President slept through day in office

Remember President Atchison?

In honor of Presidents Day, let’s think about all the times we dreamed of growing up to be president one day.


That dream isn’t very likely, huh? In fact, I can think of only one person that ever happened to: In 1849, David Rice Atchison became president of the United States — for one day.

Perhaps you recall your order of presidents, the way the British remember the lineage of royalty, or Catholics the succession of popes: The 11th president, James K. Polk, was followed by Zachary Taylor.

Well, sort of; that’s where Atchison comes in.

Polk served four years, until March 4, 1849. Three months after leaving office, he died, exhausted.

His successor, Taylor, was famous for being an Indian fighter and Mexican War hero; he was known as Old Rough and Ready. Politics, though, wasn’t quite his cup of tea.

After the Whigs nominated him for president, for instance, he took several days to acknowledge their fandom because he didn’t want to pay the dime postage that was due on their letter. (On second thought, maybe we need him handling the budget today.)

“The idea that I should become President seems to me too visionary to require a serious answer,” Taylor said, according to The People’s Almanac. “It has never entered my head, nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person.”

The public seemed no more enthusiastic. Old Rough and Ready won only 47 percent of the popular vote but got in anyway, thanks to the electoral votes.

Not so fast, though. March 4, 1849, was a Sunday, and Taylor didn’t believe in swearing an oath on the Sabbath. (Today, he could have run out for beer and not raised an eyebrow.)

After Taylor refused the oath, Atchison, a Missouri senator who had been the president pro tempore of the Senate, stood in for him until Monday.

Taylor lasted longer in office than Atchison — barely. In July 1850, after sitting in the sun at Independence Day ceremonies, he consumed mass quantities of iced milk and cherries to cool off. That night, he got cramps, the Almanac tells us. Five days later, he died.

The presidency must have been hazardous duty back then. (Today, presidents just complain that the job turns their hair gray.)

By the same token, when asked what he did during his 24-hour term, Atchison said he slept through it because of his exhausting Senate duties. (He was the first in a long line of dozing presidents.)

All of that makes a great story, but there are naysayers who point out that, for many reasons, David Rice Atchison did not assume the presidency and just held Taylor’s place in line. They’re probably right.

They probably argue, too, that Edith Wilson didn’t become the first female president when her husband, Woodrow, was incapacitated by a stroke in 1919 and she ran the country — for much longer than one day.