Silent Cal’s unlikely rise to the Oval Office

coolidge swearing in

Ninety years ago tomorrow, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th president of the United States.

Far from the grand ceremony that accompanies most presidential inaugurations, the event took place at 2:47 a.m. at Coolidge’s family home in Plymouth Notch, Vt., with Coolidge’s father, a notary public, administering the oath of office in the family parlor by the light of kerosene lamp.

Coolidge, who is noted by history as one of America’s less-demonstrative presidents, promptly returned to bed.

He traveled to Washington, D.C., the next day and was re-sworn by Justice Adolph A. Hoehling, Jr. of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, as there was some confusion over whether a state notary public had the authority to administer the presidential oath.

Coolidge came to be president with the sudden death of Warren Harding, who died in San Francisco while on a tour of the West.

Coolidge’s ascension the presidency was hardly routine.

Born in 1872, he attended college at Amherst and opted to stay in western Massachusetts after graduation, taking up residence in Northampton, where he became an attorney.

He began his political career by campaigning for William McKinley in 1896 and won election to the Northampton City Council two years later.

In 1906 he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He won two more one-year terms to the Massachusetts House before returning to Northampton to run for mayor, a position he was elected to in 1909.

Silent Cal

Silent Cal

By 1911, he’d been elected to the state senate. In 1914, after being elected for a third term in the Massachusetts Senate (all terms in the various offices he would be elected to until he won national office were for one year only), Coolidge delivered a speech titled “Have Faith in Massachusetts.

The brief speech – it contained fewer than 1,000 words – was later published in a book and began to be quoted, gaining Coolidge attention.

Like Coolidge, the speech was direct. Consider this excerpt:

“The latest, most modern, and nearest perfect system that statesmanship has devised is representative government. Its weakness is the weakness of us imperfect human beings who administer it. Its strength is that even such administration secures to the people more blessings than any other system ever produced. No nation has discarded it and retained liberty.”

Coolidge was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1915, and re-elected in 1916 and 1917. He was then elected governor in 1918 and 1919.

By 1920, he had begun to gain some national recognition and at the 1920 Republican National Convention was among candidates considered for the presidential nomination, though not seriously.

After the Republican Party bosses chose Harding as their nominee for president, it was largely decided that Sen. Irvine Lenroot of Wisconsin would get the vice presidential nomination.

However, a Western delegate familiar with Coolidge’s Have Faith in Massachusetts speech instead proposed Coolidge and the idea found favor.

Coolidge, to his surprise, found himself nominated for vice president. He and Harding went on to easily defeat James Cox and Franklin D/ Roosevelt, the latter then a 38-year old running for vice president.

Coolidge’s term as vice president, like that of most VPs was relatively uneventful, though he did attend cabinet meetings, the first vice president to do so.

He was thrust into the limelight with Harding’s death on Aug. 2, 1923, however.

Because the Harding family home in rural Vermont didn’t have electricity or a telephone, he received word of the event by a messenger well after midnight.

Coolidge dressed, said a prayer, and came downstairs to greet reporters who had assembled, according to a 1940 biography of the president.

In front of a small group of observers, including Coolidge’s wife Grace and US Rep. Porter H. Dale of Vermont, Coolidge’s father John Calvin Coolidge Sr. administered the presidential oath.

Coolidge later described the scene in his autobiography, shown above in the painting by New York artist Arthur Keller:

“The oath was taken in what we always called the sitting room by the light of the kerosene lamp, which was the most modern form of lighting that had then reached the neighborhood. The Bible which had belonged to my mother lay on the table at my hand. Besides my father and myself, there were present my wife, Senator Dale, who happened to be stopping a few miles away, my stenographer, and my chauffeur.”

Coolidge would go to win election to the presidency the following year and would serve through early 1929. He died suddenly from coronary thrombosis on Jan. 5, 1933, at age 60.


3 thoughts on “Silent Cal’s unlikely rise to the Oval Office

  1. He didn’t live long and prosper, did he? Wow – age 60. Yikes, that’s young! Talk about lack of pomp and circumstance! I used to be into that only, but now I can see the history-making benefits of having a ceremony. People remember when they can hang their metaphoric hats on something. 🙂

    • It seems remarkable, doesn’t it, that Coolidge was sworn in without the benefit of a photographer being on hand. I realize it was a sudden event, in the middle of the night, but it’s still rather remarkable, given cameras had been around the better of a century at that point.

      I agree that there are definite benefits for society when there is a bit of ceremony attached with important events.

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