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Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. This blog features stories that reveal the depth and breadth of Senate history from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, Senate Stories explores the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.

For more notable moments in Senate history, please visit our Historical Highlights collection.


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Mary Jean Simpson 202103 1Breaching a Masculine Precinct: Women Pioneers on Senate Staff
March 1, 2021
By the time the Senate welcomed the first female senator in 1922, women were already playing a groundbreaking role on Senate staff. Women began working on Senate staff, typically in custodial positions, as early as the 1850s, but by the dawn of the 20th century they were assuming increasingly important roles in senators’ offices and committees. These pioneering women challenged gender stereotypes, overcame societal and institutional obstacles, and opened doors for others to follow. Each and every one of them had a hand in shaping the history of the Senate and the nation.
Categories: Women | Officers and Staff

By the time the Senate welcomed the first female senator in 1922, women were already playing a groundbreaking role on Senate staff. Women began working on Senate staff, typically in custodial positions, as early as the 1850s, but by the dawn of the 20th century they were assuming increasingly important roles in senators’ offices and committees. These pioneering women challenged gender stereotypes, overcame societal and institutional obstacles, and opened doors for others to follow. Each and every one of them had a hand in shaping the history of the Senate and the nation. Among the earliest pioneers was Leona Wells, who joined Senate staff in 1901 and remained on the payroll for the next 25 years. Born in Illinois around 1878, Wells moved to Wyoming when she turned 21 (because this young suffragist could cast a vote in Wyoming). There she met Senator Francis E. Warren, whose patronage brought her to Washington, D.C. She served as messenger and assistant clerk to several committees. When Senator Warren became chairman of the Committee on Appropriations in 1911, he assigned to Wells the management of all committee business, although she never gained the official title of clerk—forerunner to today’s chief clerk position. Wells wasn’t the first woman to hold a clerical position for a Senate committee, nor the first to be lead clerk, but she was the first to assume that responsibility for such a powerful committee as Appropriations.1 At the time, Leona Wells was unusual—a well-paid professional woman on Capitol Hill. In fact, she was so unusual that she attracted media attention. Leona Wells “is probably the most envied woman in government service,” reported the Boston Globe in 1911. Not only did she earn a good salary, the Globe noted, but she is “placed in charge of the affairs of a big committee.” Wells scouted new territory for female staff, but one area remained off-limits—the Senate Chamber. When Chairman Warren was on the floor handling committee business, Wells had to wait outside. Male committee clerks freely entered the Chamber, but the Senate was not yet ready to admit a female staffer to its inner sanctum. Instead, as the Globe reported, Wells waited “just outside the swing doors of the senate chamber . . . and kept the door an inch or two ajar that she might hear everything that went on inside.”2 Soon, other women set their own milestones. By 1917 five women served as top clerk on Senate committees, including Jessie L. Simpson, clerk for the Committee on Foreign Relations. Raised in St. Louis, Simpson actively participated in the presidential campaign for Woodrow Wilson in 1912, where she caught the attention of Missouri senator William Stone. Simpson joined the Senate staff that year through Stone’s patronage, serving as messenger and clerk to several committees before joining the staff of the Foreign Relations Committee in 1914. Having served as assistant clerk, Simpson gained the top committee job in 1917 with an annual salary of $3,000. (At that time, senators received a salary of $7,500.) News reporters took note of the accomplishment, but they often commented not on Simpson’s abilities but on her fitness for such a sensitive job. “It’s an old story that a woman can not keep a secret,” commented one, “but here is one who must keep many,” who must “go through what is described as an ordeal for her sex” to keep diplomatic secrets. Despite the attention, Simpson took it in stride. “I can’t see why all this fuss about my being appointed to the clerkship,” she stated. “I’ve been acting clerk for months. It’s merely a question of my appointment being made permanent.” As the committee’s top clerk, the New York Times reported, Simpson took on tremendous responsibilities. “In her hands will be treaties with foreign Governments . . . and much other information of a delicate nature.” Like Leona Wells, Jessie Simpson proved that women in government service could tackle difficult jobs with great skill, but she didn’t stay in the position long. In November of 1917, Simpson relinquished her well-paying Senate job to “do her bit” for the war effort. She became a clerk for the U.S. Department of War in France.3 By this time, a growing number of women were taking jobs in the Senate. As early as 1904, news accounts had noted that some “of the best paid employees of our government are women.” Many came to Washington, D.C., during the First World War to fill jobs held by men who had joined the war effort, while others came seeking employment that would be long-lasting. “Is Washington in danger of being overrun by women?” asked a reporter for the Washington Post in 1917. By the 1920s, women filled a number of top positions in senators’ offices and in committees. In 1922 six Senate committees employed women as principal clerks, and many other women served as assistant clerks. In fact, that year, at least 82 of the Senate’s 154 committee clerks listed in the Congressional Directory—53 percent—were women. Four Senate committees were staffed entirely by women.4 Among those six chief clerks was Mabelle J. Talbert. Hired by Nebraska senator George Norris in 1915, Talbert moved with Norris through several committees. When he became chairman of the Committee on Agriculture in 1921, Talbert signed on as assistant clerk. A year later, she became clerk in charge of all committee operations, including management of investigative hearings into such issues as the meat-packing industry and shipment of “filled” or adulterated milk (declared illegal in 1923). Like a number of other top female staff at the time, Talbert served in dual roles in the Senate, as lead clerk to a committee and as secretary to the committee chairman. Norris once described his secretary as a “trusted lieutenant” who “knew the ground and understood the nature of the opposition forces and weapons.”5 Cora Rubin, in 1922 the clerk for the Education and Labor Committee and also secretary to Idaho senator William Borah, became a well-known figure on Capitol Hill. An Idaho native, Rubin first worked for Borah when he was a lawyer in their home state. When the state legislature elected Borah to the Senate in 1906, Rubin followed him to Washington to serve as his stenographer, then as secretary, and by 1920 also was in charge of a major committee. In her dual capacity, Rubin assumed so much responsibility that the press dubbed her “deputy senator.” One Borah biographer described her as the “Cerberus who guarded the office door.” Regardless of her position and decades of service on Capitol Hill, Rubin still faced persistent institutional barriers, such as Chamber access. As committee clerk she held floor privileges but was wary of exercising them, as she explained, “because of the notoriety that would follow.” Although this has been difficult to document, Rubin most likely overcame that hesitation. “I have promised myself that before I leave here for good,” she told a reporter in 1922, “I am going to walk right in on the floor of the senate when it is in session and watch the grave and reverend senators fall over at such desecration!” It would take many years for the “masculine precinct” of the Senate Chamber, as the New York Times described it in 1929, to be fully breached by women staff.6 Another milestone came in 1926 when Mary Jean Simpson became the Senate’s first female bill clerk. Sponsored by Vermont senator Porter Dale, Simpson was no newcomer to politics and public service. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1913 and became active in politics in her home state of Vermont. She participated in various wartime efforts and served in local and state elective offices. Serving as Senate bill clerk until 1933, Simpson later led Vermont’s emergency relief efforts during the Great Depression, directed the women’s division of the Vermont Works Progress Administration, and then became dean of women at the University of Vermont. Today, that university awards an annual prize in honor of this one-time Senate pioneer, the Mary Jean Simpson Award, to a female student “who best exemplifies the qualities of character, leadership, and scholarship.”7 As the role of women on Senate staff grew, Lola Williams took those trailblazing efforts a step further and made history in 1929. “For the first time,” reported the New York Times, “a woman is serving as secretary to the Vice President.” This long-time secretary to Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas achieved that milestone when Curtis took the oath of office as vice president on March 4, 1929, thereby becoming the constitutional president of the Senate. Curtis enthusiastically extolled Williams’s intelligence and experience, but press coverage of her groundbreaking move focused more on appearance than ability. “Miss Williams has one salient characteristic, essentially feminine,” remarked an Associated Press reporter, “for all her efficiency, she wears clothes well and is good to look upon.” As the vice president’s chief aide, Williams oversaw correspondence between Curtis and President Herbert Hoover and managed all official business while the vice president presided over the Senate. A woman had “never appeared in such an official capacity,” noted the Times.8 Earlene White was also a pioneer, although much of her story remains a puzzle. Born in Mississippi, White began her career as a newspaperwoman in Jackson and then went into public relations. It is unclear what brought White to the nation’s capital, but that move may have coincided with her becoming president of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs in 1937. By that year, she also served as a mail carrier in the Senate, and by the end of that decade news accounts consistently identified her as Senate postmaster. Senate employment records do not assign that title to her; rather, they list her as mail carrier throughout her Senate career. Whether she enjoyed the title of postmaster or not, White was a powerhouse. In addition to her Senate duties, she continued to lead national women’s rights organizations. Advancement of the Equal Rights Amendment and equal opportunities in the workplace became her principal goals. “I ask each of you within sound of my voice,” White proclaimed to a large audience in 1938, “to take a pledge that we will not rest until the women of all the nations enjoy political opportunities. . . . We must think how best to advance women for high political and appointive office.” When White died in 1961, the Washington Post described her as “a fighter for the rights of women” and as the “former postmistress of the Senate.” Was Earlene White the de facto postmaster without a title, just as Leona Wells had been de facto lead clerk of a committee without that title? That remains a mystery, but there is no question that she was one of the Senate’s female pioneers.9 It took much longer for women of color to find their place on the Senate’s professional staff. Although African American women had been Senate employees for a century, not until the 1950s did they likely gain professional positions on committees or in senators’ offices. One of the earliest was Christine McCreary, who joined the staff of Missouri senator William Stuart Symington in 1953. When McCreary came to Capitol Hill, she not only faced lingering resistance to women in top staff positions, but also a racially segregated workplace. In an oral history interview with the Senate Historical Office, McCreary recalled the frightening experience of being among the first to challenge segregation in Senate spaces. “I didn’t know what to expect,” McCreary remembered, “because you see Washington was segregated and you had to deal with that.” Facing segregation in the Senate cafeteria, for example, McCreary courageously demanded to be served, and refused to give up. “I went back the next day, and the next day, until finally they got used to seeing me coming in there.” McCreary remained on Senate staff until 1998.10 For many years, scholars studying Congress paid scant attention to Capitol Hill staff, and those who did assumed that women played little or no role on Senate staff before the Second World War. As research continues, Senate historians are discovering that women held positions of influence, on committee staff and in senators’ offices, early in the 20th century. This important role of the “Women of the Senate” is not a recent phenomenon but a story encompassing more than a century of Senate history.
Notes
1. The title of chief clerk was adopted in 1947, following implementation of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. 2. Annual Report of Charles G. Bennett, Secretary of the Senate, Senate Document No. 1, 57th Cong., 2d sess.; Annual Report of the Secretary of the Senate, Senate Document No. 954, 62nd Cong., 3d sess.; “Is Suffragette Uncle Sam’s Highest Salaried Woman,” Boston Daily Globe, August 6, 1911, SM11; “Is Best-Paid Woman,” Washington Post, May 28, 1911, M1; “Women Who Count,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 24, 1911, J11. 3. Report of the Secretary of the Senate, Senate Document No. 309, 65th Cong., 3d sess.; “Important Post for Woman: Miss Jessie L. Simpson Appointed Clerk to Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” New York Times, January 3, 1917, 10; “First Woman Secretary of Senate Committee,” Boston Daily Globe, January 3, 1917, 11; “Going to the Front,” Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1917, I1; “Drops Honor for War,” New York Times, November 13, 1917, 5; “Pretty Girl Custodian of Important Secrets,” Knoxville Sentinel, February 8, 1917, 9. 4. Congressional Directory, 67th Cong., 2nd Sess., December 1921, 232–33; 67th Cong., 4th sess., December 1922, 234–35; “Women Crowding to Washington to Fill Government Jobs of Men Gone to Fight Nation’s Battles,” Washington Post, June 17, 1917, SM4; “Women. Government Employs a Large Number,” Boston Daily Globe, May 22, 1904, 55. 5. Richard Lowitt, George W. Norris: The Persistence of a Progressive, 1913–1933 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971), 273; “A Number of United States Senators Have Women Secretaries,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 10, 1926, C8. 6. Marian C. McKenna, Borah (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 86, 372; Frances L. Garside, “Being Secretary to Busy Senator Big Job,” Hartford Courant, June 4, 1922, B6; “That Women Secretaries Sometimes Are Even More Efficient Than Men,” Washington Post, June 24, 1928, S2. 7. The Mary Jean Simpson archival collection is housed in Special Collections of the University of Vermont Libraries in Burlington, VT; “Grafton ‘Old Home’ Day,” Christian Science Monitor, August 21, 1925, 3; “Miss Mary Jean Simpson to Aid on Women’s Project,” Washington Post, October 4, 1936, M14; “WPA Consultant Accepts Deanship,” August 6, 1937, 3. 8. “Girl to Be Secretary to Vice-President Curtis,” Hartford Courant, February 24, 1929, D11; “Curtis Creates Precedent, Having a Woman Secretary,” New York Times, March 24, 1929, 156. 9. Report of the Secretary of the Senate, Senate Document No. 136, 76th Cong., 3d sess.; “City Club Dinner Party Will Honor Miss White,” Washington Post, August 11, 1935, S7; “Senate Postmistress is Nominated for President of Professional Women’s National Federation,” Washington Post, July 23, 1937, 17; “Earlene White in 2d Address,” Washington Post, August 5, 1938, 15; “Guest Speaker,” Washington Post, September 13, 1938, 20; “Hill B. & P. W. Forms Branch,” Washington Post, August 2, 1939, 13; “Earlene White, Woman Leader,” Washington Post, February 23, 1961, B3; “Colonials Hear Earlene White,” Washington Post, April 18, 1941, 17. 10. "Christine S. McCreary, Staff of Senator Stuart Symington, 1953–1977 and Senator John Glenn, 1977–1998," Oral History Interviews, May 19, 1998, Senate Historical Office, Washington, D.C.
1880 Census Document Identifying Andrew F. Slade as a "Page in the Senate" 202102 8Andrew Slade: First African American Senate Page
February 8, 2021
In April 1965, Senator Jacob Javits of New York appointed Lawrence Bradford, Jr., to be a Senate page. In celebrating the appointment, Javits and journalists identified Bradford as the first African American to serve in the Senate’s historic page program. Bradford’s appointment was a milestone, but there’s one problem with this celebration—while Bradford was certainly a trailblazer in his time, he was not, in fact, the first African American page. That distinction belongs to Andrew Foote Slade, a young man who served as a page between 1869 and 1881.

In April 1965, Senator Jacob Javits of New York appointed Lawrence Bradford, Jr., to be a Senate page. In celebrating the appointment, Javits and journalists identified Bradford as the first African American to serve in the Senate’s historic page program. Bradford’s appointment was a milestone, but there’s one problem with this celebration—while Bradford was certainly a trailblazer in his time, he was not, in fact, the first African American page. That distinction belongs to Andrew Foote Slade, a young man who served as a page between 1869 and 1881. Slade’s story, forgotten in the Senate by the 1960s, offers a window not just into the Senate of the late 19th century, but into the history of Washington, D.C.’s, free Black community.1 Andrew Slade was born in 1857, the son of Josephine Parke and William Slade, a prominent free Black couple from the District of Columbia. Josephine, born as a free woman in 1818, was the daughter of a woman who had been enslaved by George Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, on his Arlington, Virginia, estate. William was born free in 1814; his mother was formerly enslaved by the Foote family of Virginia. Henry Foote later represented Mississippi in the Senate. William believed, in fact, that his mother was Senator Foote’s half-sister.2 During the 1850s Andrew's father William was a porter at Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel, a posh establishment popular with Washington’s political elite. There he made connections that eventually took him to the White House. With a recommendation from Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, William first took a job at the Treasury Department as a messenger in 1861. In 1862 he was appointed to Abraham Lincoln’s White House, where free people of color were integral to its daily operations.3 William’s title was “usher,” one of the highest posts in the Executive Mansion staff. Andrew's mother, Josephine, also periodically worked at the White House as a seamstress, alongside African American dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly. The couple’s children, including Andrew, often played with young Tad Lincoln, even hosting him at their home, the boardinghouse they owned and operated on Massachusetts Avenue.4 In the White House, William Slade was not just a servant but a confidante of the president, someone Lincoln turned to as he considered the weighty questions of emancipation and the fate of freed African Americans. The Slades were leading figures in the District’s free Black community. William was an elder of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. As freed African Americans flooded into the capital during the war, the Slades, along with friend and colleague Elizabeth Keckly, created the Contraband Relief Association to provide assistance and organized a school at the First Colored Baptist Church. William served as president of the Social, Civil, and Statistical Association, an organization dedicated to achieving Black citizenship following the war. Josephine was a leading organizer in the movement for universal suffrage.5 After the death of President Lincoln, William Slade continued to work at the White House under President Andrew Johnson, who appointed him steward in 1865. William died three years later at age 53. President Johnson paid his respects at the Slade home, and the funeral was officiated by Howard University president and former Senate chaplain Byron Sunderland, an abolitionist preacher. With William gone, Josephine Slade became the head of a household that included a son and daughter in their 20s and three younger children, including 11-year-old Andrew.6 Andrew Slade was appointed as a Senate page in December 1869. He had been educated in a school in the District of Columbia for Black children established by African American civil rights activist John F. Cook, Jr. Andrew owed his appointment to Sergeant at Arms John R. French, an opponent of slavery and supporter of Black rights who had been friends with his father William. The Baltimore Sun noted the appointment and described Andrew as “a bright mulatto boy, son of . . . the late colored steward of the White House.” The writer speculated that the boy would be assigned as a special page to Senator Charles Sumner, another defender of Black civil rights who had been acquainted with his father. Although Andrew had not yet worked in the Chamber, the article stated that he was “on duty in the corridors.” Another reporter commented on Andrew’s light complexion and suggested that “such is the prejudice against a color, even milk-and-molasses color, that it has been thought best to introduce him by degrees into the Senate Chamber, lest the Caucasian pages leave en masse.” As was the case with other pages, Andrew’s salary, $3 per day, was paid to his mother.7 Historians have long known that many page appointments were given to local orphans or children of widowed mothers. While this appeared to be a way for the Senate to provide benefits to families in need, Josephine was anything but destitute. William left her a sizeable estate of $100,000, including $14,000 in real estate. But Josephine was a widow, nevertheless.8 Andrew’s first stint as a page was a short one. In 1870 his sister Marie Louise, a copyist at the U.S. Pension Office, married a prominent Black Arkansas politician named James W. Mason. Andrew, his mother, and his siblings all moved with Marie and her new husband to Arkansas later that year. In 1872, Josephine Slade passed away, leaving Andrew an orphan. The next year, he enrolled at Oberlin College’s preparatory school in Ohio and attended for one year.9 Andrew returned to Washington in January 1874, now 16 years old, and was again appointed as a page. Senate records list him as the ward of longtime assistant doorkeeper James I. Christie. Later that year, his sister returned to Washington following the death of her husband and Andrew spent the rest of the decade living with her while working as a page. He served as a riding page delivering messages throughout the District and eventually became a mail carrier for the Senate Post Office. He also likely worked on the Chamber floor and was reportedly a favorite of Vice President Henry Wilson. Andrew, in fact, helped attend to Wilson as he lay dying in his office across the corridor from the Chamber in 1875. 10 The Senate had no maximum age for pages in the late 19th century, so Andrew continued as a page into November 1881, when he was 24 years old. In December he applied for a position at the Pension Commission, supported by a recommendation from Democratic senator George Pendleton of Ohio, famous for his 1883 Civil Service Reform Act. In 1882, while visiting or living in Warwick, New York, Andrew submitted an application for a position at the Department of the Interior, with recommendations from Garland, Senator Henry Teller of Colorado—who had recently left the Senate to serve as secretary of the department—and T. W. Ferry of the Senate Post Office.11 It is unknown whether Andrew gained another government position, but by 1886 he was living in Philadelphia and working at the Tribune newspaper, the city’s recently founded African American paper. A reporter from the Washington Bee, another African American paper, noted meeting Andrew on a visit to the Tribune’s offices and described him as a man with “a good heart and a mild disposition” who was “well known in Washington.” The historical record offers little information about how Andrew fared in Philadelphia. In 1899 he is listed in the city directory as a driver. He died that year, at the age of 42, leaving behind a wife, Laura.12 Andrew Slade’s story, incomplete though it may be, offers a glimpse into an era of dramatic social changes in and around the Capitol and the role played by this prominent Black family. Andrew's mother and father both walked the corridors of official Washington and used what power they had to fight for the rights of African Americans in an era when those rights were under constant siege. Their stature likely opened the doors of the Senate to their son at a time when others like him would have been denied the opportunity. We are left wondering, however, what Andrew thought about his position in the Senate and how he was received by senators of the 1870s. What role did Andrew’s race play in his experiences in and around the Senate Chamber? How did senators view Andrew, especially those former Confederates who returned to Congress in the years after Reconstruction, dedicated to maintaining the racial caste system in their home states? Perhaps Andrew Slade’s very presence served as a reminder to senators of the insecure future of Black Americans outside the Capitol. All of these questions and more will fuel future research by Senate historians.
Notes
1. “Pioneer Senate Page: Lawrence Wallace Bradford, Jr.,” New York Times, April 14, 1965, 26. 2. Blake Wintory, “Biography of Josephine Lewis (Parke) Slade, 1818-1872,” Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists, https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C5075826?account_id=45340&usage_group_id=45068#page/1/mode/1/chapter/bibliographic_entity|bibliographic_details|5075826. The District of Columbia was a popular destination for formerly enslaved African Americans manumitted from the upper South, leading to a free population of over 11,000 by 1860, about 20 percent of the city’s population. Dorothy Provine, “The Economic Position of the Free Blacks in the District of Columbia, 1800–1860,” Journal of Negro History 58, no. 1 (Jan. 1973), 61. 3. John E. Washington, They Knew Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2018; originally published 1942); James B. Conroy, “Slavery’s Mark on Lincoln’s White House,” White House Historical Association, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/slaverys-mark-on-lincolns-white-house. 4. Wintory, “Biography of Marie Louise (Slade) Mason, 1844-1919,” Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists, https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C4744667?account_id=45340&usage_group_id=45068#page/1/mode/1/chapter/bibliographic_entity|bibliographic_details|4744667; Conroy, “Slavery’s Mark on Lincoln’s White House.” 5. Natalie Sweet, “A Representative ‘of Our People’: The Agency of William Slade, Leader in the African American Community and Usher to Abraham Lincoln,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 34, no. 2 (Summer 2013), 21–41, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.2629860.0034.204; Diaries of Julia Wilbur, 1860–66, April 20, 1865, https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/civilwar/JuliaWilburDiary1860to1866.pdf. 6. Ancestry.com, 1870 Census, Washington Ward 4, Washington, District of Columbia, Roll: M593_124, 780A; Family History Library Film: 545623; Sweet, “A Representative ‘of Our People.’” 7. Receipts and Expenditures of Senate, 1870, Mis. Doc. 8, 41st Cong., 3d Sess., 2; Progressive American(NY), undated, in Isaac Bassett Papers, Box 34, Folder E, p. 130,Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, National Archives, Washington, DC [online version available through Archives Research Catalog (ARC Identifier 5423162) at www.archives.gov]; “Colored Page in the Senate,” Baltimore Sun, December 16, 1869, 1; “The Alta on Our Colored Brother,” San Jose Mercury News, December 28, 1869, 3; Assistant Doorkeeper Isaac Bassett noted in his unpublished memoir Andrew’s appointment as the “first colored page.” Isaac Bassett's Papers, Box 3, Folder A, p. 31, Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, National Archives, Washington, DC [online version available through Archives Research Catalog (ARC Identifier 5423058) at www.archives.gov]. 8. Wintory, “Josephine Lewis (Parke) Slade,” Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists. 9. “Colored Female Clerks,” Washington Evening Star, March 27, 1869, 1; Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Oberlin College for the College Year 1873–74, 29; Wintory, “Marie Louise (Slade) Mason,” Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists. 10. Receipts and Expenditures of Senate, Mis. Doc. 74, 43d Cong., 2d Sess., 1875, 10. Senator George Pendleton’s recommendation letter for Slade in 1881 indicated that he worked in the Senate Chamber. See Slade, Andrew F., File 2942, Appointments Division, Applications and Appointments 1881, Box no. 65, Department of the Interior, Record Group 48, National Archives, College Park, MD; Progressive American(NY), undated, in Isaac Bassett Papers. 11. Slade, Andrew F., File 2942, Appointments Division, Applications and Appointments 1881, Box no. 65, Department of the Interior, Record Group 48, National Archives, College Park, MD; Slade, Andrew F., Appointment, File 874, Division, Applications and Appointments 1882, Box no. 72, Entry 27, Record Group 48, Department of the Interior, National Archives, College Park, MD. Special thanks to Blake Wintory for sharing his research. 12. “Our Visit to Philadelphia,” Washington Bee, November 13, 1886; "Andrew Slade," Washington Bee, August 26, 1899. We know much more about Slade’s sister Marie Louise, who moved to Montana in 1889 and became a leader in the movement for women’s suffrage. She later moved to Paris and then London with her daughter, who studied to be an artist. See Wintory, “Marie Louise (Slade) Mason,” Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists. Slade’s sister Katherine Slade went on to become a teacher and was a key source for John Washington’s They Knew Lincoln.
Plaque Affixed to Statue of David Rice Atchison (D-MO), Plattsburg, Missouri 202011 13David Rice Atchison: (Not) President for a Day
November 13, 2020
A plaque affixed to a statue in Plattsburg, Missouri, reads, "David Rice Atchison, 1807–1886, President of United States One Day." The day of Atchison’s presumed presidency was March 4, 1849. Who was David Rice Atchison and on what basis could he claim to have been the president of the United States, even if for only one day?

A plaque affixed to a statue in Plattsburg, Missouri, reads, "David Rice Atchison, 1807–1886, President of United States One Day." The day of Atchison’s presumed presidency was March 4, 1849. Who was David Rice Atchison and on what basis could he claim to have been the president of the United States, even if for only one day? David Rice Atchison was a Missouri Democrat who served in the U.S. Senate from 1843 to 1855. Raised and educated in Kentucky, he settled in Missouri and opened a law practice in Clay County in 1829. Atchison rose to prominence in Missouri when he served as legal counsel to members of Joseph Smith’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons, who were being forcibly removed from Jackson County in 1833. Mormons living in his district helped to give Atchison his start in politics when they supported his successful candidacy for the state legislature in 1834. Atchison later served as brigadier general in the state militia and sought to maintain order as anti-Mormon violence ultimately drove them from the state. He went on to serve as a state court judge for two years before the governor appointed him to fill a vacant seat in the Senate in 1843.1 Unfortunately, Atchison’s support for Mormon rights did not extend to civil and human rights for others. In the Senate he was a staunch defender of slavery. He was a member of the so-called F Street Mess, a group of southern senators who successfully pushed for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed for the expansion of the institution into new western states and sparked outrage among opponents of slavery. Atchison joined other pro-slavery advocates and organized incursions into Kansas in 1854 to ensure that Kansas would become a slave state. He warned Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi that they would “be compelled to shoot, burn, and hang” to drive the “Abolitionists” out of Kansas. A group of pro-slavery settlers named their town Atchison in his honor, and the violence that engulfed Kansas marked another milestone on the road to civil war.2 Atchison’s actions in Kansas had lasting consequences, but today he is best remembered for the role he played—or didn’t play—in the presidential transition in 1849. Atchison was popular with his Senate colleagues, and they elected him president pro tempore on 13 separate occasions. In those days, the vice president regularly presided over Senate sessions, and the Senate chose a president pro tempore to preside in his place only during brief vice-presidential absences. On March 2, 1849, Vice President George M. Dallas took leave of the Senate for the remainder of the session and the Senate elected Atchison as president pro tempore. Atchison’s position as president pro tempore combined with a fluke of the political calendar in 1849 to set the stage for his alleged one-day presidency. Until the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, presidential and congressional terms began and ended at noon on March 4. In 1849 March 4 fell on a Sunday. On the morning of March 4, President James Polk signed the last of the session’s legislation at the White House and at 6:30 a.m. recorded in his diary, “Thus closed my official term as President.” The Senate, having been in session all night, adjourned sine die at 7:00 a.m. President-elect Zachary Taylor, in observance of the Christian Sabbath, preferred not to conduct his inauguration on Sunday, March 4, and the ceremony was delayed until the next day. On Monday, March 5, Taylor took the oath of office on the Capitol’s east front portico and the transition of power was complete.3 But if President Polk’s term ended on March 4 at noon, and Zachary Taylor was not sworn in until noon on March 5, who was president on March 4? Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792 the Senate president pro tempore immediately followed the vice president in the line of presidential succession. Had Atchison been president from noon on March 4 to noon on March 5? Neither the Congressional Globe nor the Senate Journal included any suggestion that there was a vacancy in the presidency prior to Taylor’s inauguration on the 5th, yet the notion that Atchison had briefly ascended to the office of president of the United States began to circulate. The earliest public statement came in the March 12 edition of the Alexandria Gazette, which reported that Atchison “was on Sunday, by virtue of his office, President of the United States—for one day!” The “fact” was eventually included in profiles of Atchison, including his entry in an early version of the Biographical Directory of the American Congress. In 1907 a Philadelphia newspaper published a story about Atchison’s one-day presidency, which sparked further discussion in newspapers around the country. As often happens with a story like this, it became more elaborate with each retelling. “It was held by Congress,” the account stated, “that the functions of the President must devolve upon him from Sunday noon till Monday noon.” Atchison allegedly took the role so seriously, the story went, that he “signed one or two official papers as President.” Supposedly Atchison’s Democratic colleagues had playfully suggested that he could summon the army and prevent Taylor, a member of the rival Whig Party, from assuming the presidency altogether.4 Is there any truth to the idea that Atchison was the chief executive for a day? No. Atchison himself did not take the idea seriously. He wrote in 1880 that “I never for a moment acted as President of the U.S.” Congress did not make any determinations about who was president on March 4, and Atchison certainly did not sign official paperwork, but he did have some fun with it. He later joked that because of the long nights in session the previous days, he might have slept through his “term” except that his friends woke him to congratulate him and seek patronage jobs for their friends. “I recollect,” he said in 1889, “that Senator Mangum of North Carolina suggested that I make him secretary of state.” He liked to say that his presidency had been “the honestest administration this country ever had.”5 In 1925 historian George Haynes—an authority on the Senate—dismissed the claims of Atchison’s presidency. The clearest indication that Atchison was not president, he noted, was the fact that Atchison’s existing term as senator and, more importantly, as president pro tempore, had ended at noon on March 4. The position of president pro tempore was, in fact, vacant. Atchison was not elected to the position again until the Senate’s special session convened at noon on March 5. Minutes later the president and vice president took their oaths.6 If Atchison was not the president on March 4, who was? Atchison himself believed that the office was essentially vacant for that day. He could point to precedent on this point. Inauguration day similarly had fallen on a Sunday in 1821, the day on which President James Monroe was to take the oath for a second term. Monroe also chose to delay his oath until March 5, leading John Quincy Adams to write in his diary that the delay created “a sort of interregnum during which there was no qualified person to act as President.” Constitutional scholar Charles Warren concluded in 1925, however, that the Constitution only requires that the president take the oath “before he enter upon the execution of his office.” Zachary Taylor, Warren argued, was for all intents and purposes president the moment Polk’s term ended, since he could have taken the oath and executed his responsibilities at any time thereafter.7 Despite debunking by scholars, the myth of Atchison’s one-day presidency carried on, as evidenced by the plaque below his bronze statue unveiled in Plattsburg, Missouri, in 1928. Months later the Atchison “presidency” was highlighted in the widely syndicated “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” newspaper feature, and it has resurfaced periodically ever since.8 Regardless of whether the presidency fell to the Senate’s president pro tempore or the country actually lacked a president for a day in 1849, the next time inauguration day fell on a Sunday, the president-elect took steps to avoid the same confusion. On Saturday, March 3, 1877, two days before his public inaugural ceremony, Rutherford B. Hayes took the oath of office in a private ceremony at the White House to become the 19th president of the United States. Hayes’s oath raises another question, however, that has not attracted much attention. If outgoing president Ulysses S. Grant’s term did not end until March 4, did the United States have two presidents at the same time for one day?9
Notes
1. William E. Parrish, David Rice Atchison of Missouri: Border Politician (University of Missouri Press, 1961); Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Atchison’s Letters and the Causes of Mormon Expulsion from Missouri,” BYU Studies Quarterly 26, no. 3 (July 1986): 1–47. 2. Alice Elizabeth Malavasic, The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Re-Wrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Parrish, David Rice Atchison, 164. 3. George Haynes, “President of the United States for a Single Day,” American Historical Review 30, no. 2 (January 1925): 309. 4. “News of the Day,” Alexandria Gazette, March 12, 1849; “Atchison Never President,” Washington Post, February 1, 1908, p. 14; John Wilson Townsend, “History of David Rice Atchison of Kentucky,” Register of Kentucky State Historical Society 8, no. 23 (May 1910): 39–44. 5. Atchison to Joseph Howarth, [c. 1880], Shapell Manuscript Foundation, accessed on October 9, 2020, https://www.shapell.org/manuscript/david-rice-atchison-polk-fillmore-taylor-president-for-five-minutes/#transcripts; Walter B. Stevens, “A Day and Night with Old Davy: David R. Atchison,” Missouri Historical Review 31, no. 2 (January 1937): 129, 130–31. 6. George Haynes, “President of the United States for a Single Day,” American Historical Review 30, no. 2 (January 1925): 308–10. 7. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection, Diary 31, Massachusetts Historical Society, accessed October 7, 2020, http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/php/doc?id=jqad31_545; Haynes, “President of the United States for a Single Day,” 310. 8. “Memorial to Atchison: President for a Day,” New York Times, October 28, 1928, p. 52; “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” Washington Post, November 21, 1928, p. 17. 9. “The Oath—Where and How It Was Taken,” Atlanta Constitution, March 8, 1877, p. 4.