After Hours

Geek Trivia: Secret to his success(ion)

What obscure point of constitutional law kept David Rice Atchison from unknowingly becoming president in 1849?

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Hard-core American history scholars (not to mention longtime Geek Trivia readers) will recognize the name John Hanson as the first person to hold the office of President of the United States. George Washington was in fact the first person to hold the office of President under the Constitution of the United States.

John Hanson, however, held the title "president of the United States in Congress Assembled," as described by the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to the Constitution created by the Continental Congress during the chaotic days of the American Revolution. (Ironically, Hanson himself was a noted antifederalist who opposed many facets of the Constitution.)

Hanson served his one-term presidency for barely less than a year—from Nov. 5, 1781, to Nov. 3, 1782. He died in 1783, more than five years before the ratification of the Constitution.

Nonetheless, we can consider Hanson a "forgotten" president of the United States. He shares the honor with seven other men, among them John Hancock, who held the office after him.

Contrast that with many triviaphiles' favorite "president," David Rice Atchison. According to some, Atchison qualifies as a President of the United States, though he "held" the office for only one day.

The term of office for President James K. Polk ended on Saturday, March 3, 1849, but his ardently religious successor, Zachary Taylor, refused to take office on Sunday, instead holding his inauguration on Monday, March 5. By some interpretations, during the Sunday between these two terms, the presidency fell to the next office-holder in the line of succession, President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

In this case, that man was Missouri Senator David Rice Atchison. Despite the myth, however, Atchison was never truly president, thanks to another obscure component of constitutional law that kept him out of office.


What obscure point of law under the U.S. Constitution prevented David Rice Atchison from becoming president of the United States on the Sunday between the end of James K. Polk's term, March 3, 1849, and the Monday of Zachary Taylor's inauguration, March 5, 1849?

While you can make several cogent legal arguments against Atchison's claim to the presidency, the plain fact of the matter is that Zachary Taylor became president the moment James K. Polk left the office. And neither a formal inauguration nor the swearing of the presidential oath of office needed to take place in order for this legal transfer to occur.

Indeed, according to the explicit wording of the Constitution in Article II, Section I, Clause 8, "Before [the president] enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:—'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.'"

Put simply, one can become president without taking the oath, but one cannot execute the powers of the office without taking the oath. Thus, Zachary Taylor was already president on Sunday, even if he didn't assume his presidential powers until the following day. Atchison's place in the line of succession was never necessary.

Such semantic distinctions regarding the transfer of power may explain why there have been several legal revisions and clarifications to the presidential line of succession beyond the Constitution's original provision, which listed no one beyond the vice president. Congress has passed three presidential succession acts—in 1792 (which applied to Atchison), 1886, and 1947.

In addition, two Constitutional Amendments have helped clarify the issue: Amendment XX, which finally placed an explicit time and date on the beginning and end of presidential terms, and Amendment XXV, which spells out how a president may temporarily remove himself from office if, for instance, it becomes necessary for health or safety reasons.

The line of succession beyond vice president is subject to Congressional law, currently spelled out in Title 3, Chapter 1, Section 19 of the U.S. Code.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

In the June 1 edition of Geek Trivia, "Cents of humor," I mistakenly implied that search guru Google was responsible for the infamous Weapons of Mass Destruction 404 error page that was associated with its I'm Feeling Lucky button in February 2003.

TechRepublic member Megabyte405 rightfully pointed out that the 404 error page that arrived was the product of an elaborate rank-rigging scheme by an outside party, not Google itself.

"I regret to inform you that Google, in fact, did not put the WMD 404 page on the top of the search results, leading to its result as the 'I'm Feeling Lucky' page…. The spread and massive linking of the page brought it to the top of the list, just as advertised."

Our generous subscriber even provided a link to a FAQ of the "meme" marketing that promoted the 404 page. With any luck, my own gaffe won't end up being so well known.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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