The Defining Night


Foreground (Left to Right): Grace Coolidge, Calvin Coolidge, John Coolidge, Senator Porter H. Dale

The warm summer breeze drifted in through the open window while Calvin and Grace Coolidge rested easily in John Coolidge's Vermont country home on the 2nd of August. The events of the past week had been severely unsettling, but it now seemed as though all would end well. President Warren G. Harding seemed to be taking a turn toward recovery. Vice President Coolidge was not so concerned with the prospect of entering an office that he admittedly did not feel prepared to hold, but rather it was the possibility of a people losing their president that stirred his thoughts. Reports from Harding's doctor seemed promising and, while it could mean the President might spend an extended period of time recovering, he would survive and continue to lead the nation through the post-war turmoil of the early 1920's.


John Coolidge's trembling voice called out urgently for his son in a manner with which the Vice President had only recognized as accompanying the death of a loved one. America had lost her President. The Vice President's mind raced to prioritize his next actions. His first act was to kneel and pray that God "bless the American people and give me power to serve them." He stated that this was a prayer he repeated thereafter each time he approached the alter. Of secondary importance was to telegram Mrs. Harding with his deepest sympathies. Finally, he made it known to Cabinet officials and other Executive staff that there would be no sweeping changes, thus preventing the panic which ensues a change in the Executive.


Having reviewed the Constitution, Coolidge noted that he must be sworn into his new office with the oath inscribed in the Constitution: the same which he took to become Vice President. In the home's sitting room, by the light of a kerosene lamp, John Coolidge, who was authorized to administer the oath by virtue of his capacity as a notary public, read the typewritten words for his son, John Calvin Coolidge Jr., 30th President of the United States of America.


Others who bore witness to this historic event of a father swearing in his son to be the Chief Executive were Grace Coolidge, Senator Porter H. Dale, a stenographer, and President Coolidge's chauffeur.


To assume that Coolidge and his family were cool through this whole ordeal takes a great deal of assumption to believe. Coolidge recounted that his father was wrapped up with the emotion of a life of sacrificing to ensure his son could attain higher office, a better life, was now worth every ounce of sweat. President Coolidge, who did not seek the Republican nomination to President in 1919 due to feeling too inexperienced at the national level, was immensely aware of the significance of a father imparting to his son the role of chief magistrate in a Republic. By his recollection at the time, there had been no other moment in history like this, outside of a monarchy. The room in which the ceremony was held was not just of national significance but of personal significance to the Coolidges. It was a room in which the President had spent many countless hours as a boy. A room which held the last moments for his sister and his step-mother. The room adjacent was where he lost his mother and would, in a matter of three years, lose his father.


With President Coolidge's calm outward demeanor and fastidious work ethic, it might seem to us now that he was unfazed or supremely in control of his thoughts and emotions. Sources from that night, Coolidge's included, tell us very little about what happened on August 3rd between 2:30am and 7:30am, when the President received reporters outside his father's house. What we know is that during this time, Calvin and Grace retired to their room alone. The emotion, the reservations, the trepidation that Coolidge rightly could have experienced would remain private between Calvin and Grace. As Amity Shales describes in her biography "Coolidge," with his attention to the words of the Constitution, the necessity of a notary's witness, and his mother's Bible that lay on the table in front of him during the oath, President Coolidge would show that the office he now entered was to "preside over the contract between man and man."


And so is the legacy of the Coolidge Presidency that was to come.

 

Sources:

  1. "The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge" by Calvin Coolidge

  2. "Coolidge" by Amity Shales

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