Origins: A favorite bit of annoying trivia is for someone to ask who the
The basis for this routine is that President-elect Zachary Taylor was set to succeed
The office of President was established by the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America in 1788.
In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by law provide for the case of removal, death, resignation or inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what officer shall then act as President, and such officer shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.
Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation: — "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
About a century later, the Presidential Succession Act came under renewed scrutiny. The custom of the Senate had been to select a president pro tempore only when the Vice-President was absent, and thus there were long stretches of time (especially since Congress did not sit in session all year around) during which the Senate had no president pro tempore. Additionally, the Presidential Succession Act raised the distinct possibility that a member of the opposition party might assume the Presidency. The Senate had been relying upon a gimmick under which the Vice-President would voluntarily leave the Senate chamber just before the end of a session so that a president pro tempore could be named before adjournment, but not all Vice-Presidents were willing to play along (especially when the opposition was the majority party). Accordingly, in 1886 Congress passed a new Presidential Succession Act, one that removed the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives from the line of succession. After 1886, cabinet officers, in the order their departments were created, were next in line for the presidency after the President and Vice President.
Things changed again sixty years later. Vice-President
After that introduction, we now turn to the events of 1849. The terms of the incumbent President and Vice-President had expired on
The law in effect at that time was the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, which specified that the President Pro Tempore of the Senate was next in line for the presidency after the President and Vice President. The Thirtieth Congress had, just before adjourning, selected Missouri senator David Rice Atchison to continue as President Pro Tempore, so he is the person now tagged as having been President for a Day. But was he really? He wasn't considered President at the time, and a number of legal arguments preclude our retroactively assigning him this "honor":
- First of all, the Constitution granted Congress the power of "declaring what officer shall then act as President" in the "case of removal, death, resignation or inability, both of the President and Vice President." It didn't say Congress could declare someone to actually be the President, only someone to act as the President. This might be considered a distinction without a difference, mere semantic trickery. However, when John Tyler became the first Vice President to be elevated to the office of President by the death of his predecessor after William Henry Harrison died only a few weeks into his term in 1841, Tyler was dubbed "His Accidency," and many questioned whether he was legally President or merely someone empowered to "discharge the powers and duties of the said office" until the next election. Tyler firmly established that he was to be regarded as a "real" President, and tradition has been to consider Vice-Presidents who have assumed office after the deaths of Presidents to be Presidents themselves, but it was not until the passage of the twenty-fifth amendment to the Constitution in 1967 that this "tradition" was established by law:
- Even if we overlook the distinction between someone empowered to "act" as President and a "real" President, the Constitution still poses some problems for David Rice Atchison's claim to the presidency. As noted above, the Constitution stated that "Congress may by law provide for the case of removal, death, resignation or inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what officer shall then act as President." None of the cases specified in this clause had occurred. Neither the outgoing President nor Vice-President had died, resigned, been removed from office (i.e., through impeachment), or was "unable" to fulfill the duties of his office; the same was true of the incoming President and Vice-President. The incoming President simply deferred his inauguration for one day, so none of these cases occurred, the Presidential Succession Act of 1792 wasn't applicable, and no one was next in line of succession.
- If we dismiss the previous argument by claiming that the outgoing President indeed had been "removed" from office (or was "unable" to continue in office) because his term had expired, we have to consider that the Constitution doesn't specify exactly when a President's term expires. It merely states that the President "shall hold his office during the term of four years"; it doesn't say his term expires precisely at noon four years from the date of his (scheduled)
swearing-in.Not until 1933 was the Constitution amended to specify the exact date and time at which a President's term expires:
- Another reason why Atchison has no real claim to having served as President is that nothing in the Constitution says a President-elect has to be sworn in before becoming President. The Constitution says that before "he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or
affirmation . . ."It doesn't say he has to take the oath before becoming President; merely that he must take the oath before executing the duties of the Presidency. Whether there is a real distinction here is something that has never been tested, but we suspect that if, for example, the President were killed during a nuclear attack by a hostile foreign power, the cabinet and the military wouldn't stand around waiting for the Vice-President to be sworn in before accepting his orders. If that sounds like still more semantic trickery, then keep in mind that David Rice Atchison was never sworn in, either. If Zachary Taylor wasn't President because he hadn't been sworn in, then how can Atchison, who wasn't sworn in either, claim to have been President?
- An important factor that negates the "President for a Day" claim is the fact that Atchison was no longer President Pro Tempore of the Senate on
4 March1849. He was voted into that role during the Thirtieth Congress, but the Thirtieth Congress (as well as his Atchison's first term in the Senate) ended at midnight on 3 March.The office of president pro tem does not carry over from one session of Congress to the next, so on 4 March 1849, no one held that title.
The matter wasn't given much thought at all at the time, and the possibility that the USA had been without a President for one day didn't really occur to anyone until years later. Then, in retrospect, someone took a glance at the rules of succession and mistakenly assumed that, if there really had been a one-day gap in the presidency, Atchison should have been the one who technically filled it.
So, although Atchison may actually have pulled off a feat now attributed to Ronald Reagan (i.e., slept through his entire term of office), Reagan really was President. Atchison wasn't.
Grave of David Rice Atchison (FindAGrave.com)
Last updated: 27 September 2007
Levy, Leonard and Louis Fisher. Encyclopedia of the American Presidency. New York: Prentice Hall, 1995. ISBN 0-132-76197-1. Parrish, William Earl. David Rice Atchison of Missouri, Border Politician. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, 1961 (pp. 83-84). Silva, Ruth C. Presidential Succession. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1951.
- Sindler, Allan P. Unchosen Presidents: The Vice-President and Other Frustrations of Presidential Succession.
Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1976.