If You Had Power
Everybody has at least once in their life played those “what if” games. And among the most commonly asked questions is, “What would you do if you had power for just one day?”
A superhero, a wealthy CEO, or even the president are examples of these kinds of things. The truth is that this actually happened to one man.
This odd sequence of events started 10 years before the United States would erupt into civil war. And while the decade-long time gap might seem like forever, the Butterfly Effect made sure a disconnected peppering of actions and decisions would weave themselves into the strangest tapestry.
This is undoubtedly one of the oddest and most bizarre episodes in the history of the United States.
David Rice Atchison was born in 1807 in what is now known as Lexington, Kentucky. He was an aspiring lawyer who took his practice to Missouri in order to open his own firm. He also owned a plantation and many enslaved African Americans.
This might seem like nothing out of the ordinary, but the intrigue skyrockets when we learn who one of his most famous clients was.
It was Joseph Smith – founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It also goes by another name – the Mormon Church.
You see, Jackson Country, MI, didn’t want Mormons living on their lands and tried to kick them out. Atchison stepped in to defend them, which stirred up a mountain of supporters that helped him get a seat in the House of Representatives in 1834.
Joining The Fight
Next was a stint in the state militia in 1838. Atchison took up arms to help defend the religious group when threats and active persecution were at an all-time high.
This landed him even more fans and supporters and got him a post as a judge in the State Court. But that wasn’t the end.
Kentucky was getting all sorts of power, and the State also had an empty seat to fill in the US Senate. However, there was one problem.
Atchison was only 36 years old, and back then, this was considered really young for someone holding a Senate seat. The rising government star, however, had a not-so-secret weapon up his sleeve.
He had already won the hearts of Mormons across the State and throughout the country, but he also had a charm and charisma that made a few key people around him take a shining to him.
This melting pot of events and support ended up giving him something more than just a Senate seat. There was just one problem.
Atchison might have supported freedom of religion, but he didn’t support freedom from slavery. He was, in fact, against the Abolitionist movement – even going as far as threatening violence toward people that opposed slavery in any way, shape, or form.
It was already a tense atmosphere, and Atchison’s actions brought on a domino effect within another state – Kansas.
The state of Kansas was the scene of a series of violent civil confrontations between those who supported slavery and those who opposed it. The former were known as “border ruffians” while the latter received the name of “free-staters”.
In a way, this grim episode, known as “Bleeding Kansas”, might be regarded as a precedent to the Civil War.
There was one main cause of disagreement between free-staters and border ruffians: the question of whether Kansas should join the Union as a free state or as a slave state.
The conflict, which went on for about five years from 1854 to 1859, was characterized by electoral fraud, raids, assaults, and political murders. But why was Kansas such a hotspot?
Well, as you know, Kansas, which was a slave estate at the time, borders Missouri, which also was a slave state and where Atchison was settled.
However, Missouri bordered the east and the north with free estates. Missourian slave owners feared that if Kansas turned into a free state, it would be easy for runaway slaves to seek shelter and help in any of the states surrounding it.
Fugitive Slave Act
Granted, there was a law named Fugitive Slave Act approved in 1850, which declared that all runaway slaves had to be returned to their owners, no matter if they escaped to a free estate.
However, this law wasn’t always enforced, and Missourian slave owners knew this. So they tried, by all means, to keep Kansas from becoming a free state.
At that time, the Kansas Territory was open to settlers. This made it easy for many Missourians to move to Kansas in order to influence local politics, sometimes resorting to violence to do so.
But that wasn’t all. Northern abolitionists did the same thing; they started organizations with the goal of financing the settlement of the Kansas Territory with free-state supporters.
A Riot Waiting To Happen
It was a riot waiting to happen. It didn’t take long before open conflict, and even violence, began erupting between the two opposing groups; that is, the “free-staters” and the “border ruffians”.
And that’s when David Rice Atchison, the man who managed to be president of the United States for one day, steps in. He played a crucial role in these events.
Atchison was a well-known leader in one of Kansas’ “border ruffians” gangs. As such, he often encouraged slavery supporters from Missouri to interfere in Kansas’ elections.
“When your peace, your quiet, and your property depend upon your action, you can, without exertion, send five hundred of your young men who will vote in favor of your institutions,” he said in one speech. But that was just the beginning.
It Kept Happening
This event was widely publicized and denounced by abolitionists, which caused Missouri to lose support in Congress. Still, it kept going on.
One year later, Atchison did the same thing: he encouraged his Missourian followers to vote for pro-slavery candidates in the elections for the territorial legislature in Kansas. The tension kept escalating, and soon enough, things turned violent.
Shortly after the elections, a seemingly never-ending chain of assaults, sabotage acts, and murders started developing. One of the factions attacked the other one, the other one retaliated, and so on.
Atchison wasn’t just a mere observer or an agitator. He was, in fact, one of the most notorious participants in these acts of violence.
Sacking Of Lawrence
In 1856, he led what was known as the “sacking of Lawrence”; an attack carried out by a pro-slavery militia comprised mainly of Missourians against the free-state stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas.
Atchison directed the first cannon that fired on the Free State Hotel. This is how an eyewitness describes the episode:
“By this time, four cannons had been brought opposite the hotel, and, under Atchison’s command, they commenced to batter down the building. In this, however, they failed. The General’s ‘Now, boys, let her rip’ was answered by some of the shots missing the mark, although the breadth of Massachusetts street alone intervened, and the remainder of some scores of rounds leaving the walls of the hotel unharmed.”
“They then placed kegs of gunpowder in the lower parts of the building and attempted to blow it up. The only result was the shattering of some of the windows and other limited damage.”
Just The Start
“At length, to complete the work which their own clumsiness or inebriety had rendered difficult hitherto, orders were given to fire the building in a number of places, and, as a consequence, it was soon encircled in a mass of flames.
“Before evening, all that remained of the Eldridge House was a portion of one wall standing erect, and for the rest a shapeless heap of ruins.” But this feat was just the beginning of Atchison’s career.
Fanning The Flames
The southern supporters named a town after him specifically for his views on slavery. Between his very outspoken stance and the confidence, this gave the southern states, the flames of anger and violence were fanned even higher.
So how did someone with such a polar opposite set of beliefs end up in office for one day?
Well, President James K. Polk is to thank. While Atchison was having his stint in the Senate, Polk had vowed to only take one term as President. And, apparently, he took that promise very seriously.
So, on March 4, 1849, he strolled out of the building at the precise moment he had been sworn in. So, what was the problem with this?
Zachary Taylor was next in line. He should have taken the seat of the President immediately afterward. However, the day of the inauguration fell on a Sunday.
Back then, it was a strict Christian rule that was saved only for rest. Work was prohibited. This left a one-day vacuum of leadership. How did Atchison factor in?
In 1945, Atchison had been sworn in as Pro Tempore of the Senate. This meant that if the Vice president wasn’t there to oversee the proceedings, Atchison would be the one to step in.
And, back then, the laws said that a Pro Tempore was also second in line for the job. So that could only mean one thing.
So, this meant the new President wasn’t sworn in. The old one refused to stay a day longer. The old Vice President’s term ended with Polk’s walkout.
At this point, things might seem clear cut – that Atchison was responsible for filling the position for 24 hours. But here’s where historical accounts get a little bit dicey.
On one side, newspapers claimed he took on the role with enthusiasm. He even went as far as to ask for the Seal of the Great Office and sign a few official papers.
It might have only been for one day, but the de facto leader was serious about his role. There were even jokes about a coupe.
Atchison’s Democrat friends joked he should just stop Taylor from taking office since he clearly didn’t want it that badly. A few even tried to garner favor for special appointments, lands, or other political favors.
Some historians, however, say that Atchison’s role in the whole process was a lot less significant than one would imagine: he wasn’t even there when it all unfolded.
They claim there were no notes or accounts in the Senate Journal or the Congressional Globe. And if it was really a thing, it would have reached further into the press world and to many other publications.
The theory is that Atchison’s position as Pro Tempore would have ended at the same time as Polk’s presidency. So, what would have happened?
The flimsy reality is that one way or another, Atchison was only the big boss for either a day or a few minutes.
People probably scrambled to get him sworn in just as a preemptive move in case there were any unforeseen issues with Taylor and his team. Then it would be the Vice President’s turn.
No Swearing In
While we’re at it, let’s bring in more historians! A few have said that the President doesn’t legally have to be sworn in for his power to take hold. The specific date of the inauguration isn’t set in stone.
So, Taylor would have probably been the President anyways – just one that was taking a Sunday off. But what did Atchison have to say about this?
In the early 1880s, Atchison is reported to have written, “I never for a moment acted as president of the U.S.”
There’s also another account that he joked he could have “slept through his entire presidency” if his friends hadn’t been bothering him for help or favors. No matter what, one thing remains true.
History Tid Bit
In some way, shape, or form, Atchison holds the record for the shortest Presidency in the history of the United States. Some States, to this day, still debate these crazy details and events that lead up to the strangest holding of a political seat.
However, there is still one crucial question in the air. You’re probably wondering something after reading this story.
What would have happened if David Rice Atchison had stayed in office for any longer than one day? What if it was Atchison, and not Taylor, who went down in the history books as the 12th president of the United States?
The truth is that the history of America might have unfolded in a very, very different way. And that’s not all.
Things Might Be Different
Even our political regime might be different from what it looks like today had history gone down differently. The present is nothing more than the culmination of past processes and events and had things been a little bit different in the past, the present might look nothing like it is today.
And in this case, there’s an even stronger reason to believe that.
As we have seen, Atchison’s political profile was far from that of a moderate. He had very strong interests in keeping slavery alive and well; let’s not forget he was a plantation owner.
Besides, he had a way more violent profile than any other president in the history of the United States. So how would history have turned had he stayed in office?
In order to protect the privacy of those depicted, some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed and are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.