Since the re-establishment of the United States under its current constitution on Wednesday, March 4, 1789, there have been 58 days where our nation has gone without someone atop the executive branch of government. 57 of those days occurred prior to George Washington's inauguration as our nation's first President, which occurred on April 30 of that year. The 58th would occur sixty years later on Sunday, March 4, 1849, and the story behind it is a tale of religion, an odd coincidence, and poor planning.
An Episcopalian, President-elect Zachary Taylor viewed Sunday as the sabbath and refused to be sworn in on March 4, the day when the term of his predecessor, James Knox Polk, expired. Vice President-elect Millard Fillmore, perhaps out of respect for his running mate or perhaps because he thought no one would show up, declined to be sworn in that day as well. So when Polk's term concluded, the 11th President of the United States turned over the reins of the nation's executive power to... well... no one.
There are some who claim that, as a result of neither Taylor nor Fillmore being sworn into their offices, Senate President Pro Tempore David Rice Atchison served as de facto Acting President of the United States on that day. Atchison's gravestone makes this claim as well, though the marker is a modern one; obviously not commissioned by the deceased. And under the laws that exist today, one could easily understand why Atchison would be viewed in this manner. But an examination of the situation, and the laws then in place to address presidential succession and disability, dispel the claim.
Why the Atchison Claim Doesn't Hold Up
Missouri Senator Atchison indeed had served as President Pro Tempore during the 30th Congress, and in that capacity would have been next in the presidential line of succession, following the Vice President. But just as in theory Atchison should've been Acting President as the result of a technicality, in fact a similar technicality thwarts that conclusion. Under the rules of the Senate at the time, the position of President Pro Tempore was not an office to which its holder was elected "until a successor is elected." In short, when the Senate adjourned to close out the 30th Congress on Saturday, March 3, 1849, the service of David Rice Atchison as President Pro Tempore terminated.
Meanwhile, the office of the Speaker of the House, next in the line of presidential succession and held by Robert Charles Winthrop, was vacant as well, for precisely the same reason. And they would each remain vacant until Atchison would be returned as the Senate's President Pro Tempore and Georgia's Howell Cobb would be elected the new Speaker of the House, on Monday, March 5th.