eligible to hold the office of Vice President or President one has to be born in the United States .

Below: Garfield assassination 1881.


His country of birth is very much in doubt. No birth certificate has ever been produced that proves he was American by birth.

His father immigrated to Quebec, Canada and raised his family there, before moving to Vermont. It is claimed that his son Chester was born in a cabin in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829. Fairfield is only a few miles from the Canadian/US border.

Many of his opponents accused him of not being eligible to be Vice President or President because he was a British citizen born in Canada. No undeniable proof has ever been brought forth either way. Arthur himself neither denied or defended his eligibility. He remained silent on the issue. The Arthur family bible held by the Library of Congress has family entries showing his birth as Fairfield, but this is not irrefutable proof. His father wanted him badly to be an American and that is why the family moved to Vermont. He also encouraged Chester in his political career.

Arthur Hinman, a New York lawyer, published a story in the New York Times of December 22, 1880 on then President-elect Arthur. Apparently Hinman was “employed by the Democratic National Committee to obtain evidence to prove that Arthur was an unnaturalized foreigner”. He later published a book, “How a British Subject Became President of the United States”. An article related to the content of this book was published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of June 2, 1884 which claimed:

“Chester Alan Arthur was born in Dunham Flats, Canada on {sic} March, 1828, and that he represented himself to have been born at North Fairfield, Vermont”

Another author, Thomas C. Reeves wrote a biography of Arthur, “Gentleman Boss: the life of Chester Alan Arthur, New York: Knopf, 1975”. He dismisses Hinman’s theory but admits that Arthur lied about his age. This would have had no effect on his eligibility for the Presidency though.

Perhaps we will never know the entire truth, but it was extremely easy to cross the border in 1829 and accurate birth records were not kept in either Canada or the U.S. Canada was a British Colony until 1867 so if he was born in Canada in 1829 he would technically be a British citizen, still ineligible to hold either the office of Vice President or President of the United States.

Chester A. Arthur was very likely an illegal President who should not have been allowed to hold the office. At the very least he should have been asked to prove his birth before being nominated in 1880 as his party’s Vice Presidential candidate.

Another historical mystery that remains unsolved.


The Library of Congress does indeed have the Arthur family Bible (Philadelphia, 1857, LC call number: BS185.1857.P5, Rare Bk. Coll., Bible Coll.). The birth record for the 21st President reads: “Chester Alan Arthur–fifth child & eldest son of William Arthur and Malvina his wife,–born Oct. 5, 1829, at Fairfield, Franklin
Co. Vt.” 

President Arthur had a fatal kidney disease. He knew he was dying during his presidency. He did seek the nomination in 1884 in an effort to hide his illness, but was unsuccessful. He died in 1886, just a year after leaving the presidency.

Presidential Primer #5 – Succession

October 19, 2007

485px-william_henry_harrison.pngTo maintain a stable democracy it is important to have a clear succession procedure in the event of the death of the president.  (Left: President William Henry Harrison, first President to die in office.) This also applies to a resignation or removal from office (impeachment). When these types of events occur it is usually a time of confusion and vulnerability for the government.

Again let’s look at what the Constitution of the United States laid out for these contingencies. Keep in mind that this is what was in the original Constitution.  Amendments were made later to clarify presidential succession. I will discuss those later on.

Article II, Section 1 states:

“In the case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or in ability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by law provide for the case of removal, death, resignation or inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what officer shall then act as President, and such officer shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.”

This section did not clearly state that the Vice President automatically became President on the death, removal from office, or resignation of the President. In fact it seems to say that the Vice President would only be an “acting” President until they could elect a new President. Very much subject to interpretation.

The first test of this took place when President William Henry Harrison died one month after taking office in 1841. His Vice President John Tyler was not liked and when he took it upon himself to take the “Oath of Office”, there was confusion and great controversy. Many in the Congress attempted to nullify the oath taking and appoint their own choice for President. Finally a vote in the House of Representatives confirmed him as President and his presidency was formally recognized.

What this did was effectively set a precedent in law. Constitutionally it was still foggy and should someone mount a serious challenge to a succession in the future it might succeed.

The Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution modified Article II, Section 1, but this was not ratified until February 23, 1967. After President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 lawmakers realized that a clearer succession procedure was needed to avoid any future confusion or doubt as to who the new President would be.

Amendment XXV, Section 1 states:

“In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.”

As you can see this is very clear. Further, it built in another safeguard by filling the vacant Vice Presidency that occurs when he succeeds to the Presidency. In some cases the office of Vice President has been vacant for almost four years. 447px-john_tyler.jpgExamples of this are when President Harrison died one month into his term, Tyler served virtually an entire term without a Vice President. (Right: John Tyler, first Vice President to succeed to the Presidency.) Then when President Franklin Roosevelt died a few months into his fourth term, Harry Truman served FDR’s remaining term (almost four years) without a Vice President. Fortunately nothing happened to either President, but certainly some uncertainty would likely have occurred when the Speaker of the House succeeded, for he would be the next in line. This eventuality was covered off by Amendment XXV, Section 2 which states:

 “Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.”

170px-gerald_ford.jpgThe first time this provision was used was December 1973. President Richard Nixon appointed Rep. Gerald Ford as Vice President when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in scandal. Subsequent to that Ford succeeded to the Presidency after Nixon’s resignation to avoid likely impeachment. He then appointed Nelson Rockefeller to be his Vice President. The Congress ratified the appointments in both cases. (Left: Gerald Ford, first to be appointed Vice President under Amendment XXV.)

Finally there has always been confusion about what happens if a President becomes incapacitated and can’t discharge his duties. The primary point of contention has been at what point is he unable to do that and who decides that an “acting” President is needed.

Section 3 of the Amendment states:

“Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate (the Vice President) and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.”

Several examples of this have occurred where Presidents have had minor surgery that required general anesthetic. Vice Presidents have been “Acting President for several hours.

If the President is unable to resume his duties and can’t notify Congress himself the Amendment states:

“the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue”.

Then after a vote in Congress if it is agreed that the President is unable to function:

“the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President”

So for example if a President slipped into a coma, the Vice President would only be “Acting President”.  Only on the President’s death would he officially become President.

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