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)

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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


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