- - Thursday, January 19, 2017


David Rice Atchison was a president (if that’s what he was) that the sorehead Democrats, stewing in the sour juices of contempt and frustration, could love. Atchison might, or might not, have been president for a day but he’s a footnote to history that almost nobody remembers.

Atchison, the senator from Missouri who spent most of his time promoting slavery for Kansas, was the president pro-tem of the U.S. Senate when James K. Polk’s presidency expired at noon on March 4, 1849. The first clouds of civil war, some no bigger than a man’s hand, were even then gathering on the far horizon.

Zachary Taylor, Polk’s elected successor was waiting to take the oath, but March 4 was a Sunday, and Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready” who was a hero of the American-Mexican War, having driven the Mexicans out of Texas, thought it inappropriate to take an oath on the Lord’s day. He would wait until Monday.

When Polk’s term expired at noon that Sunday, the nation was without a president — or so a lot of people thought. But most historians say, oath or not, when a president’s term expires the presidency passes on — “devolves,” in the language of the law — to his elected successor. Others say in those circumstances the office is vacant until the new president takes the oath. Nevertheless, Taylor waited until Monday.

Some people thought the presidency devolved on Atchison because, in the law of presidential succession as it was written then, the president pro-tem of the Senate became the “acting president.” Atchison was in any event not ready to be president.

“There had been three or four busy nights finishing up the work of the Senate,” Atchison told a St. Louis newspaper years later, “and I slept most of that Sunday.” Senators, even then, worried that working too hard might bring on a fatal heart attack, stroke, aggravated indigestion, or make their teeth itch.

“Judge Mangum of North Carolina [who preceded me as president pro-tem] waked me up at 3 o’clock in the morning and said jocularly that as I was president of the United States he wanted me to appoint him as secretary of state,” Atchison recalled. “I made no pretense to the office, but if I was entitled in it I had one boast to make, that not a woman or a child shed a tear on account of my removing anyone from office during my incumbency of the place. A great many such questions are liable to arise under our form of government.”

Atchison, who would have been a president of modest mien, unlike some in our present day, preferred a day in the sack to going about presidential duties he might have claimed. He couldn’t expect to assemble a Cabinet in one day, despite the entreaties of Judge Mangum to appoint him secretary of State. He might have commuted the sentences, or even pardoned a fair number of traitors, brigands and highwaymen, but he preferred a refreshing sleep. Pardoning a traitor, as Barack Obama has done, or selling a pardon, as Bill Clinton did, might not have withstood the scrutiny of the courts, but it would have kept a regiment of lawyers employed for a season.

Atchison was a politician of unusual modesty, but there is a tiny museum and a plaque in Atchison, Kan., which calls itself “the nation’s smallest presidential library.” President or not, he set an example or two that other presidents could profitably follow.

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