The Presidential Inauguration Dilemma

inaugurationReally, it’s a fascinating question for those who are intrigued by history – and even for those who aren’t that interested. If the official inauguration day (January 20th)  for the new President of the United States of America falls on a Sunday, what does the country do? And if the inauguration ceremony takes place on the 21st, then who is actually president for those gap hours?

This is a question that many have sought to answer through the years, and that President Barack Obama will address today. One Senator from Missouri, David Rice Atchison, actually managed to be president for one day, and this historic document is part of Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s “Between the Lines” program.

The crisis of the Inauguration date has actually been visited a total of seven times. The first time it occurred was for the swearing in of President James Monroe (the swearing in date was, at that time, on March 4, 1821). Monroe decided, on the advice of the justices of the Supreme Court, to postpone his second-term swearing-in by one day. There was no crisis and the country survived having “no president” for a day.

The second time that this occurred was on March 4, 1849. Rather than break his Sabbath, President-Elect Zachary Taylor put off the oath-taking for one day. David Rice Atchison, a Senator from Missouri, then joked that he was actually the president, as the Presidential Succession Act of 1792 said that without a president or vice-president, the office would go to the President pro tempore of the Senate. Ironically, however, Atchison didn’t actually take the oath that day but went home to sleep.  He ended up taking his oath of office only a few minutes before Taylor took his, so technically no one was in charge that day.

As he wrote in the letter that the Shapell Manuscript Foundation has in its collection,

I never for a moment acted as President of the US, although I was President of the Senate, at the expiration  of Mr. Polk’s term and inauguration of Genl Taylor [nor] yet for one moment did I ever consider that I was the legal President of the US, Genl Taylor was the legal Pres, & Millard Fillmore Vice President, either of whom had the legal right, to the Presidency although 31 hours elapsed between the egress of Mr. Polk and the taking of the oath by Genl Taylor.

For those keeping tabs on the presidency today, President Obama will be sworn in today in a private ceremony and will then be sworn in with a more public ceremony tomorrow, on Monday, January 21.


James Fishman has been involved in the world of online magazines for more than 15 years. He helped launch Sunstone Online and continues to improve the magazine as site editor and administrator. His writing focuses primarily business and technology. To be in touch with James, feel free to contact him at james[at]

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