U.S. President, A Day

Historical Marker #1110 in Fayette County notes the strange happenstance that made Kentucky native David Rice Atchison the symbolic president of the United States for a day in 1849.

David Rice Atchison was born in Fayette County in 1807. After graduating from Transylvania University with a degree in law in 1825, Atchison, like many other politically ambitious men of his era, moved to Missouri, which had entered the Union in 1821. Settling in Liberty, Missouri, Atchison ran for the state legislature, winning a seat in 1834. Atchison soon added judge of the Platte County circuit court to his political resume. And when one of Missouri’s senators died in office, he was named to the post by Governor Thomas Reynolds in 1843.

As a senator, Atchison quickly became popular within the Democratic Party. He was elected President pro tem for that body from 1846-50 and 1852-55. It was during his first tenure that a strange situation arose. When President James K. Polk’s term expired on Saturday, March 3, 1849, and incoming President Zachary Taylor refused to be inaugurated on a Sunday for religious reasons, without a vice president to fill the void, Atchison, at least symbolically, held the position on Sunday, March 4, 1849. Although Atchison was not formally sworn in during his extremely brief tenure as president, he apparently did sign some official papers during the day.

During the “Bleeding Kansas” years Atchison became a leader in the proslavery camp. He returned home to the Missouri/Kansas border trouble, leading forays into the Sunflower State, including a famous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in 1856. Before that raid Atchison made and impassioned speech. He admonished his fellow Border Ruffians: “Faint not as you approach the city of Lawrence, but remembering your mission act with true Southern heroism, & at the word, Spring like your bloodhounds at home upon that d--d accursed abolition hole; break through everything that may oppose your never flinching courage! Yess, ruffians, draw your revolvers & bowie knives, & cool them in the heart's blood of all those d--d dogs, that dare defend that d--d breathing hole of hell. Tear down their boasted Free State Hotel, and if those Hellish lying free-soilers have left no port holes in it, with your unerring cannon make some, Yes, riddle it till it shall fall to the ground. Throw into the Kanzas [River] their printing presses, & let's see if any more free speeches will be issued from them!” Interestingly, the proslavery partisan Atchison, was named for one Kentucky’s most well known emancipationists, Presbyterian Rev. David Rice.

During the Civil War, Atchison served in Missouri’s pro-Confederate state forces, but resigned in 1862, and moved to Texas for the remained of the conflict. He returned to his Clinton County, Missouri farm after the war, where he died in 1886.

Images

David Rice Atchison

David Rice Atchison

Atchison, pictured here, was a leading “Border Ruffian” during the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict of the 1850s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress View File Details Page

"Border Ruffians"

"Border Ruffians"

As a major political figure in Missouri, Atchison was on the front lines of the conflict over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free state or slave state. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society View File Details Page

Statue of John C. Breckinridge

Statue of John C. Breckinridge

Atchison campaigned for John C. Breckinridge in the presidential campaign of 1860. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society View File Details Page

Transylvania University

Transylvania University

Morrison Hall at Transylvania University is pictured here. Atchison graduated from Transylvania in 1825. Courtesy of the Library of Congress View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Tim Talbott, “U.S. President, A Day,” ExploreKYHistory, accessed July 26, 2017, http://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/724.

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