President for a day?

Hannah of Grand Haven asked, "I heard a Grand Haven man was once president of the United States. I don't believe it. Is it true or is somebody pulling my leg?"
Mark Brooky
Feb 4, 2013



Yes, it is true — sort of.

In any case, it was a very short administration.

Thomas White Ferry was president of the U.S. for one day, according to a Ripley's Believe It or Not item.

Ferry was a U.S. senator, born on Mackinac Island in 1826 but moved to Grand Haven with his family when he was 8 years old. He was elected to Congress in 1860 and served in the Senate from 1871-83.

On March 4, 1877, Ferry could be considered president because President-elect Rutherford Hayes — who was to succeed Ulysses Grant, whose term expired March 4 — refused to take the oath of office on a Sunday. Since the vice president had died and Ferry was president pro tem of the Senate, the Grand Haven man was at that time the next in line.

In his local history book, "Grand Haven in the Path of Destiny," Dr. Dave Seibold says congressional historians invalidate the idea because Ferry didn't take the oath and was never sworn into office.

Hayes took the oath and became president on March 5.

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Thomas White Ferry was acting Vice-President, but he was not President. Dave Seibold was right--Ferry never took the oath of office. If he had it would have been invalid for Rutherford B. Hayes had already taken the oath. The election of 1776 was the most controversial in history. Four states returned duplicate sets of electoral votes. As President of the Senate, Ferry helped form a commission to determine which set of those votes would be counted. Samuel Tilden who had won the popular vote needed just one of the disputed votes to be elected. Republicans approached Southern Democrats and promised if they would not object to the process; (1) large appropriations would be made to help rebuild the South (2) a Southerner would be appointed to the cabinet and (3) federal troops would be removed from the South thus removing protection for the freed slaves. Southern leaders agreed and Hayes received ever one of the disputed votes. Republican leaders were afraid Tilden may have a federal judge swear him in on Sunday and claim the Presidency so they arranged for President Grant to host a White House dinner on Saturday night with the Chief Justice present. At stroke of midnight the oath was administered both verbally and in writing. (Hayes was the only President to take the oath in writing).

Mark Brooky

Thanks for the info, Paul. You do mean the election of 1876, right?

Walking Alive

Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Personal attacks.

Mark Brooky

I received this fact-filled e-mail on Friday from Michael Ireland, adding to our "President for a day" discussion:

This is in regards to the MAILBAG question about a Grand Haven man being President of the United States for one day.

The Thomas W. Ferry claim to the Presidency is one of two legendary “President for a Day” stories. The first was Senator David Atchison on March 4, 1849. Neither of which are true.

President Hayes began his term as President on March 4, 1877. However, that date being a Sunday, he had his public swearing –in on Monday, March 5, 1877. Not known by many at the time, Hayes took the oath of office privately at the White House on Saturday, March 3, 1877. The election of 1876 was controversial in that the Democratic candidate for President, Samuel Tilden, had more votes than the Republican candidate Hayes. In that election 185 electoral votes were necessary to win. Tilden had 184 (one short) and Hayes had 165 with 20 electoral votes in dispute. A bi-partisan Congressional commission decided (on a straight partisan vote) to give all 20 in dispute to Hayes thus giving him the Presidency. This was finally done on March 2, 1877 just two days before Inauguration Day.

The sitting President, Ulysses S. Grant, invited the now-President-elect Hayes to dinner at the White House on the evening of March 3. Because of the controversial partisan awarding of the disputed votes, President Grant and his Secretary of State Hamilton Fish were afraid Tilden may try a power grab on Sunday the 4th to claim the Presidency for himself. So, they encouraged Hayes to take the oath of office that night.

On the evening of March 3, Hayes, Grant, and Fish quietly left the White House dinner and went to the Red Room where Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite gave Hayes the oath. Waite gave the oath of office to Hayes again on the 5th in a public inauguration ceremony on the East Portico of the Capitol Building.

Senator Thomas W. Ferry of Grand Haven was President pro tempore of the Senate when Vice President Henry Wilson died of a stroke on November 22, 1875 thus putting him next in line to the Presidency for the last several months of Grant’s administration. Ferry actually presided over the counting of the electoral votes for that election (1876) and gave the oath of office to new Vice President William Wheeler on March 5th in the Senate chamber.
Yours For History,
Michael A. Ireland
Grand Haven, MI


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