See biography by W.E. Parrish (1961).
David Rice Atchison (August 11, 1807 – January 26, 1886) was a mid-19th century Democratic United States Senator from Missouri. He served as President pro tempore of the United States Senate for six years. He is probably best known for one day (March 4, 1849), that some have suggested he was President of the United States.
In 1838 he was re-elected to the Assembly. Three years later, he appointed a circuit court judge for the six-county area of the Platte Purchase. In 1843 he was named a county commissioner in Platte County, where he now lived.
Atchison was very popular with his fellow Senate Democrats. When the Democrats took control of the Senate in December 1845, they chose Atchison as President pro tempore, placing him third in succession for the Presidency, and also giving him the duty of presiding over the Senate when the Vice President was absent. He was then only 38 years old and had served in the Senate just two years. In 1849 Atchison stepped down as President pro tempore in favor of William R. King. King in turn yielded the office back to Atchison in December 1852, since King had been elected Vice President of the United States. Atchison continued as President pro tempore till December 1854.
As a Senator, Atchison was a fervent advocate of slavery and territorial expansion. He supported the annexation of Texas and the U.S.-Mexican War. Atchison and Missouri's other Senator, the venerable Thomas Hart Benton, became rivals and finally enemies, though both were Democrats. Benton declared himself to be against slavery in 1849, and in 1851 Atchison allied with the Whigs to defeat Benton for re-election.
Benton, intending to challenge Atchison in 1854, began to agitate for territorial organization of the area west of Missouri (now the states of Kansas and Nebraska) so it could be opened to settlement. To counter this, Atchison proposed that the area be organized and that the section of the Missouri Compromise banning slavery there be repealed in favor of popular sovereignty, under which the settlers in each territory would decide themselves whether slavery would be allowed.
At Atchison's request, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which embodied this idea, in November 1853. The Act became law on in May 1854, establishing the Territories of Kansas and Nebraska.
In fact, while Southerners welcomed the opportunity to settle Kansas, very few actually chose to do so. Instead, most free-soilers preferred Kansas. Furthermore, anti-slavery activists throughout the North came to view Kansas as a battleground and formed societies to encourage free-soil settlers to go to Kansas and ensure that both Kansas and Nebraska would become free states.
It appeared as if the Kansas Territorial legislature to be elected in March 1855 would be controlled by free-soilers and ban slavery. This was viewed as a breach of faith by Atchison and his supporters. An angry Atchison called on pro-slavery Missourians to uphold slavery by force and "to kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district" if necessary. He recruited an immense mob of heavily armed Missourians, the infamous "Border Ruffians". On the election day, March 30, 1855, Atchison led 5,000 Border Ruffians into Kansas. They seized control of all polling places at gunpoint, cast tens of thousands of fraudulent votes for pro-slavery candidates, and "elected" a pro-slavery legislature.
Despite this show of force, far more free-soilers than pro-slavery settlers migrated to Kansas. There were continual raids and ambushes by both sides in "Bleeding Kansas". But in spite of the best efforts of Atchison and the Ruffians, Kansas did reject slavery and finally became a free state in 1861.
Atchison continued to serve through the end of 1861. In March 1862, Union forces in the Trans-Mississippi theater won a decisive victory at Pea Ridge in Arkansas and secured Union control of Missouri. Atchison then resigned from the army and retired to his farm near Plattsburg, Missouri.
However, while it is alleged that the offices of President and Vice President were vacant, Atchison in fact was not next in line. While the terms of President James K. Polk and Vice President George Mifflin Dallas had expired, Atchison's tenure as President pro tempore had already expired when the Thirtieth Congress adjourned sine die on March 3. He also never took the oath of office. No disability or lack of qualification prevented Taylor and Fillmore from taking office, and as they had been duly certified to take office that day 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.
Atchison was sworn in for his new term as President pro tempore 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 many times when 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 if the President was sworn in after noon on Inauguration Day. Therefore, while one could argue that Atchison was theoretically President for a few minutes (though even this much is highly debatable), claims that he should be considered an "official" President are surely disputable. He is not included in any official U.S. government list of Presidents. The highest-ranking official whose term unquestionably continued during the interim was Polk's Secretary of State, James Buchanan (later elected President himself in 1856), whose term did not formally expire until his successor, John M. Clayton, took office on March 7.
Despite this, a museum exhibit opened in his honor, in which its owner claims it to be the country's smallest Presidential Library. Although it is not recognized as such by the U.S Government, it opened in February 2006 as the Atchison County Historical Museum in Atchison, Kansas.
Atchison was 41 years and 6 months old at the time of his alleged One Day Presidency claim, which, if not disputed, would make him the youngest President in American history. Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest to serve, was 42 years and 11 months old when he was sworn in following the death of William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy, the youngest to be elected, was 43 years and 7 months old when he was inaugurated in 1961. But in reality this also would not be true, because of the aforementioned standard of which the claim can be made, making every Vice President an Acting President. That would make the 14th Vice President John C. Breckinridge the youngest because he was 36 years old at the time of being sworn in.