In the center of a small cemetery in Plattsburg, Missouri, there is a marker on a grave that is inscribed incorrectly. It’s the final resting place for David Atchison, and the marker inaccurately states “President of the United States for One Day – Sunday, March 4, 1849” David Atchison was a lot of things, however, he was not President of the United States. Not even for a day.
David was appointed to as a senator from Missouri, filling a vacancy left by the death of Senator Lewis Finn. He was the youngest senator from Missouri. He was also an outspoken advocate for slavery. However, he was popular among his fellow senators and was elected “Senate president pro tempore,” presiding over the Senate in the absence of the current Vice President.
Before laws were changed in the 1930s, the line of succession put the Senate president pro tempore third in line for the Office of the President. Also, pre-1930s law called for presidential terms to begin at noon on March 4. In 1849, March 4 fell on a Sunday. Zachary Taylor, the President-Elect, refused to have the inauguration on a Sunday, as he was a religious man. At his insistence, the ceremony was postponed until Monday, March 5. The controversial belief is that, since no official oath of office was recited on the officially determined day, the established line of succession automatically made David Atchinson, the Senate president pro tempore, the President of the United States from noon on March 4 until noon on March 5.
Atchison’s term as a senator also expired at noon on March 4, thereby denying his claim as president. Plus, the presidential oath of office was merely a formality. Zachary Taylor and his administration were installed at noon on Sunday, March 4 whether they liked it or not.
David Atchison went through the rest of his life claiming to have been president for one day in 1849, embellishing the story as the years went on. In later years, he campaigned for expansion of the country with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, calling on pro-slavery Missourians to uphold slavery by force and “to kill every God-damned abolitionist in Kansas” if necessary. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner revealed Atchison’s hateful, pro-slavery speech and Atchison was eventually defeated for re-election in 1855. He later served in the Confederate Army until he resigned his commission and retired to his Missouri home. David Atchison passed away in 1866 at the age of 78… still believing that he ran “the honestest administration this country ever had.”