You may remember that in the popular movie Chariots of Fire Olympic contender Eric Liddell refused to run on Sunday because of his religious convictions. Something like that happened with a United States president, too. Zachary Taylor, an Episcopalian, refused to take the presidential oath of office on a Sunday. This led to a curious situation in which the United States was "without" a president for a day.
James K. Polk's term ended on this day, March 4, 1849, a Sunday. The United States Constitution required of a new president that, "Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation: -- "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Taylor refused to take the constitutional oath until March 5, because he did not want to violate the Lord's Day.
Many sources claim that the President pro tempore of the Senate, David Rice Atchison, became president for a day. However, he was entitled to the position only if the President-elect and vice-president-elect died. He had no more taken the presidential oath of office than Zachary Taylor. Furthermore, his term as President pro tempore of the Senate expired with the 30th Congress on March 3, two days before Taylor took the oath.
Actually, there was no real constitutional crisis. Everyone knew Taylor was president whether he had taken the oath or not, just as surely as a vice-president immediately becomes president if the incumbent dies. Although he could not execute the affairs of the office until he was sworn in, the Senate's billet made him president as of noon March 4 just as truly as if he had taken the oath.
Taylor's story is instructive, because it shows how greatly our perception of Sunday has changed in the intervening years. Of course, more than "Sabbath" observation has changed. United States Presidents no longer leave office in March, but in January. The succession to the land's highest executive office is different now, too, spelled out more clearly and to a greater depth than in Taylor's days.
Taylor, known as "Old Rough and Ready," became president on the strength of his victories in the Mexican-American War. He died sixteen months later.
- DeGregorio, William A. The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. New York: Wings Books, 1997.
- Dyer, Brainerd. Zachary Taylor. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: State University Press, 1946.
- Kane, Joseph Nathan. Facts about the Presidents: a compilation of biographical and historical information. New York: Wilson, 1989.
- Smith, Elbert B. The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor & Millard Fillmore. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1988.
- Wilson, James Grant. Presidents of the United States. New York: Appelton, 1894. Source of the image.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles; these must be read with caution as many misinterpret what happened.
Last updated May, 2007.