Quick all you quizzards and prospective Who Wants to be a Millionaire candidates: Who was the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth Presidents of the United States? James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore . .? Yeah, but what about David Atchison? Wasn’t he sworn in after Polk? So shouldn’t Atchison be the 12th president and not Zachary Taylor?

Yes. It’s true. There was a gap of a day between Polk stepping down and Taylor taking over. And Atchison stepped in as President – just for one day! The term for it is President pro tem.

Who was the US President for a Day? [Illustration by Shiju George]
Who was the US President for a Day? [Illustration by Shiju George]

David Rice Atchison was born on August 11, 1807 in Kirklevington (earlier known as Frogtown), Kentucky. In 1843, Atchison was appointed to the United States Senate and he held this office till 1855.

In 1849, the then 11th President, James Knox Polk, finished his term of office and was scheduled to step down from office at noon on Sunday, March 4, 1849.

But the president-elect Zachary Taylor a devout Christian, refused to take office or be sworn in on a Sunday, the day of the Sabbath (According to the Bible, Sunday – the seventh day of the week – is when God rested after creating the world, and so Christians do not undertake any work).

The United States Capitol building in Washington DC, USA
The United States Capitol building in Washington DC, USA

This posed a problem. The post of the president cannot be empty even for a day as decisions concerning the country and the world cannot be left unattended.

Usually, the post is filled in by the vice-president who acts as the acting president. However, vice-president George M. Dallas’ term had also expired along with Polk’s and in fact, Dallas had earlier resigned on March 2.

Under the American constitution, it is up to the President pro tem of the Senate to take on the mantle of presidency as the post of vice-president and president lies vacant. The Senate president was David Atchison at that time even though the Senate had been dissolved.

President's Day — President for a day!
President’s Day — President for a day!

As per US constitutional law, the Senate leader continues to retain his seat even as the House is dissolved or suspended till such time a new session begins.

David Atchison, thus, became interim President for a 24-hour period, even though he was never elected to the office. On March 4, 1849 David Rice Atchison was sworn in as acting President. A new vice-president was also sworn in – Millard Fillmore. In fact Fillmore went on to become President sixteen months later following the death of Zachary Taylor.

This question of whether David Atchison was actually president or not has been hotly debated. However, he did step into the presidency. March 4, 1849 was an uneventful day in American history. Being a Sunday, Atchison was able to have a relaxed day at the White House.

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