How a Missouri senator may have been president for 1 day

ATCHISON, Kan. - Most history classes teach Zachary Taylor was the 12th U.S. president and Harry Truman was the only president from Missouri.

But a pair of historical markers in Plattsburg, Missouri, and a museum in Atchison, Kansas, tell a different story.

People pass by the towering statue outside the Clinton County Courthouse every day. Few people recognize it as David Rice Atchison, and likely fewer understand the plaque below that declares him "President of the United States for one day."

"He was this vital important pre-Civil War person that pretty much vanished off the pages of history," said Chris Taylor, Atchison County Historical Society executive director.

But on March 4, 1849, Atchison was the nation`s highest ranking elected official sworn into office.

The nation's 11th president, James Polk's term had expired, and the President-elect, Zachary Taylor, refused to be inaugurated on a Sunday.

Atchison of Missouri had just been named president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate.

"In 1849, there was no pressing thing that would happen. Today, if we didn't have a president for 24 hours, the whole world would be in total chaos," Taylor said.

The Atchison County Historical Society Museu boasts "The World's Smallest Presidential Library."

In its Hall of Presidents, Atchison is placed between Polk and Taylor and proclaimed "The Real 12th President." It  features an 1849 newspaper article from Washington D.C.'s National Intelligencer that explained how Atchison may have accidentally become president for a day.

The museum asks visitors to vote in an 1850s Kansas ballot box what they'd do if they were president for a day.

So how did Atchison spend it? After being up for hours signing final presidential orders that had to pass through the Senate from the previous term,  he mostly slept.

"His friends started showing up to wake him up to be appointed as ministers to different countries or part of his 24-hour cabinet, so people realized this odd thing was happening," Taylor said.

Atchison never gained the official title of vice president either, but would serve in the de-facto capacity under two presidents because of deaths in office. He'd retire from politics shortly after Atchison, Kansas, was named for him, on the losing side of the debate whether Kansas should be admitted as a slave or free state.

A marker next to his Plattsburg, Missouri, grave declares him "President for a Day." Memoirs say he'd often boast after his odd attachment to history that he had "the honestest administration in the U.S."

Since 1849, whenever Inauguration Day has fallen on a Sunday, the president has been sworn in privately, and then had a formal public ceremony the following day.