President for a Day

In a post earlier today NewMexiKen noted that the Presidential inauguration occurred on March 4th 36 times. Not exactly.

In 1849, March 4 happened to be a Sunday. James Polk’s term ended at noon that Sunday, but President-elect Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn in on the Sabbath.

So who was President? Some have claimed it was Missouri senator David Rice Atchison. Atchison was President Pro-Tempore of the Senate and, as such, third in line to the presidency. Atchison must have been President for a day.

The Urban Legends Reference Pages has a good summary of the background and argues persuasively that Atchison was never President.

The Constitution says that before “he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation . . .” It doesn’t say he has to take the oath before becoming President; merely that he must take the oath before executing the duties of the Presidency. Whether there is a real distinction here is something that has never been tested, but we suspect that if, for example, the President were killed during a nuclear attack by a hostile foreign power, the cabinet and the military wouldn’t stand around waiting for the Vice-President to be sworn in before accepting his orders. If that sounds like still more semantic trickery, then keep in mind that David Rice Atchison was never sworn in, either. If Zachary Taylor wasn’t President because he hadn’t been sworn in, then how can Atchison, who wasn’t sworn in either, claim to have been President?

Take a look at Atchison’s grave marker.

In 1877 and 1917 the inauguration was also deferred because of Sunday. Rutherford B. Hayes took the oath of office privately on March 3. Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated for his second term on March 5.

UPDATE March 5: James Monroe’s second inauguration was on March 5, 1821.