- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

ATCHISON, Kan. (AP) - Chris Taylor walks a guest around the “World’s Smallest (Unofficial) Presidential Library.” Around, literally. The so-called library, though polished in its display, would fit in a modest-sized kitchen.

“For 24 hours, how much space do you need?” quips the curator of this curiosity.

Taylor, executive director of the Atchison County Historical Society, offers the tour with equal measures of scholarship, conjecture and good humor.

The former newspaperman knows the tale might seem tall to some . that David Rice Atchison, the namesake of the Kansas county and community, spent 24 hours as the top elected official in the land. The odd set of circumstances that led to this means as much to the story as the Missouri senator who temporarily - and purportedly - had the reins of power.

But Taylor also sees the exhibit in Atchison, Kan., as context needed to understand an American leader whose passion for holding together the republic equaled that of Abraham Lincoln, though the two differed in their approaches.

If the senator had his complexities, they appear incidental to his role in the transfer of power from Presidents James Polk to Zachary Taylor.

At the time, the president pro tempore of the Senate followed the vice president in line of succession to the presidency. (The speaker of the U.S. House now occupies that place.) Fellow senators chose the well-respected Atchison to be president pro tempore for all but one of his Senate terms.

Congressional custom in those days held that the vice president, in this case the little-remembered George Dallas, step down in the last days of a term so the Senate could elect its constitutionally mandated leader.

Dallas not only left his position, he left Washington. “He was a Polk man, and Polk was gone,” Taylor says.

Inaugurations took place at noon on March 4 every four years until the 1930s. In 1849, March 4 fell on a Sunday.

“Zachary Taylor was a religious man,” the historical society director says. “He didn’t take the oath of office. He delayed his inauguration for a full 24 hours. . The highest-ranking political official still in office is the senator from Missouri.”

Does that mean Atchison, by succession, became the nation’s 12th president from noon March 4 to noon March 5? Does it mean that the United States went 24 hours without a president? Taylor says the county museum puts the facts on display and lets its patrons debate the matter.

Some talk held that Atchison signed some executive directives on March 4, though no archive seems to retain these. One story goes that he got paid the chief executive’s salary for a day, but try finding the personnel records to prove that.

Most of Atchison’s political papers got destroyed in a house fire in 1870, Taylor says. The politician died in 1886 and became a noted inhabitant of Greenlawn Cemetery in Plattsburg, Mo.

A native of Virginia, Taylor followed his newspaper career to Atchison in 1993, then taking the job with the historical society in 1999. The research he did on Atchison proved fascinating for the polarity of views.

Free-state publications in Kansas and elsewhere portrayed him as vile. “Pro-slavery” would be an adjective forever linked to his name. Other newspapers saw him as a senator interested only in avoiding Civil War.

“If his only thing had been saving slavery, he could have had any position in the Confederacy that he wanted,” Taylor says. “He didn’t want that. He wanted to keep the Union together.”

The museum exhibit features a March 10, 1849, copy of the National Intelligencer, the newspaper of record in the nation’s capital at that time. Taylor discovered the artifact on eBay.

There, on the faded page, resides a reference to Atchison being “president for a day.”

So it was not a fabricated tale to win bar bets a half-century later. “They knew about it at the time,” Taylor says. “They knew it was an odd situation.”

History makes room for complications, for individuals who can’t be reduced to a single dimension. It sometimes allows for ambiguities of what might have happened. And whimsy, even after 165 years.

A presidential library doesn’t have to be big to pose interesting questions.


Information from: St. Joseph News-Press/St. Joe, Missouri, https://www.newspressnow.com

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