David Rice Atchison 11/29/22

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

Author’s Note: After uploading this post, it has come to my attention that there were nine leaders of the colonies before George Washington, including Samuel Huntington (1779-1781), John Hanson (1781-1782), Elias Boudinot (1782-1783), Thomas Mifflin (1783-1784), Richard Henry Lee (1784-1785), John Hancock (1785-1786), Nathaniel Gorham (1786-1787), Arthur St. Clair (1787-1788), and Cyrus Griffin (1788-1789).

Recently I was thinking about our twelfth president.  The true twelfth president of the United States.  Yes, of America.  David Rice Atchison (D) was sworn in as president on March 4, 1849.  Zachary Taylor was then sworn in as president on March 5, 1849. 

Here’s the story.  Zachary Taylor had won the presidency and was scheduled to be sworn in at the end of James R. Polk’s term on Sunday, March 4, 1849, but Zachary Taylor was a man of faith.  He refused to take the oath of office on the Sabbath, and yet, Polk’s term ended regardless of Taylor’s religious convictions, as did the term of Polk’s vice president, Iam A. Crooke.  No, just kidding, it was George M. Dallas, but aren’t all politicians’ crooks? 

US Law defines a lineage of succession for president that goes all the way down, as I understand it, to the janitors of the Whitehouse.  That means that in 1981, when Al Haig exclaimed that “I’m in charge here” after the assassination attempt of President Reagan, he was wrong.  Very wrong.  Technically, the presidency fell to Reagan’s vice president George H.W. Bush. 

In the event of a catastrophic event, it seems unlikely that the entire lineage will be destroyed, which is by design.  At no time will the US ever be without a standing president.  Taylor’s term was supposed to start, but because he wasn’t sworn in, neither was his vice president, Millard Filmore.  Thus, the presidency fell to the President Pro Tempe of the Senate, David Rice Atchison.  He was sworn in Sunday, appointed some of his buddies to high cabinet posts, and drank his way through his presidency until he was replaced a day later.  It was the only presidency that was free from scandal. 

Haven’t heard of him?  I’m not surprised.  Look in just about any presidential list and you’ll see that Zachary Taylor is indeed listed as the twelfth president, and you’ll find nary a mention of poor David.  I’ve often wondered why, though.  I’ve heard it said because he was never an elected president, but that’s wrong.  Nobody elected President Ford, either.  The presidency fell to him when Nixon resigned his position.  In fact, he is only the second president, after David Rice Atchison, to have served but never to have been elected president.  Of course, if we’re counting popular vote, there have been several presidents (most of whom were Republican) who lost the popular vote (John Quincy Adams (D), Rutherford B Hayes (R), Benjamin Harrison (R), George W Bush (R) and Donald Trump (R)). 

What made me think of this is a bit of information I’ve recently heard, namely that William Henry Harrison (Whig party).  The second reason I’ve given that nobody recognizes David Rice Atchison’s presidency is because of the length of his term, and yet, William Henry Harrison only served as president for thirty-one days.  The presidency then fell to his vice president, John Tyler (Whig).  He is considered by many to have been the shortest serving president in the United States.  Well, of course he was if you discount David Rice Atchison altogether. 

I’m not venting, and I know that I’ve written about David before.  What triggered this was discovering of William Henry Harrison’s month-long presidency, and yet everybody recognizes that.  So, once again, the nagging question is my mind is simply, why not David?  I’m not a historian, and maybe one of them can answer this question for me. 

For that matter, why isn’t John Hanson, president of the Republic before George Washington ever recognized.  After independence had been declared, and before the US Constitution was ratified (about a decade after the declaration of independence and five years after the American Revolution) John Hanson acted as president getting us through the chaos and revolutionary war as leader of the self-declared independent territories.  In those interim years, there were many rumors about what the new government might look like, including some rumors that a new American king and absolute dictator had been crowned.  Not unlike what you’re hearing on Faux “News” today.  But we never seem to learn about this particular leader who got us through the independence from Britain and the ratification of the new Constitution. 

I’m not sure that there’s a point to this post.  I’ve recently been ill so maybe I’m just rambling, but I do think that it raises the prospect that there are many pieces of history, including American history, that are still replete with gaping holes in our education.  Or, is bringing them up at all a version of “revisionist history”? 

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