In 1849, due to an odd set of circumstances, there was a 24-hour gap between the time the outgoing President’s term expired and the time the new President was sworn in. During that one day, some scholars have argued, the US had no President. Or did we…?
The 1848 elections were a circus. The major debate was whether slavery should be permitted in new territories and states. It was an explosive issue, and both parties tried to play to both sides. The incumbent President, James Polk, decided not to run for re-election, so the Democratic Party nominated Senator Lewis Cass, from Michigan, who argued a policy of “popular sovereignty” that would allow each new territory and state to decide for itself whether it was to be “free” or “slave”. That won him the enmity of ideologues and extremists on both sides. The Whig Party, which was itself divided over the slavery issue, tried to sidestep it entirely by nominating a popular war hero, General Zachary Taylor, who had won some battles in the Mexican-American War. Taylor was a completely apolitical career Army officer who had never held any elected office, and had never even voted in an election. But he now announced an anti-slavery platform. A small anti-slavery party, the Free-Soilers, nominated former President Martin Van Buren and cut into Taylor’s support, taking about 10% of the vote, but in the end, Taylor won with fewer than 50% of the final tally.
At that time, the President’s term of office ended at noon on March 4 instead of today’s January 20. Usually the new President-elect would be sworn in at noon. But March 4, 1849, fell on a Sunday, and Zachary Taylor, a pious church-going man, refused to hold the ceremony on a Sunday. Instead, he was not sworn in until noon on Monday, March 5.
At the time, nobody thought much of it. There was some debate in the Senate over the issue, and apparently a delegation of Senators again asked Taylor to take the oath of office that day. But the prevailing opinion was that the ceremony was just a formality, and Taylor was already President.
There the matter rested until July 9, 1850–not much more than a year later–when Zachary Taylor unexpectedly died in office from a sudden stomach illness.
When the US Constitution was written, it was specified that if the President dies, is removed, or becomes incapable of holding office, the Vice President would take over. But the Constitution did not indicate what was to be done if both the President and the Vice President died in office. So in 1792 Congress passed the Presidential Succession Act, which declared that if both the President and Vice President were incapacitated, the office would go to the President Pro Tem of the Senate. Then, just to be sure, the Act specified that the line of succession would continue on to the Speaker of the House, and from there to each of the Cabinet members, in the order in which their Department had been created.
So, when Zachary Taylor unexpectedly died, his Vice President, Millard Fillmore, assumed the office.
But the transition had provoked new thought about Taylor’s own swearing-in as President the year previously. If Polk’s term had ended on March 4, and Taylor had not been sworn in until March 5, then who had been the actual President of the United States during that 24-hour period?
For most, there was no issue at question: it had always been assumed that the term of the new President began whenever the old President left office, and the swearing-in was just a formal ceremony. So, even though he had not taken the oath of office yet, Zachary Taylor had in fact assumed the Presidency at noon on March 4 when Polk’s term expired.
But there was no clear specification in law that this was so. A small contingent of Constitutional scholars instead argued that there is no legal President until someone has taken the oath of office–therefore Taylor did not become President until March 5. So who was President between the time Polk left office and Taylor assumed it? These scholars argued that the Presidential Succession Act then applied–since there was no President or Vice President, that meant that the President Pro Tem of the Senate, a Missouri Senator named David Rice Atchison, had legally been President for those 24 hours.
And thus began a story that can still be heard today, repeated in history books, trivia collections, and Internet blogs: that Atchison had actually been the 12th President of the United States, for one day. One place that took the “president for a day” story and ran with it was Clinton County, Missouri, where Atchison lived until his death in 1886. His grave marker also bears a plaque which sets out the story. Even today, the Atchison County Historical Society in Kansas, named after the Senator, refers to its collection of documents as the “David Rice Atchison Presidential Library”. Atchison himself always laughed at the story and never made any pretension to having actually been President. When a newspaper reporter asked him what he had done during his inadvertent day as Chief Executive, Atchison recalled that he was tired after a long night of debate in the Senate, and he had slept most of the day.
But the “Atchison as President” scenario also presents some legal difficulties. Just as Polk’s term of office had expired on March 4, so had Atchison’s term as President Pro Tem of the Senate–it was not renewed until the Senate went back into session and re-appointed him to that position. And Atchison himself had never taken any oath of office. So using the same reasoning, there was no President Pro Tem (or Speaker of the House, for that matter) on that day, and therefore nobody for the Succession Act to apply to. So the same legal theory that made Atchison President for a day, could just as well be used to argue that there was no President at all.
In the end, it was an academic debate, since the prevailing view had always been that the oath of office is just a formality, and the new President holds authority from the instant the old President leaves office. But since that time, President-Elects have always been sworn in on the morning of Inauguration Day, in a private ceremony held before the formal public oath of office.
The issue of Presidential succession was revisited again several times over the years. After the Civil War, it became a custom for the Senate to not appoint any President Pro Tem unless the Vice President was actually absent, and therefore there were long stretches of time when there was no Pro Tem. And some scholars were alarmed by the fact that the President Pro Tem and the Speaker of the House might actually be members of the opposition party, in effect reversing an election if they became President. So in 1888, the line of succession was altered by removing the Senate and House leaders. The order would now jump straight from the President and Vice President to the Cabinet members.
That lasted until 1947. After Harry Truman assumed office on the death of Franklin Roosevelt, he felt that it was improper to have unelected cabinet members so high-ranked in the succession, and he asked for a new Succession Act which re-inserted the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate (but in reverse order than they had been previously) back into the chain.
Since 1849, there have been five occasions when Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday. In each case, the swearing-in ceremony was postponed to the following Monday.