In our June, 1977, issue, humorist Andrew Ward had some fun with a mythological President he called Roger Darcy Amboy, who, he fantasized, “appears to have held our nation’s highest office somewhere between Van Buren and Buchanan.” Remarkably enough, there was a real-life counterpart, of sorts, for Ward’s fabrication; his name was David Rice Atchison. James P. Johnson was kind enough to pass along the story: “As he neared his seventy-eighth birthday in 1885, David Rice Atchison could glory in a host of accomplishments. He had practiced law, served in the Missouri legislature, and become a major-general in the Missouri militia; he had been a judge of the circuit court, a United States senator, chairman of important committees, and even served as president pro tempore of the Senate on sixteen occasions. But in his entry for the Biographical Congressional Directory , he listed a final, unique honor: ‘President of the United States during Sunday March 4, 1849.’ ”
Atchison based this extraordinary claim on the fact that between 6:00 A.M. , March 4—when President James K. Polk signed his last official papers and gave up the reins of government—and 12:00 noon, March 5—when President-elect Zachary Taylor took the oath of office—neither man was President, and that the Succession Act of 1792 therefore provided that the president pro tempore of the Senate fill the vacuum.
Faulty reasoning, Mr. Johnson points out, for if James K. Folk’s term had expired on March 4, so had Atchison’s term as president pro tempore of the Senate; and if Zachary Taylor did not become President until he took the oath of office on March 5, neither did Atchison once again become president pro tempore until he had taken his own oath on the same day.
That much said, it leaves us with one intriguing question: just who was President of the United States during those thirty hours of 1849—Roger Darcy Amboy?