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Missouri’s Other President: David Rice Atchison


If you were asked the trivia question, “Name the Presidents of the United States that came from Missouri,” one would easily come up with the answer Harry S Truman. However, when the buzzer rings awaiting a second answer, you may not come up with it. David Rice Atchison would be the second answer.

Some made light of the fact that President Obama did a private oath on Sunday and then a formal one on Monday. Well this could be for good reason as the President’s term goes from Jan. 20 to Jan. 20.  However, with the Jan. 20 occurring on a Sunday this year, we could have run into a situation similar to why it is speculated that Atchison was President for one day.

There have been five occasions where the President of the United States took two oaths due to Inauguration falling on a Sunday: Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877, Woodrow Wilson in 1917, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, Ronald Reagan in 1985 and then Barack Obama this week.

There was one day that it was questioned as to who was the President and that brings in Atchison’s story. In the 1800s, the terms ended on March 4 and on March 3, 1849, James K Polk was President and his successor Zachary Taylor did not want to take an oath of office on Sunday, March 4.  So since the Vice President was not sworn in either, this meant at that time, the President Pro Tem would be President of the United States and that job lied with David Atchison, who was from Liberty, Missouri.

I would think if I had power for the day, I would make all kinds of laws, but that was not the case.  In an interview with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and later the Plattsburg Lever, 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.”

When Atchison died, he was buried in Plattsburg, Missouri; where his headstone says, “President of the United States For One Day March 4, 1849.”  More recently in 2006, the Atchison County Historical Museum opened what is called  the United States Smallest Presidential Library.

It is widely discussed whether he truly was the president for the day, but it is an interesting footnote in history and helps clear up some of the confusion on why President Obama took the oath on Sunday and then again on Monday.

For trivia’s sake, Obama is the first two-term President to receive the oath four times, as in 2009 there was an error in the oath given on the public ceremony and a private ceremony was done the next day.

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