January 20th, 2012
The term of office of President James Polk expired at noon on March 4th, 1849. According to the Constitution, the President-elect, Zachary Taylor should have been sworn in at noon on that day. However, March 4th was a Sunday, and Mr. Taylor refused to be sworn in on Sunday because it was the Lord’s Day; he arranged to be sworn in on Monday, March 5th. This created something of a problem: who was President during the 24 hours between the end of Mr. Polk’s term and the beginning of Mr. Taylor’s term? Many people concluded that Mr. Atchison, who was the President pro temporepro tempore of the Senate, automatically became Acting President when Mr. Polk and his Vice President’s terms expired.
However, most Constitutional experts do not accept this reasoning for two reasons: first, Mr. Atchison’s position as President of the Senate had expired when the Senate adjourned on Sunday, March 4th. The second reason is that Mr. Atchison never took the Presidential oath of office.
If these arguments be true, then we must conclude that the United States of America was leaderless for 24 hours. This, however, is not so bad an outcome as you might think; government in those days was considerably more laid-back than now. The lack of a President really didn’t affect anything; there were no enemy ICBMs ready to strike in an instant, no wars to manage, no crises to consider. Everything went along just fine without a President. Perhaps we should make this a tradition: we have meatless days, so why not have a President-less day every now and then? Perhaps, for 24 hours, the world might actually be a better place.
Mr. Atchison, if he was President, spent most of his Presidency asleep because he had been staying up late wrapping up Senate business for two days previously.
The official position is that Mr. Atchison was never President. However, his is acclaimed as “President for a day” in his home state of Missouri. Here’s a photo of Mr. Atchison; doesn’t he look a little like the actor Alan Rickman?