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President Who?

The gravestone of David Rice Atchison.

We all know the order of American Presidents, right?  Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, J.Q. Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Atchison, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce... wait... Atchison?

March 4, 1849:  The Day The List Didn't Go Far Enough

Since the establishment of the United States Government on March 4, 1789, there have been 58 days where our nation has gone without a chief executive.  57 of those occurred prior to George Washington's inauguration as our first President on April 30th of that year.

The 58th occurred on Sunday, March 4, 1849, and the story behind it is a remarkable tale of religion, timing, and poor planning.

Having been elected the 12th president, Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn in on a Sunday, in effect postponing the inaugural ceremonies until the following day.  Vice President-elect Millard Fillmore meanwhile, perhaps out of respect for Taylor, perhaps because he thought no one would show up, declined to be sworn in that Sunday either.

So, when the term of outgoing President James Knox Polk expired, he readily turned over the reins of American presidential power to... well, no one. 

But some claim that David Rice Atchison served as de facto Acting President that day.  Atchison, a Missouri Senator, served as the Senate's President Pro Tempore during the 30th Congress.  Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, Atchison was next in the presidential line of succession after the Vice President.  So by that logic, Atchison was Acting President, right?  Well... not exactly.

Under the Senate rules in effect at the time, in 1849 the position of President Pro Tempore was not a "continuous office" as it is now.  When the House and Senate each adjourning to close out the 30th Congress, the Senate President Pro Tempore and Speaker of the House offices were deemed vacant.  When the Senate adjourned on Saturday, March 3, 1849, Atchison's term as President Pro Tempore ended - leaving the post vacant until the Senate of the 31st Congress convened on Monday, March 5th.  A similar fate befell the House of Representatives, leaving its speaker's chair vacant and the entire presidential succession list exhausted, with no one capable to act as President.

So while the tombstone of David Rice Atchison reads "President of the United States for One Day - March 4, 1849," in fact for a period of roughly 24 hours, the United States went without both a President and Vice President.

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