On March 3, 1849, James Polk’s term as president ended. President-elect Zachary Taylor was to take office the next day, a Sunday, but he refused to be sworn into office on the Sabbath and asked to wait until Monday.
That one day—March 4, 1849—is an important day to the residents of Plattsburg, Mo. That’s the day their hometown hero, David Rice Atchison, became president.
In the absence of the president, typically the vice president steps in, but vice president George Dallas’ term had expired as well. The presidency then fell to the president pro tempore of the Senate—Atchison.
Some say Atchison should not be considered a president because he never took the oath of office. However, legislators recognized Atchison as president and congressional records and some newspapers note the federal government paid Atchison a one day’s wage for being president of the U.S.
In 1882, Atchison was interviewed by the Plattsburg county paper about the events of that day. Atchison said: “... The judge waked me up at three o’clock in the morning and said jocularly that I was President of the United States and he wanted me to appoint him as secretary of state. I made no pretense to the office.”
Atchison was born in 1807, in Frogtown, Ky. He graduated from college when he was only 14 and eventually moved to western Missouri to practice law and was elected to the Missouri state legislature.
In 1842, he was appointed to fill the unexpired term of one of the state’s senators. He was eventually elected president pro tem.
“He was definitely a great statesman,” says Steve Tinnen, publisher of the Clinton County Leader. “Counties and towns are named after him for the things he did in the Senate.” But it’s that one day, between the terms of Polk and Taylor, for which Atchison is often remembered.
Tinnen’s office is across the street from Atchison’s statue outside the county courthouse. He often sees people stopping to take pictures in front of Atchison’s statue that notes his one-day term as president. Others visit the Plattsburg cemetery and see the simple marker that also recognizes him as president of the U.S. for a day.
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