U.S. president for a day

Anant Nagpur, with the statue of U.S. President David Rice Atchison, president for a day, and hosts. Photo: Courtesy of A. Nagpur

By Anant Nagpur

Did you know there was a president of the United States for one day? Perhaps you have, perhaps not, but when I heard of this back in the late 1980s I was very keen on finding out more, one day. That day came on April 13, 2019.

This story dates back to 1849 (170 years ago), on March 4, 1849. The outgoing U.S. President James Polk and vice-president George Dallas did not want to stay on the job beyond noon, and incoming president-elect Zachary Taylor did not want to take the oath of office on a Sunday, considered a very religious day. That created a dilemma and the question was: On that day, was there a president or not? The answer was yes, there was a president: Senator David Rice Atchison was chosen because he was president pro temp (a term referring to the senior-most senator in the senate).

He became, in law, Acting President from March 4, 1849, to March 5, 1849, and all senatorial procedures were followed. The succession act of 1792 was followed, which clearly states that in the absence of a president and vice-president, responsibility falls on president pro-temp of the senate and he was it. However, almost all historians and other experts have declined to believe it since he was not sworn in and there was no inauguration or document to prove it.

The people of Plattsburg, Missouri, with a population of a little over 300 in 1849, strongly believed it then and as I discovered when I visited in April, its population of 2,500 still proudly believes it. They are indifferent about whether historians believe it or not, but the debate carries on. They believe he was the 12th president and had the best administration ever. If they were to have a presidential library, it would be the smallest in the world. He even got a presidential salary of $68.50 for the day as per rules of the day.

The story is that President Atchison was so drunk he did not remember that he was president and slept through the day. But the people of Plattsburgh are very proud of him regardless.

For me it was an adventure to discover where it all happened. I am glad I did it my way, travelling by train, plane and automobile to reach Plattsburg, Missouri.

I could not have done it without the help of husband-and-wife team Sherri and Ron Shatto, born and raised in Plattsburg. They came to Kansas City to give me a ride and show me around. Sherri kept the museum of President Atchison open for me on Saturday and talked about community building by connecting the dots. They did wonders and they are the jewel in the crown of this trip.

When I reached the museum, the staff was waiting outside and greeted me with such a welcome it defies description. They had even called the editor of the local newspaper The Leader, Steve Tinnen, who wanted to meet me. He said they were thrilled that I had come all the way from Ottawa, Canada, to Plattsburg to do a story on David Rice Atchison. He did a story with a photo of me holding the statue of the president, with Ron, Sherri and other museum staff included. (The story was online but the Clinton County Leader only maintains two previous months’ stories; however, you can contact them by going to their website clintoncountyleader.com). I never imagined that something like this would happen. I owe much to them; they are true community builders.

History professors here at Carleton University were interested in learning more about this story.

Anant Nagpur, from India originally, is a resident of Old Ottawa South and an inveterate traveller.

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