David Rice Atchison, credit U.S. Senate Historical Office

In the era before Google when people had to conduct research laboriously I would have bet good money that almost no one was familiar with President David Atchison. His tombstone in Plattsburg, Missouri reads, “David Rice Atchison, 1807-1886, President of the U.S. for one day.” My pop always told me that it was better to fill the head with useless knowledge than no knowledge at all. Here is an example of how the study of history can make that possible. However, the story of this forgotten chapter in American history and other political hiccups also exemplify the relevance of studying the past to understand the present, and to glimpse a bit of the future. Even more importantly a grounding in history is crucial if an individual is to maintain a bit of sanity and stability when the country’s government seems like a Japanese film with Russian subtitles.

Until the 1930s, congress and the president officially commenced their terms at noon on March 4. In 1849 that date fell on a Sunday, and as a result President Zachary Taylor delayed his inauguration until the following day. This resulted in a bit of a constitutional quandary. Who would serve as president from noon of March 4 to noon of March 5?

David Atchison, was a pro-slavery Democrat from Missouri that served in the U.S. Senate from 1843 to 1855. On more than twelve occasions he was appointed president pro tempore to serve during vice presidential absences from the proceedings. In 1849 the Senate president pro tempore followed the vice president in line of presidential succession. As both the president and vice president term in office expired at noon on March 4, this technically meant that Atchison was officially the president.

Credit Library of Congress

Who remembers the infamous hanging chad incident and the resultant outcry when it was determined that Al Gore was not president? That takes us to the story of President Samuel J. Tilden and one of the most contentious and controversial presidential elections in our nations history. The count wasn’t even close as Democratic candidate Tilden had 4,288,456 votes compared to 4,034,311 for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Tilden had also taken the electoral college votes, sort of. He won 184 votes, Hayes 165. The fly in the ointment was 20 votes that were unresolved in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina with each party reporting its candidate had won the state. In Oregon one elector was declared illegal and replaced.

To resolve the disagreement the Electoral Commission was formed on January 29, 1877. The debate was heated and divisive, and continued until the first weeks of March. The resultant comprise awarded all 20 of the disputed electoral votes to Hayes who was declared president. In return for the Democrats’ surrender, Hayes agreed to serve only one four-year term as President without seeking re-election. The Republicans also agreed to vote to withdraw federal troops from the South, ending the era of post Civil War reconstruction.  

If you insist on picking sides during the ongoing political feud between Democrats and Republicans like it was a ball game with a fifty dollar bet riding on the outcome, and are of the opinion that our elected officials have reached a new high in lows, consider an incident in the Senate on 1850. Senators Harry Foote of Mississippi and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri had been engaged in an ever escalating feud for the better part of a decade. On April 17, it all came to a head when during a debate Benton jumped from his chair and charged Foote who responded by pulling a revolver from his coat. Foote had a reputation for violence and hostility. He had been involved in four duels, and shot three times. In one incident he attacked another senator and the two men entered into a brawl in the Senate chambers.

In an era of orchestrated disinformation and divisive politics, an historic perspective is crucial. Can you imagine a president being viewed as a progressive Republican? That would be Teddy Roosevelt. If you think America is on the cusp of transitioning from constitutional republic to dictatorship wait until you read about the administration of President Wilson and his unprecedented policies. Concerned about presidential corruption? Take a gander at the Harding administration that was rotten at every level and read about a president that was only saved from impeachment by death.

I was once told that being involved in politics is like making sausage. It is a messy business. Put simply, politics is universal in nature. It is like cleaning stables. It comes in different colors but it all smells about the same. And like stables, we become informed and we vote to ensure that the …. doesn’t get to deep.



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