David Rice Atchison

Zachary backery,
David Rice Atchison
Made (for a day or so)
National head;
“If you should want me,” he
Somnambulistically
Murmured, “pro tempore,
I’ll be in bed.”

Sunday, March 4, 1849, would ordinarily have been the first day of the presidential term of Zachary Taylor, but he would not be sworn in on the Sabbath, so his inauguration was moved to the next day. It was said at the time and often since that David Rice Atchison, who was then president pro tempore of the Senate, was president for that single day, since the term of the previous president (Polk) had clearly ended, yet neither Taylor nor his vice-president (Fillmore, later president) had yet been sworn in.

There is here a confusion between who is acting as president at a particular time, and who is actually president. When Bush delegated responsibility to Cheney on July 21, 2007, while he was under general anaesthetic, Cheney did not therefore become president for a few hours. Until 1967, there was some doubt over whether you became the president even by being the vice-president when the president died, or just acted as the president until the next election; in that year, the 25th Amendment made it explicit that the VP becomes the new president. CBS is therefore incorrect in stating that Biden was president between the moments of his own oath and of Obama’s.

(The question of whether Taylor or Atchison was president on that Sunday is easily answered: either you need to have taken the oath in order to be the president or you don’t. If you do need to, then Atchison was never president because he never took the oath (and either there was no president or it was still Polk). If you don’t, then Taylor was already president and Atchison couldn’t have been.)

Photo of Atchinson’s gravestone by AmericanCentury21, GFDL.

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Thomas Thurman

Mostly themes, triaging, and patch review.