The Bizarre Reason This Man Became President Of The USA For Just One Day

As one of the most influential job titles on planet Earth, the role of the U.S. president has always been one to inspire fascination. But did you know that, more than 170 years ago, a man held the job for just 24 hours? So who exactly was this short-lived leader? And why did he only last a day?

Back in March 1849 the United States was just a decade away from civil war. But before the conflict that would come to define America, another, far less famous, incident occurred. In Washington, D.C., a bizarre series of events unfolded, leaving one individual with a very unusual claim to fame.

According to some historians, this man was president of the United States for a solitary day. But how did such an unusual tenure come about? And what acts did this forgotten leader manage to squeeze into such a short term? They’re unlikely to have effected any lasting policy change – so what does America have to remember them by?

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Fast-forward to the 21st century, and most of us have forgotten that such a brief presidency even occurred. But years ago, it was a hotly debated topic. And while his name might be unfamiliar today, the man at the heart of this strange story still occupies a unique place in the history of the United States.

Of course, this unusual incident wasn’t the only time that a U.S. president’s been in office for a surprisingly short time. Take William Henry Harrison, for example, the ninth man to lay claim to the illustrious title. Born in February 1773 he was 67 years old by the time that he stood against Democrat Martin Van Buren in the election of 1840.

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Ultimately, Harrison was successful – the oldest individual and the earliest member of the Whig Party to be named president at the time. And on March 4, 1841, he was inaugurated, relocating to Washington and settling into White House life. But unfortunately, his time in power was to prove short-lived.

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Just three weeks after his inauguration, Harrison contracted pneumonia. And even though doctors tried to save him, he passed away in the first week of April. All in all, he’d been president for just 31 days. In fact, many historians have recorded his stint at the country’s helm as the briefest American presidency on record. But as we’ll see, there’s a challenger to this claim.

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Or what about James A. Garfield, who was elected president exactly 40 years after Harrison? The 20th man to take on the role, he’d been in office for just a few months when he was shot in the back and arm by the troubled lawyer Charles J. Guiteau. Though Garfield survived the attack, he eventually succumbed to the sepsis that resulted from the lacerations he’s suffered.

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A couple of months after the shooting, Garfield passed away, having spent just half a year as president of the United States. But what of the man who was in office for a mere fraction of this time? Was he too the victim of a nefarious plot? Or did some other grim fate befall him before he could serve a full term?

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That was certainly the case with Zachary Taylor, the 12th U.S. president. Inaugurated in March 1849 he spent just 16 months in office before passing away due to an unspecified stomach condition. And even though his tenure was longer than those of Harrison and Garfield, he’s said to have achieved little of note.

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So far, then, we’ve seen that both illness and assassination have played a role in cutting presidential terms short. But what happened in 1849 when the man who can lay claim to the briefest stint in history momentarily came to power? His name, it turns out, was David Rice Atchison – and his story is a remarkable one.

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Born in August 1807 in what’s today Lexington, Kentucky, Atchison studied law in his home state before relocating to Missouri. As a young man he opened his own firm and soon found himself working for Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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In 1833 there was a movement to expel Smith’s followers, popularly referred to as Mormons, from Jackson County, MI. But Atchison stepped forward to defend them, winning himself a number of fans in the process. And backed by these supporters, he was able to secure a seat in the state’s House of Representatives in 1834.

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But the Mormons’ troubles weren’t over, and in 1838 the persecution escalated into all-out war. That year, Atchison joined the state militia, serving as a senior officer and helping to control the fighting that was erupting across the state. Then, after things had calmed down, he took a post as judge in the state court.

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Ultimately, though, Atchison was destined for bigger and better things. But how did this promising career culminate in the shortest presidential term in recorded history? Well, the Kentucky native’s ascent to power began in 1843, when he was called upon to step into an empty U.S. Senate seat.

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Atchison, being just 36 years old, was far younger than many of the men that he served alongside. But that didn’t stop him from becoming well-liked among other Democrats. In fact, he was appointed to a significant role within the Senate in 1845 – a key development in the bizarre saga that was to come.

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But while Atchison’s support for the beleaguered Mormons might make him seem like a hero, he was actually nothing of the sort. While in the Senate he spoke in support of slavery on numerous occasions and helped to bring in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. With this legislation, the practice of slavery spread to other states, causing further friction in antebellum America.

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In fact, according to the Senate’s own website, Atchison once went so far as to threaten violence against members of the Abolitionist movement. And while this attitude earned him the dubious distinction of having a town named after him in Kansas, it also contributed to the bloodshed that consumed the state. And ultimately, it helped to fan the flames of the Civil War.

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So how did a vehemently pro-slavery senator wind up as president of the United States at a time when many were skirting around the issue? And did this issue have anything to do with the laughable length of his term? Certainly, it was a topic that would make or break a number of political careers over the years.

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In reality, though, what happened in 1849 was something altogether more bizarre. During the early days of Atchinson’s stint in the Senate, you see, the White House had been occupied by President James K. Polk. But before his election in 1844, Polk had promised to limit his tenure to just a single term.

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Keeping his word, Polk left office at precisely midday on March 4, 1849. According to tradition, that was when the next president, the aforementioned Zachary Taylor, should’ve been sworn in. But that year, Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, a day that strict Christians tend to reserve for rest.

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As a result, the staunchly religious Taylor pushed his inauguration ceremony back to March 5. But with Polk leaving office a day earlier, there was an undeniable gap. Did this mean that someone else had been president for the brief interlude between one man standing down and the next taking office? According to some historians, it did, and the individual in question is Atchison.

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Amazingly, though, it isn’t as far-fetched an idea as you might think. Back in 1845, you see, Atchison had been appointed president pro tempore of the Senate. Essentially, that meant that it was his job to watch over proceedings when the vice president, who was usually in charge at the Senate, was otherwise engaged.

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But there was another element to Atchison’s title, and it’s this that’s inspired one of antebellum America’s strangest political stories. According to the laws of the time, the president pro tempore was also second in line to the presidency. So, technically, if anything had happened to both Polk and his vice president, then Atchison would have been in charge.

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Of course, nothing untoward happened to Polk. But he did leave a vacuum of power behind when he stepped down – one that would not be filled for 24 hours. Given that his vice president’s term would also have ended at the same juncture, does that mean that Atchison was temporarily in charge?

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Well, lots of people certainly think so. In fact, just seven days after Taylor’s eventual inauguration, the Virginia newspaper the Alexandria Gazette published an article seemingly confirming the bizarre theory. It read, “[Atchison] was on Sunday, by virtue of his office, president of the United States – for one day!”

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Later, in 1907 another article was printed in the Philadelphia Press. And this time, it claimed that Atchison had embraced his temporary role with gusto. The piece read, “That [he] considered himself president there was no doubt, for on Monday morning, when the Senate reassembled he sent to the White House for the seal of the great office and signed one or two official papers as president.”

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And that wasn’t all. According to the Senate’s official website, the article went on to claim that Atchison’s fellow Democrats had jokingly proposed that he stage a coup to stop Taylor taking power. By this point, the story of the shortest presidency ever had spread far and wide, even appearing in an official biography of American Congress.

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But, as is often the case, the truth isn’t quite so clear cut. Strangely, as the Senate’s website points out, the story about Atchison’s temporary presidency didn’t appear in either the Senate Journal or the Congressional Globe at the time. Surely, one imagines, such a peculiar tale would’ve warranted extensive coverage by the political press?

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And that’s not all. In 1925 the political historian and author George Haynes shared his own thoughts about the notion of Atchison as a forgotten president of the United States. And according to Haynes, the theory doesn’t hold weight. In reality, he explained, the senator wasn’t even in office when the alleged scenario took place.

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This rebuttal, it seems, hinges around the idea that Atchison’s senatorial position actually came to an end along with Polk’s presidency on March 4. And even though he was reappointed to the role of president pro tempore the following day, the post was in fact unfilled during the period in question.

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But if neither Polk nor Atchison were president during these confusing 24 hours, then who was? Intriguingly, a case could be made to support the fact that the latter really did fill the position – but only for a few minutes. On March 5, you see, the senator was technically reappointed to his pro tempore role immediately before Taylor was sworn in.

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Yet this viewpoint, while creative, is flawed. After all, the vice president is always sworn into office before the president makes his own pledge. Therefore, by extension every second-in-command has technically been the leader of the free world – if only for a matter of minutes.

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So what did Atchison himself make of all the fuss? Did he really believe that he’d been president of the United States for one day? Or did he dismiss such ideas as fantasy and folly? Well, according to the Senate’s website, the man at the center of the claims was quick to dismiss them.

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“I never for a moment acted as president of the U.S.” he’s reported to have written in the early 1880s. That said, it appears that he wasn’t above making light of the situation. It seems he sometimes commented that he could easily have slept through the whole thing had it not been for his pals, who began harassing him for favors.

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“I recollect that Senator Mangum of North Carolina suggested that I make him Secretary of State,” Atchison is reported to have said in 1889. On another occasion, he’s thought to have referred to his hypothetical term as “the honestest administration this country ever had.” In reality, though, he felt that the position had remained unoccupied between Polk and Taylor’s respective tenures.

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Intriguingly, it wouldn’t be the first time that such an event had occurred. Almost 30 years earlier, Inauguration Day also fell on a Sunday, causing President James Monroe to delay the proceedings some 24 hours. So had his actions, like Polk’s, created an unexpected vacuum in the line of succession?

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According to the Senate’s website, Monroe’s successor, John Quincy Adams, believed that it had. He wrote, “[the delay created] a sort of interregnum during which there was no qualified person to act as president.” But later academics of the Constitution have stood against this point of view.

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As several historians have pointed out, the president isn’t legally obliged to swear their oath prior to beginning their duties. With that in mind, both Monroe and Taylor would technically have assumed the role the moment that their predecessor stepped down – regardless of the date of their inauguration.

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But though there are many technical points against Atchison’s alleged presidency, that hasn’t stopped it from becoming the stuff of legend. In the Missouri town where he was buried, for example, two memorials repeat the claim that he was “President of the United States for One Day.” And in Kansas, the David Rice Atchison Presidential Library lays claim to being the smallest such institution in the U.S. These days, private ceremonies are held to bypass any controversy surrounding Sunday inaugurations, but the debate surrounding this controversial piece of history rages on.

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