Sat, Jul. 30, 2005
World's smallest presidential library planned in Atchison
ATCHISON, Kan. - In a state with a presidential library, a
presidential loser's library and a gallery of Oval Office occupant
wannabes, add what's being billed as the "world's smallest
Actually, it really will be as much a presidential library as some say
David Rice Atchison really was president for a day in 1849.
But it's something the Atchison County Historical Society Museum plans
to open Feb. 20 - President's Day - using the presidential story to
attract visitors to a larger view of the man for whom this Missouri
River town is named.
"It's our hook to get people in, and hopefully they will learn
something about this man," said Chris Taylor, the society's executive
They'll learn that Atchison was a pro-slavery but well-respected U.S.
senator from Missouri and that his supporters founded this community
and named it for him to give it pro-slavery cache.
Atchison also was a major player behind the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act
that allowed voters to bring Kansas into the union as a free state. He
often is portrayed as a Border Ruffian during the violent Bleeding
Kansas period leading up to the Civil War.
"It was all consuming to him. He saw having Kansas as a slave state as
a way to keep the union from breaking," Taylor said. "He spent the
vast majority of his time trying to avoid violence."
Atchison became a senator in 1843 at age 36 and served until 1855. He
also was Senate president pro tem most of that time, including 1849.
Whether he ever was president has been debated for decades.
James K. Polk's term expired at noon March 4, when the next president
normally would have been sworn in. However, March 4 was a Sunday, so
Zachary Taylor waited until the next day to take the oath.
William E. Parrish, author of the only Atchison biography, sees more
myth than reality to the story.
"It's a nice story, and I like the story, but he wasn't president for
a day," said Parrish, a history professor emeritus at Mississippi
He said Atchison's Senate term ended with the adjournment of Congress
at midnight March 3, and he wasn't sworn in as a senator and elected
president pro tem by colleagues until March 5, before Taylor was sworn in.
"You could say he was president for a day, but his term as senator
expired along with that of the old president," he said. "So,
technically, he was out of office, too. But that doesn't make for as
good of a story."
Parrish said Atchison told a reporter years later that he slept most
of that Sunday and felt there was no president that day.
"If Atchison was right, it probably got started as a joke among the
senators," he said.
Others, including the historical society director, maintain that
Atchison probably was president.
"You could have a good argument both ways. I would come down on the
side of him being president because such an unusual set of
circumstances occurred," he said. "Even at the time, it was
acknowledged he was in the line of succession."
But, he added, "Nothing happened at the time to cause any action to
make it apparent he was president."
Taylor said Atchison did serve as vice president during the Millard
Fillmore and Franklin Pierce administrations.
As vice president, Fillmore became president when Zachary Taylor died
in 1850; Pierce's vice president, William Rufus King, died a month
after taking office in 1853.
"The press at the time referred to him vice president," Taylor said.
"He assumed the duties of the vice president, which was to preside
over the Senate."
Atchison's story is a favorite topic of trivia quizzes and Web sites
devoted to exploring urban legends, such as Snopes.com.
"It could be argued he was no more president than Zachary Taylor that
day," Snopes founder David Mikkelson said. "If you follow the line of
reasoning that they had - no president because nobody was sworn in -
then we went without a president for a day because Atchison wasn't
sworn in either."
Finding the genesis of the President Atchison story is difficult. Most
of his personal papers were destroyed by fire in the 1870s at his farm
near Gower, Mo., where he lived until his 1886 death.
Parrish said he didn't find that Atchison called himself president in
the few surviving papers he reviewed.
There were rumors Atchison signed some official papers as president,
but they have never turned up. News accounts of the day focus on the
Taylor said the "presidential library" won't measure up to other
presidential landmarks in Kansas.
The Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene has millions of pages
of documents and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence
has 4,100 boxes of personal papers from the losing 1996 presidential
candidate. The Gallery of Also Rans in Norton has 58 portraits of
candidates who didn't make it the White House.
Taylor said the "Atchison library" will be housed in a couple of
display cases taking up about 35 square feet in the museum and be part
its Kansas Territory exhibit. It will include Atchison's pistol, along
with some photographs, Parrish's biography and other documents. He
said the museum is looking for additional items.
Parrish sees no problem with officials trying to play off the Atchison
as president story.
"As long as you got a little myth you can hang on to, there is noting
wrong with that as far as I'm concerned," he said.
ON THE NET
Atchison County Historical Society: http://www.atchisonhistory.org