Flashback Friday: President for a Day

Take a drive through the rolling hills of Missouri just north of Kansas City, and you just might find yourself in the small community of Plattsburg.

In the Greenlawn Cemetery off State Highway C, among listing power lines,

David Rice Atchison's tombstone.

David Rice Atchison’s tombstone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

thick green grass, and granite family markers, stands a monument to the Atchison-Allen family plot. On the east side of the family obelisk is a worn, granite marker for David Rice Atchison, b. 1807 d. 1886. Just beyond, the city of Plattsburg set an ornate bronze marker in the grass that reads: “President of the United States for one day. Sunday Mar. 4 1849. David Rice Atchison. Aug. 11, 1807 – Jan. 26, 1886.”

Did we really have a president for a day?

According to a statue dedicated to Mr. Atchison standing in front of the Clinton County Courthouse in Plattsburg, MO. we did. The plaque on the red marble base declares Mr. Atchison as “President of the United States one day; Lawyer, Statesman, and Jurist; U.S. Senate 1843-1855.”

Where does this mythic “president for a day” come from?

It so happens that James K. Polk’s presidency ended at noon on March 4th 1849, a Sunday. His successor, President-elect Zachary Taylor, declined to be sworn in on the Sabbath, so his inauguration occurred at noon on March 5th.

The internet is full of funny little “facts” and trivia that claim David Atchison as being the “official” twelfth president for twenty-four hours.

Most of these claims surround the notion that Taylor wasn’t sworn in, but if that was the case, neither was Atchison. Therefore, people who make this claim should really state that there was no president for twenty-four hours. Atchison himself never claimed to be “president for a day” and said of that day, “there had been three or four busy nights finishing up the work of the Senate, and I slept most of that Sunday.”

In reality, Polk was neither removed from office, nor died or otherwise unable to perform his duties. According to the Constitution, there is no specific time at which the president’s term ends; when one president’s term ends, the president-elect’s begins. The only thing the swearing in does is enable the president to execute the powers of his office.

This tidbit of history got me thinking.

Inauguration day is January 20th, 2013. A Sunday.

Should Mitt Romney win the White House, will he stand by his Mormon faith and opt to hold the inauguration on Monday since Mormon’s cannot have people do “worldly” work on Sunday, or will he go through with the tradition?

Beyond that, how would a large portion of America react to this? There was a time when people feared a Catholic President, JFK, and the worry that he would hand over carte blanche power to the Pope. Most Americans can vividly remember the Christian Coalition that swept Ronald Reagan into office, and there has been a negative reaction from many Americans toward the Christian Right since that day. As near as I can find, American’s who consider themselves atheist hover around three to five percent. In a nation of three hundred million, that would mean on the low end there are roughly nine million people who would consider themselves atheist. Though this isn’t a “large” portion of Americans, there are still a great many that hold views that the religious right are the ones that are dooming America.

To have their–possible–president opt to hold the inauguration a day later due to religious beliefs might just ruffle a few feathers in the flock.

It would make for interesting television. Debates on the networks about Romney’s religion being more important than America, despite that fact that previous president’s have opted to honor the Sabbath.

Either way, I doubt that Hawaii will be erecting statues to Daniel Inouye, current President pro tempore, as being “president for a day” since there really isn’t one. No offense to David Atchison and his fans.


One thought on “Flashback Friday: President for a Day

  1. Pingback: How Three Little Letters Can Tear Apart a Aarty | Fair to Middling

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