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The Man Who Forgot He Was President

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 4 6

The President Who Slept Through His Term

Did you know that the United States of America actually had a President for one day?  Before the date for Inaugural Day was changed in 1933 to January 20th, the official day for swearing in the office of President was always the fourth of March, the year after the presidential election. It happened in the year of 1849, when the day of March 4 fell on a Sunday, that the Oval Office was vacated. No one was expected until Monday. Do you suppose they put up a "Gone Fishing" sign?

James Polk, outgoing President, finished his term at midnight on Saturday, March 3rd.  The term of the Vice-President expired at the same time.  Naturally, Congress turned to the newly elected president, General Zachary Taylor, to assume office on Sunday. However the incoming President was hesitant to assume the office that day due to the prevalent religious thoughts regarding the Sabbath (Sunday) . So he decided to defer accepting his inauguration until Monday, March 5th.  The United States was without a President. Congress looked to the constitutional provision for the office and obeyed the line of succession to appoint the President Pro-Tem of the Senate.

This meant the office of United States President fell to David Rice Atchison,  a Senator from Missouri.  This was not the first appointment for Senator Atchison.  He had already been Major-General in the Missouri State Militia where he helped negotiate a resolution to the Mormon conflict of 1838. He had also held office as an elected State Representative where he enabled the  enormous land area purchase of 1837 of what is now Platte County, Missouri. So when a fellow Missourian, Senator Lewis Linn, died unexpectedly in 1843 David Atchison was appointed to take his seat. This was a strategic move for the Congress as it placed Democrats with the majority rule. They quickly moved Atchison into the President pro-tempore position in 1845 where he was working in March, 1849. 

David R. Atchison

David Rice Atchison, President USA for one day!

On Saturday night, March 3, he presided over a long, stormy session with Congress. Included among the congressional seats was a future president, Abraham Lincoln. Senator Atchison, a slave owner, would go against Lincoln's opposition to slavery by promoting both slavery and slavery expansion into the so-called 'free states'. The congressional agenda that night included other items such as annexing the Territory of Texas ( the Mexican-American War had just ended), forming a new Minnesota Territory from the Wisconsin Territory, and approving a Gold Coinage Act as a follow-up to the California gold rush.  But the most controversial was the call to end slavery. Members of Congress went deep into the night battling over this issue. They wanted to allow the expansion of slavery into newly formed abolitionist territories such as Kansas, Nebraska, and most of the southwest territories. Many in Congress opposed slavery. Even the incoming President, Zachary Taylor, disapproved of it and sided with those states and territories wanting to be called 'free states'.  So Congress argued on through the night until just prior to dawn, Sunday morning, when the gavel finally fell. The 'free states' remained but pro-slavery had actually gained in momentum. In their next session of 1850, Congress would vote in the Fugitive Slave Act, a pernicious law punishing those who did not enforce the return of escaped slaves, even if where they had escaped to was a slave-free state.

Abraham Lincoln(105003)

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of USA


Finally, at the end of the lengthy session that Sunday morning Congress closed, and Senator Atchison, exhausted from the bitter haggling and fighting, went to his lodgings and fell asleep on his bed. He had forgotten that at the stroke of midnight he had become President of the United States! He slept late into the evening and woke only once to take a brief meal. By the time he was up and about on Monday, March 5th, General Taylor of the Mexican-American War, had become President Taylor of the United States, and David R. Atchison was once again a Senator for Missouri. When asked how he felt regarding his brief term he laughingly remarked that he had slept through it, completely forgetting he had been appointed to the highest position in the country. Of course his State of Missouri was honored by the appointment, no matter how briefly it lasted, and named one of its counties Atchison County. The State of Kansas also named a city after the Senator. In 1933 Congress enacted  the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution which changed the President's Inaugural Day to January 20.  President Abraham Lincoln eventually freed all slaves in America with his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and secured the sentiment of that Proclamation with the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution which he helped to write and which was ratified in December 1865, a mere eight months after President Lincoln's assassination in Ford Theater.

Plaque of DRA


References: "Distinguished Honor for David R. Atchison",   Christian Science Sentinel, March 2,1899.  ‘David R. Atchison, A Study in American Politics.’ Missouri Historical Review 24 (July 1930)




Jul 10, 2012 5:45pm
That's really interesting -- GREAT article!
Jul 10, 2012 5:52pm
This comment has been deleted.
Jul 10, 2012 5:52pm
You learn something new every day.
Jul 10, 2012 5:54pm
This is one of those fun moments in American history that is hardly ever brought up. Good job. A thumb.
Jul 11, 2012 11:04am
Jul 11, 2012 9:40am
Very interesting! "Thumbs-up!"
Jul 11, 2012 11:04am
Appreciate your comment!
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