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After Polk, Zachary Taylor was our 12th president… or was he?

Presidential portraits of Polk (left; image: GPA Healy/White House Historical Association), David Rice Atchison (center; photo: George Caleb Bingham/Public domain), and Taylor (right; image: Joseph Henry Bush/White House Historical Association). Graphic: Mike Vago.
Presidential portraits of Polk (left; image: GPA Healy/White House Historical Association), David Rice Atchison (center; photo: George Caleb Bingham/Public domain), and Taylor (right; image: Joseph Henry Bush/White House Historical Association). Graphic: Mike Vago.

With more than 5.4 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or trying to find a definitive answer to how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,442,509-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: David Rice Atchison

What it’s about: America’s least-known, shortest-tenured, possibly apocryphal president. In 1849, President James K. Polk’s single term ended on a Sunday, and President-Elect Zachary “Old Rough And Ready” Taylor refused to be inaugurated on the Lord’s Day. So America was without a president and vice-president for nearly 24 hours. Some argued that with both offices vacant, the office was temporarily filled by the next person in the order of succession (which has since changed): President Pro Tempore Of The Senate, David Rice Atchison.

Historians point out that Atchison’s Senate term had ended the same day as Polk’s, and he wasn’t sworn back into the Senate until Monday either. Also, he never took the oath of office. Constitutional scholars are split on whether the office was vacant for that day, or whether Taylor assumed the office upon Polk’s departure, even without being sworn in. Nevertheless, Atchison’s reputation as “President For A Day” persists to this day, although the senator himself said of his moment of glory, “I slept most of that Sunday.”

Apocryphal or not, Atchison’s tombstone declares him “President Of The United States For One Day.” (Photo: Wikipedia/AmericanCentury21)

Biggest controversy: Atchison was our worst president. That’s not a statement to be made lightly, especially these days, but there’s a pretty strong argument. For starters, he was vehemently pro-slavery, which may not have distinguished him from his peers in the 1850s, but he took things a bit further than those peers. In 1854, Kansas and Nebraska were vying for admission to the Union. Southerners assumed they’d get Kansas as another slave state, while Nebraska would be free, maintaining the precarious balance that defined pre-Civil War America.

When the territories were settled in earnest, however, Kansas filled up with “Free Staters,” and it looked like slavery wouldn’t spread to either state. Atchison was outraged. He personally founded Atchison, Kansas, as a pro-slavery town. Despite his efforts, the abolitionist faction was likely to have a majority in the territory’s legislature, and petition the U.S. to enter the Union as a free state.

This was too much for Atchison. He called on neighboring slave state Missouri to overrun Kansas and, “kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district.” Less than a month after leaving the U.S. Senate, Atchison personally led a mob of 5,000 “Border Ruffians” into Kansas, where they seized polling places at gunpoint and cast tens of thousands of illegal votes for a pro-slavery legislature. When the territorial governor objected to this blatant assault on democracy, he was summarily fired by our second-worst former president, Franklin Pierce.

Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner gave a speech the following year denouncing the Atchison-led “invasion, tortures, and killings” that went on for two full days detailing the violence in “Bleeding Kansas.” Atchison was unaware of the speech, as he was busy raising a small army of Texans to invade Lawrence, Kansas, ostensibly to stop the city’s newspaper from publishing anti-slavery articles, but also to murder abolitionists and plunder private homes. (Strangely, Wikipedia stops the story there, so some future contributor will have to research how much damage Atchison and his Texans actually did.)

Strangest fact: Atchison was our youngest president. He was 41 and a half years old at the time of his one-day term; Teddy Roosevelt was just shy of 43 when he took office. But, again, even Atchison denies he was actually president. “I made no pretense to the office, but if I was entitled in it I had one boast to make, that not a woman or child shed a tear on account of my removing any one from office during my incumbency of the place.” In other words, he didn’t fire anyone, which is probably the nicest thing you could say about him.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Besides the fact that 19th-century politics makes 21st-century politics look downright civil by comparison? All the terrific place names in Atchison’s story. For starters, he was born in Frogtown (best known for the Rowdy Roddy Piper cult favorite). Frogtown was later named Kirklevington (possibly because the Kaiser stole the letter F, although Wikipedia neither confirms nor denies this), which was eventually absorbed into Lexington, Kentucky. Atchison stayed local for school, and went to Transylvania University, an honest-to-goodness (allegedly) non-vampire-related institution that exists today and is among the oldest universities in the country (est. 1780). As an adult, he decided to stop messing around and moved to the solidly named Liberty, Missouri.

Missouri still remembers Atchison with this statue, outside the Clinton County Courthouse. (Photo: Wikipedia/Americasroof)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Atchison never gave up on his dream of killing abolitionists. When 11 states declared secession from the Union in 1861, ex-Senator Atchison supported the state’s pro-Confederate governor and personally joined the Missouri State Guard as a major-general, keeping federal troops out of the state in the Battle Of Liberty. Despite this, the state stayed in the Union. Atchison did not. He moved to Texas for the duration, only returning to Missouri when the Confederates had been defeated. In retirement, he denied many of his well-documented pro-slavery statements made before the war.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: As any They Might Be Giants fan can tell you, James K. Polk was our most consequential one-term president. In just four years, he settled the border of Oregon Territory with Britain, annexed the Republic Of Texas, and then annexed the entire Southwest after winning the Mexican-American War. And all this while creating the Department Of The Interior and reestablishing an Independent Treasury. He had pledged to serve only one term, in the hopes of being nonthreatening to various Democratic factions each vying to nominate their own candidates. The gambit worked: Polk emerged as a compromise candidate, won the nomination and the election, and then made good on his pledge not to run again. It worked out less well for the Democrats, as their next candidate, Lewis Cass, lost handily to Taylor.

Further down the Wormhole: The Battle Of Liberty was actually Atchison’s second stint as a major-general. As a member of the Missouri House Of Representatives, he was appointed to the state militia in 1838 to help settle the Missouri Mormon War. We’ll make a rare one-link move and look at that conflict next week.