Monday, February 12, 2024

Franklin TV: President's Day

by Pete Fasciano, Executive Director 02/11/2024

Until recently, we celebrated Washington and Lincoln as two of our most revered Presidents. Then, rather than add any more Presidents, we lumped them (and perhaps a few others) into a single holiday – President's Day. My issue with President's Day (3rd Monday in Feb) is that there's not much in the way of festivities, other than some supposedly Spectacular Savings on new cars - ('Shop now, they're going fast'). This crass car commercialism tends to make our Presidents Day seem somewhat feckless as an inspiring holiday to honor greatness in our leaders.

George Washington became our first duly elected President; he being officially sworn into office on 4/30/1789. He served two terms until 3/4/1797. From that time, 235years ago until this very day – today – there have been 85,753days where someone has held that august title and high office. Each one of those days is technically a President's Day, be it a good or bad one. Did Martha ever ask George, "How was your day, dear?" Probably. Each President's normal 4-year term of office is about 1,461 good and bad days long.

This is where some third-grade arithmetic kicks in to divvy up all those Presidents Day celebrations and honorifics equitably among our leaders of the free world.

There are only 1440 minutes (86,400 seconds) in any day. Thus, commemorating those 85,753 presidents' days within a single holiday – leaves us with just over one second to celebrate each of those individual days. It means we can celebrate Washington and other two–termers for about 50 minutes each. Fair enough. Then there's William Henry Harrison; in office for a scant 32 days before he died. In your Presidents Day solemnities, he's good for about 33 seconds, give–take.

And along the way we come to – David Rice Atchison (8/11/1807 – 1/26/1886). He is best known for the fair claim that for 24 hours — from Sunday, March 4, 1849 through noon on Monday — he was technically by law the Acting President of the United States.

On Friday, 3/2 outgoing vice president George M. Dallas vacated his position as Senate President. Congress had already elected Atchison as the succeeding Senate President pro tempore. Inauguration Day, 3/4, fell on a Sunday in 1849 when the term of outgoing president, James K. Polk, ended at noon. President–elect Zachary Taylor opted not to take the presidential oath of office until the next day.

Per the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, the Senate president pro tempore followed the vice president in the presidential line of succession. As Dallas's term also ended at noon on the 4th, and as neither Taylor nor Vice President-elect Millard Fillmore would be sworn in to office until the next day, it was noted by Atchison's
colleagues that on March 4, 1849, Atchison became the official Acting President of the United States – POTUS by default, without need for a swearing in ceremony.

Thus, within our Presidents Day party planner we should note with the greatest solemnity The Atchison Moment. Our third-grade math marks it at 5:56:15am as an official micro–holiday – at the poetic dawn of Presidents Day. It's just over a second, and I propose that we all gather on the Town Common to say his name – loudly and proudly. "Atchison". Then we crisply move on to Zachary Taylor.

The good news is that for 24 hours Atchison didn't do a single thing wrong. His blemish-free record in high office stands as the high-water mark for presidential deliberation, decorum, and accomplishment because he humbly (perhaps wisely) opted not to accomplish anything at all.

In light of Atchison's unique albeit fleetingly brief place in presidential history – I have created the Atchison Presidential Library. I have taken it upon myself to personally fund the entire project, so no taxpayer moneys are involved. I maintain the entire Atchison Library in a shoebox. It's a small piece of paper containing a note penned by Atchison himself to his personal assistant, written on Monday
morning during the waning hours of his term of office. It's a shopping list - oats for his horse, some bootblack, and a firkin of whale oil, signed, D. R. Atchison.

In his memoir, Atchinson stated:
“James Polk went out of office on March 3, 1849, Saturday at 12 noon. The next day, the 4th, occurring on Sunday, Gen. Taylor was not inaugurated until Monday, the 5th, at noon. It was then canvassed among Senators whether there was an interregnum (during which a country lacks a government). It was plain that there was either an interregnum, or – I was the President of the United States, being
chairman of the Senate, having succeeded Judge Mangum of North Carolina. The judge woke me at 3 AM and said jocularly that as I was President of the United States, I should appoint him as Secretary of State. I made no pretense to the office, but if I was entitled in it, I had one boast to make, that not a woman or child shed a tear on account of my removing anyone from office during my incumbency.”

David Rice Atchison, the President we needed – for a day.

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