By Ashleigh / Nov 18, 2022
For A Single Day
Everyone has played those “what if” games at some point in their lives. And one of the most commonly asked questions is, “What would you do if you had power for just one day?”
Things like being a wealthy CEO, a superhero, or even the president are examples of such. The reality is that this actually did happen to one man.
United States History
This strange series of events began ten years before the United States spiraled into civil war. And, while a decade may seem like an eternity, the Butterfly Effect ensured that a random handful of actions and decisions would stitch themselves into the strangest tapestry.
This is, without a doubt, one of the strangest and most bizarre episodes in United States history.
In what is now known as Lexington, Kentucky, David Rice Atchison was born in 1807. He was an aspiring attorney who relocated his practice to Missouri in order to start his own firm. He possessed a plantation and a large number of enslaved African Americans.
This may appear to be nothing out of the ordinary, but the intrigue grows exponentially when we learn who one of his most prestigious clients was.
A Notorious Client
It was Joseph Smith, the founding member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is also known as the Mormon Church.
As you may know, Jackson Country, MI, attempted to banish the Mormons dwelling on their land. When Atchison intervened to stand up for them, a sea of loyal supporters rose to support him, and in 1834, he was able to secure a seat in the House of Representatives.
Protecting The Religious Community
A stint in the state militia followed in 1838. At a time when threats and active persecution were at a record high, Atchison took up arms to aid in protecting the religious community.
As a result, he gained more admirers and supporters and a position as a judge in the State Court. But it didn’t end there.
In addition to acquiring new power, Kentucky also needed to fill a seat in the US Senate. There was, however, one issue.
Atchison was only 36 years old, which was considered quite a young age for a senator at the time. The rising government star, however, was carrying a less-than-secret weapon.
Giving Him More
Not only had he won the affection of Mormons across the State and the nation, but he also radiated charm and charisma that caused a few influential people around him to take a liking to him.
This combination of events and support gave him more than just a Senate seat. There was only one problem.
Atchison may have supported religious freedom but did not support the abolition of slavery. He opposed the Abolitionist movement- even threatening violence against those who opposed slavery in any way, shape, or form.
It was already a tense situation, and Atchison’s actions triggered a ripple effect within another state known as Kansas.
Supporters And Opponents
A series of bloody civil clashes between supporters and opponents of slavery took place in the state of Kansas. The former was referred to as “border ruffians,” while the latter was called “free-staters.”
This horrific incident, often known as “Bleeding Kansas,” could be seen as a precursor to the Civil War.
The issue of whether or not Kansas should join the Union as a free state or as a slave state was one of the main topics of disagreement between free-staters and border ruffians.
The dispute lasted about five years, from 1854 to 1859, and was marked by electoral fraud, raids, violent attacks, and political homicides. But what made Kansas such a hotspot?
Well, as you know, Kansas, which was a slave estate at the time, borders Missouri, which also was a slave state and where Atchison was settled.
However, Missouri bordered the east and the north with free estates. Missourian slave owners feared that if Kansas turned into a free state, it would be easy for runaway slaves to seek shelter and help in any of the states surrounding it.
Fugitive Slave Act
Granted, a law named Fugitive Slave Act, approved in 1850, declared that all runaway slaves had to be returned to their owners, no matter if they escaped to a free estate.
However, this law wasn’t always enforced, and Missourian slave owners knew this. So they tried, by all means, to keep Kansas from becoming a free state.
At that time, the Kansas Territory was open to settlers. This made it easy for many Missourians to move to Kansas in order to influence local politics, sometimes resorting to violence to do so.
But that wasn’t all. Northern abolitionists did the same thing; they started organizations with the goal of financing the settlement of the Kansas Territory with free-state supporters.
A Riot Waiting To Happen
It was a riot waiting to happen. It didn’t take long before open conflict, and even violence began erupting between the opposing groups, the “free-staters” and the “border ruffians”.
And that’s when David Rice Atchison, the man who managed to be president of the United States for one day, steps in. He played a crucial role in these events.
Atchison was a well-known leader in one of Kansas’ “border ruffians” gangs. As such, he often encouraged slavery supporters from Missouri to interfere in Kansas’ elections.
“When your peace, your quiet, and your property depend upon your action, you can, without exertion, send five hundred of your young men who will vote in favor of your institutions,” he said in one speech. But that was just the beginning.
It Kept Happening
This event was widely publicized and denounced by abolitionists, which caused Missouri to lose support in Congress. Still, it kept going on.
One year later, Atchison did the same thing: he encouraged his Missourian followers to vote for pro-slavery candidates in the Kansas territorial legislature elections. The tension kept escalating, and soon enough, things turned violent.
Shortly after the elections, a seemingly never-ending chain of assaults, sabotage acts, and murders started developing. One of the factions attacked the other one, and the other one retaliated, and so on.
Atchison wasn’t just a mere observer or an agitator. He was, in fact, one of the most notorious participants in these acts of violence.
Sacking Of Lawrence
In 1856, he led what was known as the “sacking of Lawrence”; an attack carried out by a pro-slavery militia comprised mainly of Missourians against the free-state stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas.
Atchison directed the first cannon that fired on the Free State Hotel. This is how an eyewitness describes the episode:
“By this time, four cannons had been brought opposite the hotel, and, under Atchison’s command, they commenced to batter down the building. In this, however, they failed. The General’s ‘Now, boys, let her rip’ was answered by some of the shots missing the mark, although the breadth of Massachusetts street alone intervened, and the remainder of some scores of rounds leaving the walls of the hotel unharmed.”
“They then placed kegs of gunpowder in the lower parts of the building and attempted to blow it up. The only result was the shattering of some of the windows and other limited damage.”
Just The Start
“At length, to complete the work which their own clumsiness or inebriety had rendered difficult hitherto, orders were given to fire the building in a number of places, and, as a consequence, it was soon encircled in a mass of flames.
“Before evening, all that remained of the Eldridge House was a portion of one wall standing erect, and for the rest a shapeless heap of ruins.” But this feat was just the beginning of Atchison’s career.
Fanning The Flames
The southern supporters named a town after him specifically for his views on slavery. The flames of anger and violence were fanned even higher between his very outspoken stance and the confidence this gave the southern states.
So how did someone with such a polar opposite set of beliefs end up in office for one day?
Well, President James K. Polk is to thank. While Atchison had his stint in the Senate, Polk vowed to take only one term as President. And, apparently, he took that promise very seriously.
So, on March 4, 1849, he strolled out of the building at the precise moment he had been sworn in. So, what was the problem with this?
Zachary Taylor was next in line. He should have taken the seat of the President immediately afterward. However, the day of the inauguration fell on a Sunday.
Back then, it was a strict Christian rule that was saved only for rest. Work was prohibited. This left a one-day vacuum of leadership. How did Atchison factor in?
In 1945, Atchison had been sworn in as Pro Tempore of the Senate. This meant that if the Vice president wasn’t there to oversee the proceedings, Atchison would be the one to step in.
And, back then, the laws said that a Pro Tempore was also second in line for the job. So that could only mean one thing.
So, this meant the new President wasn’t sworn in. The old one refused to stay a day longer. The old Vice President’s term ended with Polk’s walkout.
At this point, things might seem clear cut – that Atchison was responsible for filling the position for 24 hours. But here’s where historical accounts get a little bit dicey.
On one side, newspapers claimed he took on the role with enthusiasm. He even went as far as to ask for the Seal of the Great Office and sign a few official papers.
It might have only been for one day, but the de facto leader was serious about his role. There were even jokes about a coupe.
Atchison’s Democrat friends joked he should just stop Taylor from taking office since he clearly didn’t want it that badly. A few even tried to garner favor for special appointments, lands, or other political favors.
Some historians, however, say that Atchison’s role in the whole process was a lot less significant than one would imagine: he wasn’t even there when it all unfolded.
They claim there were no notes or accounts in the Senate Journal or the Congressional Globe. And if it was really a thing, it would have reached further into the press world and to many other publications.
The theory is that Atchison’s position as Pro Tempore would have ended at the same time as Polk’s presidency. So, what would have happened?
The flimsy reality is that one way or another, Atchison was only the big boss for either a day or a few minutes.
People probably scrambled to get him sworn in just as a preemptive move in case there were any unforeseen issues with Taylor and his team. Then it would be the Vice President’s turn.
No Swearing In
While we’re at it, let’s bring in more historians! A few have said that the President doesn’t legally have to be sworn in for his power to take hold. The specific date of the inauguration isn’t set in stone.
So, Taylor would have probably been the President anyways – just one that was taking a Sunday off. But what did Atchison have to say about this?
In the early 1880s, Atchison is reported to have written, “I never for a moment acted as president of the U.S.”
There’s also another account where he joked he could have “slept through his entire presidency” if his friends hadn’t bothered him for help or favors. No matter what, one thing remains true.
History Tid Bit
In some way, shape, or form, Atchison holds the record for the shortest Presidency in the history of the United States. Some States, to this day, still debate these crazy details and events that lead up to the strangest holding of a political seat.
However, there is still one crucial question in the air. You’re probably wondering something after reading this story.
What would have happened if David Rice Atchison had stayed in office for any longer than one day? What if it was Atchison, and not Taylor, who went down in the history books as the 12th president of the United States?
The truth is that the history of America might have unfolded in a very, very different way. And that’s not all.
Things Might Be Different
Even our political regime might be different from what it looks like today had history gone down differently. The present is nothing more than the culmination of past processes and events; had things been a little bit different in the past, the present might look nothing like it is today.
And in this case, there’s an even stronger reason to believe that.
As we have seen, Atchison’s political profile was far from that of a moderate. He had very strong interests in keeping slavery alive and well; let’s not forget he was a plantation owner.
Besides, he had a way more violent profile than any other president in the history of the United States. So how would history have turned had he stayed in office?
In order to protect the privacy of those depicted, some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed and are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.