Today’s Moron: U.S. President David Rice Atchison

October 11, 2008

Today’s Moron is the U.S. president you’ve never heard of.

I had a supply teacher for one day in Grade 6. This guy was young, had long hair, and let us call him “Dave” instead of “Mr. Whatever.” Thing were a lot loosier-goosier back in the 70s, and the idea of co-ordinated curriculum hadn’t really caught on, so on the rare days we had a supply teacher, it meant our regular work would be set aside and we’d do something different.

Dave was from the nearest bigger city, Thunder Bay, about 90 minutes from the little turdburg I grew up in. To us, he was “Big City,” but if you’ve ever been to Thunder Bay you’ll know how misguided we were. On that day, Dave sat on the teacher’s desk, ate cookies throughout the class and talked to us about conspiracy theories, the paranormal and unusual tidbits from history. So you can sort of see how this was the greatest day I ever spent in school.

He started by telling us the story of the guy who shared his name: President Dave. David Rice Atchison, the 12th president of the United States. Yeah, you’ve never heard of him, and there’s a reason for that, because Atchison was president for one day, Sunday, March 4, 1849. Here’s how it happened:

President James Polk, who once tried to take British Columbia for the Americans, ended his term on March 5. His successor, Zachary Taylor, was extremely religious and refused to be sworn in on a Sunday. This, technically, would have left outgoing Vice-President George Dallas with the presidency for a day, but Dallas had already issued his resignation. With the cabinet out of play because of Polk’s resignation, this left the presidency to the president pro tempore of the Senate: David Rice Atchison.

Atchison was a senator from Missouri, a former soldier, a farmer, lawyer and bureaucrat, and also a bit of a partier, we are told. So when word came that he was suddenly president, he had little to say – he was in bed. His official biography says he had stayed awake three days to force through a bill or something, but there has always been scuttlebutt that he was just really hammered and had to sleep it off.

(If I were suddenly told I had become president, I would have a really fantastic 24 hours involving universal debt forgiveness, free universities, cheeseburgers and Presidential Order No. 56345-B, which would make me rhythm guitarist for the Blue Oyster Cult for life.)

By the time Atchison woke up on March 5, Taylor had been sworn in, Polk had gone off to wherever he went (I know, you’ve never heard of him, either), and David Rice Atchison learned he had been president for one stupid day, and done nothing during that time. Now he remains the least-known president, the president who served the shortest term, the drunkest … no, second-drunkest president (you know who No. 1 is) and the president who accomplished the least of any president … no, second-least (and you know who No. 1 is, too).

After you read this, you’re probably going to double-check my facts. Feel free. You’ll read a lot of things from “experts” who have really good-sounding explanations about how Atchison really wasn’t president, but you should just ignore those people. You can’t trust anything on the Internet, you know.


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