Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) was sworn in as the 30th US President by his own father – one of those quirks of history not likely to be repeated.
Calvin Coolidge: Political Mediocrity
Nothing in Calvin Coolidge’s background ever suggested that he would become president. A mediocre lawyer from western Massachusetts, Coolidge spent more than two decades plodding along in mediocre political offices mainly to augment his mediocre income.
When he became Governor of Massachusetts in 1919, he believed it to be the pinnacle of his career, and assumed the honor would help his law practice when he retired. For weeks he ducked involvement in a growing crisis among Boston’s police, who were demanding pay increases. Coolidge insisted that it was a “Boston” issue, rather than a state issue, and repeatedly urged the Mayor of Boston to deal with it. When it became impossible for Boston to reach an agreement, the police went on strike. At that point, Governor Coolidge issued a memorable sentence: There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.
That one galvanizing sentence catapulted Calvin Coolidge onto the national stage. He was nominated as Vice President on the Republican ticket in 1920.
Calvin Coolidge: Vice President
It had to be the best job Calvin Coolidge ever had – Vice President of the United States! It was a position of honor and comfortable income, with very little responsibility other than presiding over the Senate, a constitutionally-assigned task, and pleasant ceremonial functions, like ribbon-cutting, ground-breaking, and award-presenting. Since President and Mrs. Harding did not care for the reserved New Englanders, they gave the second-couple very little substantive duties. Coolidge did not complain. He filled the bill admirably.
Taking everyone (including themselves) by surprise, the Coolidges became wildly popular in Washington. Coolidge had a saharan wit, all the more hilarious by its dead-panned delivery. He became widely quoted. Grace Coolidge was attractive and personable. Together they charmed and delighted officialdom. They were invited everywhere!
The Death of President Warren Harding
In midsummer 1923, no one had any idea that President Warren Harding was ill. His frequent chest pains were diagnosed as chronic indigestion, caused by rich food and too much stress. The rich food and stress were definitely part of the problem, but “Doc” Sawyer, the Hardings’ long time physician and friend, failed to realize the obvious signs of a failing heart.
It had been a very difficult few months for Harding, who readily admitted his lack of qualifications for the office to his intimates. Still, he was a popular president, blessed by “presidential” good looks and the politician’s “glad hand.” But he was becoming painfully aware that some of his cabinet members and high-level appointees, close friends for many years, had their hands in the public till up to their elbows. An avalanche of malfeasance and scandals would become public a year later.
The distraught Harding decided to take a working-vacation in Alaska. He needed the rest. He had not been sleeping well or feeling well. On his trip, a violent attack of stomach pains was said to be food poisoning; a week later, he suffered a heart attack and died.
Coolidge Becomes President
The Coolidge sons, John and Calvin, Jr., were teenagers with summer jobs in August, 1923, so it was just Calvin and Grace Coolidge who were in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, the tiny village where Coolidge was born and raised. Coolidge and his father were particularly close, and the visits were annual events.
Around 2 AM on August 3, everyone had been in bed for hours. There was a loud and persistent banging at the door, and a sleepy senior Coolidge finally answered. A telegraph operator had come with momentous news: the President was dead. The elderly man trudged upstairs to awaken the sleeping new President. When Coolidge was told, it is said that he and his wife knelt in silent prayer for a few minutes before dressing and coming downstairs.
Coolidge dictated a telegram of condolence to Mrs. Harding, then a brief message for the newspapers. There was no telephone at the Coolidge farmhouse. The place had yet to be electrified. The only light sources were kerosene lamps. It would have taken hours to locate a local judge to administer the oath of office in rural Vermont, and time was of the essence. The continuity of the government needed to be assured.
Coolidge’s father was a man of distinction in his community: a farmer, a merchant and a part-time legislator. He was also a notary public, and therefore an officer of the court, duly authorized to administer the oath.
Grace Coolidge held the family Bible as her husband placed his left hand upon it and raised his right hand. In less than three minutes it was done. Calvin Coolidge had been officially sworn in as 30th President of the United States.
He solemnly shook hands with the handful of people who had come to bear witness to this unique event held in a tiny gas-lit parlor in the wee hours of the morning. Those witnesses would soon make their way back to town to spread the news that the country had a new President, and they had personally seen him take the oath.
Then Calvin and Grace Coolidge went back upstairs to bed. “What else is there to do at two o’clock in the morning?” he is quoted as saying.
Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes – Oxford University Press, 1981
Coolidge, Calvin – The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge – Academy Books, 1972 (reprint)
Dole, Bob – Great Presidential Wit – Scribner – 2001