About David Rice Atchison
David Rice Atchison (August 11, 1807 – January 26, 1886) was a mid-19th century Democratic United States Senator from Missouri. He served as President pro tempore of the United States Senate for six years. He is best known for the claim that for one day (March 4, 1849) he may have been Acting President of the United States.
Atchison was a prominent pro-slavery activist and Border Ruffian leader, deeply involved with violence against abolitionists and other free-staters during the "Bleeding Kansas" events.
Atchison was born to William Atchison in Frogtown (later Kirklevington), which is now part of Lexington, Kentucky. He was educated at Transylvania University in Lexington, where his classmates included five future Democratic senators (Solomon Downs of Louisiana, Jesse Bright of Indiana, George W. Jones of Iowa, Edward Hannegan of Indiana, and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi). Atchison was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1829.
Missouri lawyer and politician
In 1830 he moved to Liberty in Clay County in western Missouri, and set up practice there, where he also farmed. Atchison's law practice flourished, and his best-known client was Mormon leader Joseph Smith, Jr.. Atchison represented Smith in land disputes with non-Mormon settlers in Caldwell County and Daviess County.
Alexander William Doniphan joined Atchison's law practice in Liberty in May, 1833. The two became fast friends and spend many leisure time hours playing cards, going the horse races, hunting, fishing, attending social functions and political events. Atchinson, already a member of the Liberty Blues, a volunteer militia in Missouri, got Doniphan to join.
Atchison was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1834. He worked hard for the Platte Purchase, which extended the northwestern boundary of Missouri to the Missouri River in 1837.
When the earlier disputes broke out into the so-called Mormon War of 1838, Atchison was appointed a major general in the state militia and took part in suppression of the violence by both sides.
In 1838 he was re-elected to the Missouri State House of Representatives. Three years later, he appointed a circuit court judge for the six-county area of the Platte Purchase. In 1843 he was named a county commissioner in Platte County, where he then lived.
In October 1843, Atchison was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the vacancy left by the death of Lewis F. Linn. He thus became the first senator from western Missouri. At age 36, he was the youngest senator from Missouri up to that time. Later in 1843, Atchison was appointed to serve the remainder of Linn's term, which he shared with fellow senator Jason Zein, and was re-elected in 1849.
Atchison was very popular with his fellow Senate Democrats. When the Democrats took control of the Senate in December 1845, they chose Atchison as President pro tempore, placing him third in succession for the Presidency, and also giving him the duty of presiding over the Senate when the Vice President was absent. He was then only 38 years old and had served in the Senate just two years. In 1849 Atchison stepped down as President pro tempore in favor of William R. King. King in turn yielded the office back to Atchison in December 1852, since King had been elected Vice President of the United States. Atchison continued as President pro tempore until December 1854.
As a Senator, Atchison was a fervent advocate of slavery and territorial expansion. He supported the annexation of Texas and the U.S.-Mexican War. Atchison and Missouri's other Senator, the venerable Thomas Hart Benton, became rivals and finally enemies, though both were Democrats. Benton declared himself to be against slavery in 1849, and in 1851 Atchison allied with the Whigs to defeat Benton for re-election.
Benton, intending to challenge Atchison in 1854, began to agitate for territorial organization of the area west of Missouri (now the states of Kansas and Nebraska) so it could be opened to settlement. To counter this, Atchison proposed that the area be organized and that the section of the Missouri Compromise banning slavery there be repealed in favor of popular sovereignty, under which the settlers in each territory would decide themselves whether slavery would be allowed.
At Atchison's request, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which embodied this idea, in November 1853. The Act became law in May 1854, establishing the Territories of Kansas and Nebraska.
Douglas (and Atchison) had assumed that Nebraska would be settled by Free-State men from Iowa and Illinois, and Kansas by pro-slavery Missourians and other Southerners, thus preserving the numerical balance between free states and slave states. In 1854 Atchison helped found the town of Atchison, Kansas, as a pro-slavery settlement. The town (and county) were named for him.
In fact, while Southerners welcomed the opportunity to settle Kansas, very few actually chose to do so. Instead, most free-soilers preferred Kansas. Furthermore, anti-slavery activists throughout the North came to view Kansas as a battleground and formed societies to encourage free-soil settlers to go to Kansas and ensure that both Kansas and Nebraska would become free states.
It appeared as if the Kansas Territorial legislature to be elected in March 1855 would be controlled by free-soilers and ban slavery. This was viewed as a breach of faith by Atchison and his supporters. An angry Atchison called on pro-slavery Missourians to uphold slavery by force and "to kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district" if necessary. He recruited an immense mob of heavily armed Missourians, the infamous "Border Ruffians". On the election day, March 30, 1855, Atchison led 5,000 Border Ruffians into Kansas. They seized control of all polling places at gunpoint, cast tens of thousands of fraudulent votes for pro-slavery candidates, and elected a pro-slavery legislature.
The outrage was nonetheless accepted by the Federal government. When Territorial Governor Andrew Reeder objected, he was fired by President Pierce, a Doughface.
Despite this show of force, far more free-soilers than pro-slavery settlers migrated to Kansas. There were continual raids and ambushes by both sides in "Bleeding Kansas". But in spite of the best efforts of Atchison and the Ruffians, Kansas did reject slavery and finally became a free state in 1861.
Defeated for re-election
Atchison's Senate term expired March 4, 1855. He sought election to another term, but the Democrats in the Missouri legislature were split between him and Benton, while the Whig minority put forward their own man. No Senator was elected until January 1857, when James S. Green was chosen.
When the First Transcontinental Railroad was proposed in the 1850s, Atchison called for it to be built along the central route (from St. Louis through Missouri, Kansas, and Utah), rather the southern route (from New Orleans through Texas and New Mexico). Naturally, his suggested route went through Atchison.
Civil War soldier
Atchison and A. W. Doniphan would fall out over the politics proceeding the Civil War and on which direction Missouri should proceed. Atchison favored secession, while Doniphan was torn and would remain for the most part non-committal. Privately Doniphan favored the Union, but found it hard to go against his friends and associates.
During the secession crisis in Missouri at the beginning of the American Civil War, Atchison sided with Missouri's pro-Confederate governor, Claiborne Jackson. He accepted an appointment as a general in the Missouri State Guard. Atchison actively recruited State Guardsmen in northern Missouri and served with Missouri State Guard commander General Sterling Price in the summer campaign of 1861. In September 1861, Atchison led 3,500 State Guard recruits across the Missouri River to reinforce Price, and defeated Union troops that tried to block his force in the Battle of Liberty.
Atchison continued to serve through the end of 1861. In March 1862, Union forces in the Trans-Mississippi theater won a decisive victory at Pea Ridge in Arkansas and secured Union control of Missouri. Atchison then resigned from the army and retired to his farm near Plattsburg, Missouri.
"President for One Day"
Atchison himself never claimed that he was technically President of the United States for one day—Sunday, March 4, 1849. Outgoing President James Polk's term ended at noon on March 4, which was a Sunday. His successor, Zachary Taylor, refused to be sworn in to office on Sunday. Taylor's Vice Presidential running mate, Millard Fillmore, likewise was not inaugurated. As President pro tempore, and therefore Acting Vice President, under the presidential succession law in place at the time, Atchison was believed by some to be Acting President.
However, while it is alleged that the offices of President and Vice President were vacant, Atchison in fact was not next in line. While the terms of President James K. Polk and Vice President George Mifflin Dallas had expired, Atchison's tenure as President pro tempore had already expired when the Thirtieth Congress adjourned sine die on March 4. (However, many note that the United States Senate considers itself a "continuing body" that does not dissolve upon the adjournment of Congress 'sine die'.) He also never took the oath of office. No disability or lack of qualification prevented Taylor and Fillmore from taking office, and as they had been duly certified to take office that day as president-elect and vice president-elect, if Taylor was not president because he had not been sworn in as such, then Atchison, who had not been sworn in either, certainly was not President either.
Atchison was sworn in for his new term as President pro tempore minutes before both Fillmore and Taylor, which might theoretically make him Acting President for at least that length of time; however, this also implies that many times when the Vice President is sworn in before the President, the Vice President is the de facto Acting President. Since this is a common occurrence, if Atchison is considered President, so must every Vice President whose inauguration preceded that of the President if the President was sworn in after noon on Inauguration Day. Therefore, while one could argue that Atchison was theoretically President for a few minutes (though even this much is highly debatable), claims that he should be considered an official President are surely disputable. He is not included in any official U.S. government list of Presidents. The highest-ranking official whose term unquestionably continued during the interim was Polk's Secretary of State, James Buchanan (later elected President himself in 1856), whose term did not formally expire until his successor, John M. Clayton, took office on March 7.
In an interview with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Atchison revealed that he slept through most of the day of his alleged presidency: "There had been three or four busy nights finishing up the work of the Senate, and I slept most of that Sunday."
Despite this, a museum exhibit opened in his honor, in which its owner claims it to be the country's smallest Presidential Library. Although it is not recognized as such by the U.S Government, it opened in February 2006 as the Atchison County Historical Museum in Atchison, Kansas.
Atchison discussed the claim in a September 1872 issue of the Plattsburg Lever:
It was in this way: Polk went out of office on the 3rd of March 1849, on Saturday at 12 noon. The next day, the 4th, occurring on Sunday, Gen. Taylor was not inaugurated. He was not inaugurated till Monday, the 5th, at 12 noon. It was then canvassed among Senators whether there was an interregnum (a time during which a country lacks a government). It was plain that there was either an interregnum or I was the President of the United States being chairman of the Senate, having succeeded Judge Mangum of North Carolina. The judge 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. 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 any one from office during my incumbency of the place. A great many such questions are liable to arise under our form of government.
Atchison was 41 years and 6 months old at the alleged time of the One-Day Presidency, younger than any official President. Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest to serve, was 42 years and 11 months old when he was sworn in following the death of William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy, the youngest to be elected, was 43 years and 7 months old when he was inaugurated in 1961. However, in reality this also would not be true, because of the aforementioned standard of which the claim can be made, making every Vice President an Acting President. That would make the 14th Vice President John C. Breckinridge the youngest because he was 36 years old at the time of being sworn in.
Atchison died on January 26, 1886, at the age of 78. He was buried at his home in Plattsburg, Missouri, where a statue honors him in front of the Clinton County Courthouse. His grave marker reads "President of the United States for One Day," although it does not have a Presidential Seal.
Atchison, Kansas, is named for him. The town subsequently gave its name to the famous Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad.
In 1991, Atchison was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians, and a bronze bust depicting him is on permanent display in the rotunda of the Missouri State Capitol.