TNB Night Owl – President Autopilot

David Rice Atchison, photo by Matthew Brady

It’s a matter of faith and basic reasoning that America needs a President. That said, it’s also a matter of basic reasoning that America’s President is regularly rendered incapacitated, as they tend to sleep for a few hours every day.

Even an ill President can gather information and make decisions. Still, the notion that a President may need to be truly unavailable at certain times (a sleeping President can always be woken during a dire emergency) has led to amending the Constitution to allow the Vice President to assume temporary authority while the President is truly unavailable, for reasons like medical anesthesia.

What if there’s no Vice President available, though? Well, there’s a line of succession for that. It’s theoretically impossible for the United States to be without a President.

One thing about theory; reality has a way of proving it wrong.

That’s what happened on March 4, 1849. That was the day that President James Polk stepped down, passing the position of the Presidency to Zachary Taylor. A problem arose, however; March 4 was on a Sunday, and Taylor refused to be sworn in on a Sunday, nor to allow his Vice President, Millard Fillmore, to take the oath of office.

Historical trivia buffs were treated to an oddity: a day during which the President Pro Tempore of the Senate might theoretically have been left as the President (the line of succession at the time had the Speaker of the House below the President Pro Tem). The senior Senator’s name was David Rice Atchison, and according to some, he is technically the… well, maybe 11 1/2th President of the United States.

So, that’s the bit of historical oddity. But reality continues to be its quirky self.

The biggest obstacle to that view is that it requires the Presidential office to be acquired not automatically by election but by taking the oath of office; for those who hold that position, it’s difficult for them to square Atchison holding the spot even for a day if he never took the oath himself.

More, the Senate had officially adjourned during the time of the Presidential transition. When it came back into session during the Taylor Presidency, Atchison was again seated as President Pro Tem… but during the interim, there is uncertainty as to whether he would even qualify as the third in the command chain.

There serious argument, then, is not that Atchison was President for a day but rather that for the span of about 24 hours, in 1849, there was no President of the United States. And the world didn’t explode.

It’s almost as if they’re meant to be the representative for a free people, and not the sole individual around whom the world is expected to revolve.

Question of the night: What’s something you’ve unexpectedly received?

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.