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President For A Day

Posted Jan 12 2010 8:02pm



David Rice Atchison, Images Courtesy Wikipedia


My partnership is governed by a five-man executive committee.  I happen to be a member of this elite group, with the lofty title of Chief Technology Officer, by virtue of the fact that I'm the most computer-savvy radiologist among us.  In other words, no one else wanted to do it.  But that's OK, I'll take the glory any way I can get it.  Sadly, there isn't much glory involved.

This week, three of the other guys are at a meeting in Mexico, and another is off doing something else.  Thus, I'm the only EC member actually working, and so I am the Acting President of the group.  Yawn.  In honor of my temporary ascendancy to the X-Ray Throne, I issued the following message to the gang:
I hereby double your salaries, effective immediately.  However, various fees, bookkeeping, withholding, and so forth will require the deduction of half of your new salary.  Your pay stub will reflect this lack of change.

I'm reminded of someone else who had a very brief reign.  Have you ever heard of David Rice Atchison?  Few have, actually.  He claimed the title of "President For A Day", which may or may not have been deserved.  From the official United States Senate website:
A proslavery Democrat, David Atchison served in the U.S. Senate from 1843 to 1855. His colleagues elected him president pro tempore on 13 occasions. In those days, the vice president regularly attended Senate sessions. Consequently, the Senate chose a president pro tempore to serve only during brief vice-presidential absences.

Until the 1930s, presidential and congressional terms began at noon on March 4. In 1849, that date fell on a Sunday, causing President Zachary Taylor to delay his inauguration until the next day. For some, this raised the question of who was president from noon of March 4 to noon of March 5. Of course, we now know that Taylor automatically became president on the fourth and could have begun to execute the duties of his office after taking the oath privately, a day before the public inauguration.

In 1849, the Senate president pro tempore immediately followed the vice president in line of presidential succession. That era's ever-present threat of sudden death made it essential to keep an unbroken order of succession. To ensure that there was a president pro tempore in office during adjournment periods, the vice president customarily left the Senate chamber in an annual session's final days so that the Senate could elect this constitutional officer. Accordingly, the Senate duly elected Atchison on March 2, 1849. His supporters, to the present day, claim that the expiration of the outgoing president's and vice president's terms at noon on March 4 left Atchison with clear title to the job.

Unfortunately for Atchison's shaky claim, his Senate term also expired at noon on March 4, thereby denying him the chance to become president. When the Senate of the new Congress convened the following day to allow new senators and the vice president to take the oath of office, with no president pro tempore, the secretary of the Senate called members to order.

No one planning to attend Taylor's March fifth inauguration seems to have realized that there had been a "President Atchison" in charge. Nonetheless, for the rest of his life, Atchison enjoyed polishing this story, describing his "presidency" as "the honestest administration this country ever had."

You might wonder what "President Atchison" accomplished in his day of possibly being President.  By one account, not very much.  From the Wiki

Family lore suggests that Senator Atchison told his housekeeper on the evening of March 3 that he was going to his bed and under no circumstances was to be awoken before Monday, March 5. Despite an attempt to rouse the good Senator from Missouri by a delegation of Senators on Sunday March 4, Mr. Atchison slept through his alleged 'one day presidency', hence the reason he never acknowledged it in the first place.
So it seems he didn't do much at all.  However, in other legends, Mr. Atchison made a few proclamations of his own:
He used his executive powers in a playful manner for that day, calling for a national day of celebration of pandas, granting a raise in salary "to all gentlemen with attractive teenage daughters," declaring war on Lake Superior, and ending slavery. These executive orders were all rescinded the next day, but they provided a source of fun for a crabby nation.
History doesn't seem too impressed with Mr. Atchison's one day term, and clearly there is much confusion as to whether he actually served it at all, and if so, if he was even supposed to do so.  There will, of course, be no question about my term of leadership.  The history books of the future will refer to this week as the "boringest" in the history of our group.  At least I won't sleep through my entire term. 


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