World's smallest presidential library planned in Atchison, Kansas
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
> "The press at the time referred to him vice president," Taylor said.Thanks Greg! Great article. I didn't know about Atchison being in a
> "He assumed the duties of the vice president, which was to preside
> over the Senate."
leadership position of the Senate and referred to as the Veep. As a
follow-up, the following excerpt is from Atchison's bio page on Wikipedia:
While it is true that the offices of President and Vice President were
vacant, Atchison in fact was not next in line. While the terms of
James K. Polk and Vice President George Mifflin Dallas expired at noon
on March 4, Atchison's tenure as President Pro Tempore did as well. He
also never took the oath of office, although there is no
constitutional requirement, then or now, for an Acting President to do
so. No disability or lack of qualification prevented Taylor and
Fillmore from taking office, and as they had been duly certified as
President-elect and Vice-President elect, if Taylor was not President
because he had not been sworn in as such, then Atchison, who hadn't
been sworn in either, certainly wasn't.
The highest-ranking officer who legally continued in office during the
interim was Polk's Secretary of State, James Buchanan, so one could
argue that he was President for a day. Interestingly, Buchanan was
actually elected President in his own right in 1856.
Atchison was sworn in for his new term as President Pro Tem minutes
before both Fillmore and Taylor, which might theoretically make him
Acting President for at least that length of time; however, this also
implies that any time the Vice President is sworn in before the
President, the Vice President is the de facto Acting President. Since
this is a common occurrence, if Atchison is considered President, so
must every Vice President whose inauguration preceded that of the
President. Obviously this is not the case. Therefore, while one could
argue that Atchison was legally President for a few minutes (though
even this much is debatable), claims that he should be considered an
"official" President are absurd.
When asked what he did on March 4, 1849, Atchison replied, "I went to
bed. There had been two or three busy nights finishing up the work of
the Senate, and I slept most of that Sunday." He jokingly boasted that
his "presidency" was the "most honest administration this country ever
- Thanks, Ram. I've always regarded Atchison's claim as
fishy, but haven't had the information to disprove it.
--- Ram Lau <ramlau@...> wrote:
> > "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."
> Thanks Greg! Great article. I didn't know about
> Atchison being in a
> leadership position of the Senate and referred to as
> the Veep. As a
> follow-up, the following excerpt is from Atchison's
> bio page on Wikipedia:
> While it is true that the offices of President and
> Vice President were
> vacant, Atchison in fact was not next in line. While
> the terms of
> James K. Polk and Vice President George Mifflin
> Dallas expired at noon
> on March 4, Atchison's tenure as President Pro
> Tempore did as well. He
> also never took the oath of office, although there
> is no
> constitutional requirement, then or now, for an
> Acting President to do
> so. No disability or lack of qualification prevented
> Taylor and
> Fillmore from taking office, and as they had been
> duly certified as
> President-elect and Vice-President elect, if Taylor
> was not President
> because he had not been sworn in as such, then
> Atchison, who hadn't
> been sworn in either, certainly wasn't.
> The highest-ranking officer who legally continued in
> office during the
> interim was Polk's Secretary of State, James
> Buchanan, so one could
> argue that he was President for a day.
> Interestingly, Buchanan was
> actually elected President in his own right in 1856.
> Atchison was sworn in for his new term as President
> Pro Tem minutes
> before both Fillmore and Taylor, which might
> theoretically make him
> Acting President for at least that length of time;
> however, this also
> implies that any time the Vice President is sworn in
> before the
> President, the Vice President is the de facto Acting
> President. Since
> this is a common occurrence, if Atchison is
> considered President, so
> must every Vice President whose inauguration
> preceded that of the
> President. Obviously this is not the case.
> Therefore, while one could
> argue that Atchison was legally President for a few
> minutes (though
> even this much is debatable), claims that he should
> be considered an
> "official" President are absurd.
> When asked what he did on March 4, 1849, Atchison
> replied, "I went to
> bed. There had been two or three busy nights
> finishing up the work of
> the Senate, and I slept most of that Sunday." He
> jokingly boasted that
> his "presidency" was the "most honest administration
> this country ever