Zachary Taylor was scheduled to assume the presidency from James K. Polk on Sunday, March 4, 1849. Taylor had grown up honoring the Sabbath, however, and was still a devout man. He wasn’t about to make any exceptions to the day of rest, not even to be inaugurated as the 12th president of the United States.
So Polk was officially out, but no one was officially in. With no president and no vice president, the next in the line of succession was the president pro tempore—which happened to be David Rice Atchison. (Presently, the Speaker of the House is the next in line after the vice president, and then the president pro tempore.) By default, some say, Atchison was the 12th president for about 24 hours. Then again, some Constitutional scholars say that it doesn’t matter when the actual inauguration is—when the previous president’s term is up, the next president automatically assumes the office.
Also working against the Missouri senator is the fact that his first Senate term expired at the same time the presidential term did. If Polk wasn’t president, then neither was Atchison in the line of succession.
For his part, Atchison knew that the claim was ludicrous. Though he liked to say that he led the “honestest administration this country ever had,” he also told a reporter in 1872 that he “made no pretense to the office.” But the people of Plattsburg, Missouri sure loved to do it for him. Not only did they give him a grave marker emblazoned with the claim, they also erected a statue to their beloved one-day president at the county courthouse. Even today, they operate “the world’s smallest presidential library” as part of the Atchison County Historical Society Museum.
See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.