Charles Vanderwater reports in his letter (April 15) that he read that David Rice Atchison had served as President of the United States for one day due to a glitch in American law at the time. Based on this information, Vanderwater wondered if this one-day president is entitled to a dollar coin as part of the Presidential $1 Coin Program.
The claim that Atchison was president for a day is one that has drifted through American history for over 150 years. In fact, Atchison was not president du jour and he is certainly not entitled to a presidential coin.
The legend is as follows. President James Polk?s term expired midday on Sunday, March 4, 1849. Being a devout Christian, President-elect Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn into office on a Sunday because it was the Sabbath. Instead, Taylor was sworn in on the next day, Monday. Taylor?s vice president, Millard Fillmore, was also sworn in on Monday.
Since Polk?s term had ended midday on Sunday and Taylor did not take office until mid-day on Monday the legend claims that Atchison ? who was the President pro tempore of the Senate ? became President during the 24-hour gap in accordance with the terms of the Presidential Succession Act of 1792.
Contrary to the legend, Atchison was never president. The bottom line is that Atchison?s term as President pro tempore of the Senate had expired the day before on March 3, 1849, when the 13th Congress adjourned. In fact, on March 4, 1849, there was a vacancy in the office of president, vice president, President pro tempore of the Senate and every other office named in the presidential succession act.
The reality is that the United States had an interregnum ? or a time when a nation is without a government ? for about 24 hours between March 4, 1849, and March 5, 1849.
Some diehards have contended that even if Atchison was not president for a day, he was at least president for a few minutes. It seems that Atchison was sworn in for his second term as President pro tempore of the Senate on Monday, March 5th, just minutes before Vice President Fillmore and President Taylor were sworn in. The problem with this claim is that the conditions necessary to trigger the succession act (which would have been necessary for him to become president) had not occurred ? namely that there be a disability or a lack of qualification of the existing president. In fact, the nation simply lacked a president when Atchison took his oath as President pro tempore of the Senate. There was no president to become disabled or to lack qualifications.
Even if true believers wish to continue in their contention that Atchison was a momentary president, it does not appear the Constitution would have actually recognized him with the title of ?President.? Rather, the Constitution provides that such a person will ?act as president? and never calls such a person by the title of ?President.?.
If Atchison did ?act as president? ? and that is a very big ?if? ? it does not appear that he would be entitled to a coin under the Presidential $1 Coin Program. The Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005 specifies that coins minted under the act shall have designs on the obverse ?which are emblematic of the Presidents of the United States.? Having never obtained the title of ?President of the United States,? it is impossible to see how David Rice Atchison would be entitled to a presidential dollar coin bearing his image.
Gary B. Marks, a life-long coin collector, is as a member of the Citizens Coin Advisory Committee with the U.S. Mint. He resides in Whitefish, Mont.
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