Kurt's Historic Sites

David Rice Atchison

David Rice Atchison

Interment Location Visited Sequence in Graves I Have Visited
Plattsburg, MO August 13, 2009 3rd President Pro Tempore visited

Photographed August 13, 2009.

Democrat. Senator. Enslaver. Border ruffian. Confederate… President of the United States? David Rice Atchison held most of these titles, but not the one which he is best remembered for. Those curious enough to track down the nineteenth-century politician’s grave will find it not in his namesake Atchison, Kansas, but rather at Greenlawn Cemetery in Plattsburg, Missouri, 40 miles north of downtown Kansas City. Atchison was a Plattsburg resident, and there is a small museum in the county courthouse dedicated to him.

Three markers memorialize the site of Atchison’s burial: a tall family monument, an individual tombstone, and a more modern, metal marker. All three appear in this image of me from my August 2009 visit to Plattsburg. My father and I had no difficulty locating the Atchison plot. Greenlawn has a flat landscape and is rather small in acreage.

Photographed August 13, 2009.
Photographed August 13, 2009.

Atchison’s place in political trivia was cemented due to a calendar quirk. From 1793 to 1933, presidential and vice presidential terms commenced and concluded on March 4th. In 1849, March 4th fell on a Sunday. In deference to religious observations, inaugural festivities were postponed until the following day, the 5th. With James K. Polk’s term finished as of noon Sunday, and Zachary Taylor not taking the oath of office until Monday, some people postulated that there was a vacancy, and that it was filled by the president pro tempore of the Senate, in accordance with the Presidential Succession Act of 1792. Thus started the rumor that David Rice Atchison, the holder of that office, was technically president of the United States of America for one day. Were there any merit to the claim, 41-year-old Atchison would have been the youngest-ever U.S. president. Here, my 49-year-old father is shown crouching at the politician’s grave.

There are multiple facts that make Atchison’s fame to claim dubious. Firstly, even though neither Zachary Taylor nor Vice President-elect Millard Fillmore took their respective oaths on March 4th, their terms still officially began that day at noon. Secondly, the 4th also marked the expiration of the 30th Congress. So too had ended Atchison’s term in the Senate and his term as president pro tempore. In 1880 he wrote that “I never for a moment acted as President of the U.S.” Although Atchison was dismissive of the assertion he was POTUS for a day, the notion is memorialized as truth on the flush marker placed at his gravesite.

Photographed August 13, 2009.
Photographed August 13, 2009.

After an uneventful March 4th — during much of which the politician slept — Atchison was sworn in for his second term as a senator. He was reselected as president pro tempore and held that title until December 1849, when he was succeeded by William Rufus DeVane King of Alabama. Atchison became president pro tem again in 1852 and retained the position until December 1854. He left office three months later, unable to secure re-election from the fractured Missouri legislature. Even though he no longer held public office, Atchison still played an active role in matters that interested him. A fervent proponent of the continuation slavery, as a senator he had been a driving force behind the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. In 1856, now a private citizen, he galvanized pro-slavery Missourians to pillage Lawrence, Kansas, where free-staters dominated. In the early days of the Civil War, Atchison served as a general in the Missouri State Guard and recruited for the Confederate cause. He resigned his commission in 1862 following the Union victory in the Battle of Pea Ridge. This engagement near the Missouri-Arkansas border dashed Confederate hopes of wresting Missouri — a border state — from the control of Federal troops.

Fast Facts

Born: August 11, 1807 in Lexington, Kentucky

Military Rank: Major General — Missouri Volunteer Militia; Brigadier General — Missouri State Guard

Political Affiliation: Democratic Party

Senatorial Term: 1843-1855

President Pro Tempore Term: 1846-1849, 1852-1854

Died: January 26, 1886 in Gower, Missouri

Age: 78

Interment: Greenlawn Cemetery, Plattsburg, Missouri

"I say under all these circumstances I am now enjoying the proudest moments of my life, - but I will detain you no longer.... No boys! - I cannot stay your spirit of patriotism, I cannot even stay my own; - our precious time is wasting. - No hasten to work, - follow your worthy and immediate leader, Col. Stringfellow!... he will lead you on to a glorious victory, & I will be there to support all your acts & assist as best I may in all your acts, & assist completing the overthrow of that hellish party, & in crushing out the last sign of damned abolitionism in the territory of Kansas."
- David Rice Atchison
May 21, 1856, in a speech delivered to militant pro-slavery forces camped two miles west of Lawrence, Kansas Territory

Sources Consulted and Further Reading

Mann, Lina. “The Origin of the March 4 Inauguration.” White House Historical Association. April 22, 2021. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-origins-of-the-march-4-inauguration.

Root, Joseph Pomeroy. Copy of David R. Atchison Speech to Proslavery Forces. Speech transcript. From Kansas Historical Society, Kansas Memory. Accessed March 17, 2023. https://www.kansasmemory.org/item/90822.

Senate Historical Office. “Senate Stories | David Rice Atchison: (Not) President for a Day.” United States Senate. November 13, 2020. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/senate-stories/no-david-rice-atchison-was-not-president-for-a-day.htm.

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