This Day in History: Calvin Coolidge becomes President in the middle of the night
On this day in 1923, Calvin Coolidge took the presidential oath of office. It was about 2:30 in the morning, and the former Vice President was now the 30th President of the United States.
President Warren Harding had just passed away, leaving the office to Coolidge.
Florence and Warren Harding had been on a trip, touring the western part of the country. They’d also visited Alaska, which had not yet joined the Union. On the way back from Alaska, Harding became ill. Doctors believed that he had food poisoning, and his train was diverted to San Francisco so he could receive better treatment. Multiple speaking events were canceled while Harding recuperated at the Palace Hotel. At first, he seemed to be getting better. Unfortunately, he took a turn for the worse, and he died on the evening of August 2.
Rumors ran rampant. Did he die of natural causes? Was he murdered? Did he commit suicide?
Florence Harding’s actions prompted much of the controversy. She would not allow an autopsy, and she had his body embalmed within an hour of his death. Complicating matters, details of the Teapot Dome Scandal would soon emerge. Did Florence murder Harding before he could be brought up on charges of corruption?
Today, some details of Harding’s death remain unknown, but most modern historians accept that he died of a heart attack.
Coolidge, of course, knew none of this in the early morning hours of August 3, 1923. He was vacationing at his family’s farm in Plymouth when his dad woke him up to let him know what had happened. Coolidge later noted: “Before leaving the room I knelt down and, with the same prayer with which I have since approached the altar of the church, asked God to bless the American people and give me power to serve them.”
I guess you could say that the Coolidge administration was starting off on a completely different foot than the corrupt Harding one had.
Coolidge’s dad was a notary public, and he was able to administer the oath of office. Thus, our 30th President was sworn into office in a humble sitting room, by the light of a kerosene lamp.
Can you imagine how surreal that must have felt? Out in the middle of nowhere, standing in the middle of your family home and taking the presidential oath of office, administered by your dad? Surely they all felt that they were dreaming a very odd sort of dream!
Coolidge later wrote: “Where succession to the highest office in the land is by inheritance or appointment, no doubt there have been kings who have participated in the induction of their sons into their office, but in republics where the succession comes by an election, I do not know of any other case in history where a father has administered to his son the qualifying oath of office which made him the chief magistrate of a nation. It seemed a simple and natural thing to do at the time, but I can now realize something of the dramatic force of the event.”
Yes, I would think so.
Amity Shlaes, Calvin Coolidge (2013)
Calvin Cooldge, The Autobiography Of Calvin Coolidge (1929)
The Swearing in of Calvin Coolidge, August 3, 1923 (Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies)
John W. Dean, Warren G. Harding: The American Presidents Series: The 29th President, 1921-1923 (2004)
President Harding dies suddenly; Stroke of Apoplexy at 7:30 p.m.; Calvin Coolidge is President (N.Y. Times, Aug. 3, 1923)