There was the little known fact that a man named David Rice Atchison from our neck of the woods was president for one day and apparently never knew it.

There was the little known fact that a man named David Rice Atchison from our neck of the woods was president for one day and apparently never knew it.

According to a 19th century law, if neither the president nor the vice president was in office for any reason, the president pro tem of the Senate became chief executive.

On Sunday, March 4, 1849, the term of President James Polk was over, and both he and his vice president had stepped aside. The newly elected predecessor, Zachary Taylor, was a very religious man and refused to be sworn in on a Sunday. So, for one day, Atchison, who was the president pro tem of the Senate, was president.

He was in bed that day with a cold (or maybe it was a hangover from inaugural night parties), and he slept most of the day away. It was not until several months later that Atchison learned of this, as the law was then an obscure one, which has since been changed.

Atchison was born in Frogtown, which is now part of Lexington, Ky. He was educated at Transylvania University, where one of his classmates and good friends was Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

In 1830, he moved to Liberty, where he established a law practice with Alexander Doniphan. Atchison’s best-known client was the Mormon leader, Joseph Smith Jr. Atchison represented Smith in land disputes with non-Mormon settlers in Jackson, Caldwell and Daviess counties. Atchison was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1834. He worked hard for the Platte Purchase, which extended the northwestern boundary of Missouri to the Missouri River in 1838. Three years later, he was appointed a circuit court judge for the six-county area of the Platte Purchase.

Atchison County in Missouri and Atchison County in Kansas were both named for him and in Kansas, the Missouri River town of Atchison (which is darn near as old as Leavenworth) also was named for him. Of course, the town lent its name to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad.

As a senator, Atchison was an outspoken advocate of slavery and territorial expansion. Atchison and Missouri’s other senator, the venerable Thomas Hart Benton, became rivals and eventually political enemies, even though both were Democrats. Benton declared himself to be against slavery, so in 1851 Atchison switched parties and joined the Whigs with the intention of defeating Benton for re-election.

Benton rose to the challenge and began to agitate for territorial organization of Kansas and Nebraska so they could be opened to settlement. To counter this, Atchison proposed that the Missouri Compromise, banning slavery in any new territories, be repealed in favor of popular sovereignty, under which settlers in each territory would decide themselves whether slavery should be allowed.

At Atchison’s request, Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which embodied this idea. The Act became law in May 1854, establishing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and the beginning of the long, slippery slope toward the Border War.

Four years later in 1858, Abraham Lincoln debated with Douglas in a campaign for the U.S. Senate, which thrust Lincoln into the limelight as an abolitionist. As a result, Lincoln was nominated for president when the Republicans held their 1860 convention in Chicago.

Atchison was living in Plattsburg when he died at the age of 78 in 1886. So, he was buried at his home in Plattsburg, where a statue honors him in front of the Clinton County Courthouse. His grave marker reads “President of the United States for One Day,” although it does not have a presidential seal. Many scholars today will argue whether or not he was ever really a president, though.