Prologue Magazine
Winter 2000, Vol. 32, No. 4

Abrupt Transition
By C. L. Arbelbide
© 2000 by C. L. Arbelbide
Harry Truman being sworn in Shortly after being called to the White House after Franklin Roosevelt's death, Harry Truman was sworn in as President. (NARA, Harry S. Truman Library)

One of the continuing threads in the American tapestry of democracy is the inauguration of the President of the United States. In existence since George Washington's first swearing-in on April 30, 1789, the planned celebration is one of political theater and dignified simplicity—an event eventually elevated to federal holiday status when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the congressional bill into law on January 11, 1957.

For the winning party, the day represents the political icing on the two-tiered cake of nomination and election. The celebration topping consists of a spectacle of parties, parades, and balls where the common man and social elite rub elbows while political bosses hibernate in smoke-filled rooms.

Within the eye of this eclectic mix of activity there exists one constitutionally required event: the formal swearing-in of the President-elect. Witnessed by all three branches of government, administering the oath of office balances the ritz with rite, circus with commencement, and pageantry with protocol.

That was, until 1841, when Vice President John Tyler acceded to the presidency following the death of William Henry Harrison, the first President to die while in office. In this time of abrupt transition, celebration gave way to commemoration. Tyler was convinced his Vice President's oath entitled him to discharge the succession duty. Persuaded to take the presidential oath of office, the "Tyler Precedent" was established, whereby the Vice President succeeds to the office of the President upon the death of an elected President.1

The Tyler swearing-in eclipsed all previous inaugurations. Circumstances had led to the reinvention of the ceremony both in the minds of the politicians and public. The oath was no longer just for newly elected Presidents.

Succession without Election

Nine Vice Presidents— John Tyler, 1841; Millard Fillmore, 1850; Andrew Johnson, 1865; Chester A. Arthur, 1881; Theodore Roosevelt, 1901; Calvin Coolidge, 1923; Harry S. Truman, 1945; Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963; and Gerald Ford, 1974— have acceded to the presidency upon the death or resignation of the chief executive.

Administering the oath of office as quickly as possible to the acceding Vice President allowed the office of the presidency to continue uninterrupted. For four— Roosevelt, 1904; Coolidge, 1924; Truman, 1948; and Johnson, 1964— individual presidential electoral victories allowed each to retake his presidential oath on the traditional inauguration day.

The importance of administering the oath was equally apparent for a tenth man, Rutherford B. Hayes, whose 1876 presidential victory became the only election to be determined by a fifteen-member electoral commission. Such was the concern that the planned swearing-in ceremony would be interrupted by protesters that President Ulysses S. Grant arranged for the oath of office to be administered in the Red Room of the White House on the Saturday evening preceding Monday, March 5, 1877, thus assuring the legal transfer of presidential power.2

Only Thirty-five Words

Article II, sec. 1, par. 8, of the Constitution sets out the words that every President has repeated: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Only Franklin Pierce in 1853 affirmed (rather than swore) to faithfully execute the office of the presidency. The practice of adding the words: "So help me God" at the conclusion of the oath was introduced by George Washington at the end of his 1789 open-air ceremony.*

The inaugural event went in and out of public view. Washington's second inauguration, as well as that of John Adams, was held inside Congress Hall near Independence Hall in Philadelphia. In 1801 the ceremony for Thomas Jefferson moved to the District of Columbia, where the third American President took his oath in the original Senate chamber. Not until James Monroe's inauguration in 1817 did the ceremony reemerge for public viewing. It seems controversy over distributing seats among the Senate and House of Representatives prompted organizers to move the ceremony to a platform erected in front of the east portico of the Capitol, offering the elected, the governed, and the world the opportunity to witness the transition of the American presidency from one electorally elected victor to another.

. . . and Tyler Too!

With the April 4, 1841, death of William Henry Harrison, Vice President John Tyler became the first man to accede to the presidency having not been directly elected by the electoral college.

In the capital, turmoil and confusion swirled about. No President had ever died in office. Clearly this was not the time for official celebrations, parties, parades, or fashionable balls. The traditional trappings of an inauguration were replaced by shock, disbelief, and attempts to honor Harrison's memory.

It was hard to believe that just one month earlier (March 4), Tyler had taken the Vice President's oath. The vice presidential swearing-in ceremony took place out of the limelight and under the lamplight inside the old Senate chamber.3 Sworn in by President Pro Tempore William R. King, Tyler's five-minute acceptance speech was barely audible as Harrison circulated, receiving the greetings of well-wishers invariably drowning out the Vice President's brief comments.4

Shortly thereafter, the officials moved outside to the east portico steps of the Capitol to witness, with the public, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney administer the oath of office. Harrison stood, despite the cold weather and without the shelter of a coat or hat, to deliver his address for more than ninety minutes.5

In the midst of the post-ceremony commotion, Tyler gathered his belongings, then slipped unnoticed out of town. A Vice President's constitutional duties were few: preside over the Senate and cast tie-breaking votes when necessary.6 John Adams, the nation's first Vice President, once remarked of the office: "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."7 Aware that not much had changed in the responsibilities since Adams's time, Tyler chose to return to his estate, Sherwood Forest, near Williamsburg, Virginia, and settled in with his partially paralyzed wife, Letitia, planning to remain as unobtrusive as possible.8

Harrison, having successfully survived "the first modern presidential campaign, complete with partisan songs, decorative objects advertising the candidates, and hoopla," now focused his considerable energies on staffing a new government.9 The President assembled his cabinet, securing, among others, Daniel Webster as secretary of state. In addition to rewarding partisan supporters, Harrison was besieged with office seekers while simultaneously countering former Whig Party front-runner Henry Clay's attempts to run the administration from behind the scenes.10 The daily cabinet meetings, the incessant visitors, and the numerous social events began to fatigue the President.11

Seemingly oblivious to Mother Nature, Harrison took a morning walk on March 27 in a rain shower, only to take to bed that evening with a cold. Originally diagnosed as pneumonia, consulting physicians later found Harrison's condition to be complicated by "congestion of the liver" and neuralgia, and they changed their diagnosis to bilious pleurisy. Subjected to a host of different, and at times, contradictory remedies, Harrison died on April 4, 1841, a week after taking ill and a mere month after taking office.12

One can only imagine Tyler's reaction when Fletcher Webster, chief clerk of the State Department (dispatched by his father, Secretary of State Webster) and Senate assistant doorkeeper Robert Beale arrived at his home in the early sunrise hours of April 5 to inform him that by an act of God he had become President of the United States.13 Within a few hours, Tyler was on his way to Washington, leaving behind his wife and postponing any immediate decision about whether she would join him at the White House. Tyler arrived in Washington during the early morning hours of April 6, settled in at Brown's Indian Queen Hotel, and received the cabinet.14

The first vacancy in the presidency had occurred more than half a century after the ratification of the Constitution.15 The document had provided for the Vice President to accede to the presidency: "In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such officer shall act accordingly until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected."16 The only other related legislation, the Succession Act of 1792, addressed the issue only if a double vacancy in the presidency and vice presidency occurred.17

Many members of Harrison's cabinet and others questioned whether Tyler was a temporary substitute until an election could be held or a permanent replacement until the term of office ended.18 With no surviving delegates of the Constitution Convention to offer firsthand accounts and both the official and unofficial records of the convention still unpublished, the Tyler debate would not subside.19

Secretary of State Webster raised the concerns with William Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court, who conveyed the issue to Chief Justice Roger Taney. The justice, upon being invited to "confer," declined, wishing to avoid "the suspicion of desiring to intrude into the affairs which belong to another branch of government."20

Tyler believed "his oath of office as Vice President covered the new situation both legally and constitutionally" despite the difference in wording and the fact that no formal vice presidential oath existed in the Constitution.21 At the Indian Queen Hotel, in the presence of the cabinet and "to forestall any doubts as to whether or not Tyler was legally the chief executive," he took the constitutional oath administered by Chief Justice William Crunch of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. Crunch "appended" "a statement to the copy of the oath along with Tyler's objection," noting "that although the Vice President considered himself qualified to perform the duties and exercise the powers of the office of the President without more than his prior vice presidential oath, he nonetheless took the presidential oath of office 'for greater caution' and to allay any doubts that might arise."22

Silk ribbons in support of the new President began to appear in public.23 One New York Times editorial commented, "We risk nothing in expressing our entire confidence that he will fulfill, in all their extent, the expectations of the People."24

Still, there were those who continued to argue that John Tyler was only the "Acting President" or the "Vice-President Acting President."25 Nicknamed "His Accidency," Tyler stood fast, returning all mail so addressed unopened.26 Congress convened for a previously called special session on May 31, 1841, only to focus on Tyler's claim to the presidency. An effort "to address Tyler officially in correspondence as 'Vice President, on whom, by the death of the late President, the powers and duties of the office of President have devolved' overwhelmingly failed to pass."27

President Harrison was, at seventy-eight years, the oldest person to be inaugurated as President. Now at fifty-one, Tyler became the youngest man to occupy the office. Tyler had run the gauntlet of challenges and survived— setting a precedent for future Vice Presidents. Little could anyone imagine that the second death of an incumbent President was less than a decade away.

Twice in a Decade

President Zachary Taylor, like Harrison, took ill while in office. During a long and hot Fourth of July celebration in 1850, the President had participated in the laying of a ceremonial stone at the partially completed Washington Monument. Returning to the White House, Taylor consumed a trio of edibles thought to have a connection to the Asiatic cholera epidemic that was sweeping parts of the country— ice water, chilled milk, and fresh cherries. Within a few days the President had developed various symptoms diagnosed as "cholera morbus," a nineteenth-century catchall term for various intestinal maladies not related to the dread Asiatic cholera.28 Although the President initially responded to treatment, he took a turn for the worse, and by July 8 predicted he would be dead in "two days."29 He died late the next evening of July 9.

Unlike Tyler, Vice President Millard Fillmore was present in the Capitol— called from the dais in the Senate chamber "to keep vigil outside the President's bedroom."30 Fillmore later returned to his room at the Willard Hotel, where a cabinet messenger delivered the news of the President's death to the sleepless Vice President. The next morning, in a letter carried to the Senate chamber by a presidential messenger, Fillmore announced his intention "to take the presidential oath at noon [July 10] in the House chamber."31 Once again the duty fell to Judge Crunch, who administered the ceremony before a joint session of Congress in the House of Representatives chamber. Walking up to the clerk's desk, Fillmore took his oath on a Bible.32

Later that afternoon, the entire Taylor cabinet submitted their resignations— a group decision designed to allow the new "chief executive to chart his own course."33 Fillmore tapped Daniel Webster as secretary of state, making Webster the first man to serve in that position under three chief executives: Harrison, Tyler, and Fillmore. Unlike the reception given Tyler, few questioned Fillmore's right to full succession.34

To the Best of Our Abilities

The death of a President due to assassination was shocking to a people who had come to pride themselves on the peaceful and orderly transfer of executive power. From 1865 to 1901 the country experienced the loss of three Presidents to assassination: Abraham Lincoln, 1865; James A. Garfield, 1881; and William McKinley, 1901.

The pounding on the door that Friday evening of April 14 awakened Vice President Andrew Johnson from a sound sleep in his room at the Kirkwood House, on the corner of Twelfth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (between the Capitol and the White House). Had it been the previous evening, the noise could have been attributed to the "Grand Illumination" revelry in which all the public buildings were lit up in celebration of the end of the Civil War.

The banging belonged to former governor of Wisconsin Leonard Farewell, bringing news of the shooting of Abraham Lincoln while attending a play at Ford's Theater just a few blocks away. Farewell returned to the theater to gather more information about the injured President and returned with the District of Columbia's provost marshal. Concerned that there was a conspiracy (the first reports had indicated Secretary of State William H. Seward had been killed when in fact he was seriously injured and would survive), the Vice President was strongly urged not to venture outside until "order had been restored in the streets."35 At dawn, word from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrived, announcing that the President was dying. Johnson, flanked by Farewell and the provost marshal, rushed to the Peterson House across the street from Ford's Theater, where Lincoln had been carried. Mortally wounded, the President succumbed later that Saturday morning at 7:30, April 15. Before noon, the Vice President was administered the oath of office by Supreme Court Justice Salmon P. Chase in Johnson's suite at the Kirkwood House in the presence of most of the cabinet members, among others.36

Concerns of a conspiracy were justified. Occupying the room "almost directly above the ground-floor suite occupied by the vice president" was George Atzerodt.37 A confederate of both John Wilkes Booth (who assassinated Lincoln) and Lewis Payne (who wounded Secretary Seward), Atzerodt had been instructed by Booth to target Johnson but lost his nerve and fled the Kirkwood.

"An Extraordinary Occasion"

Whereas Lincoln's death followed within hours of being shot, James A. Garfield lingered for almost three months. The lone gunman attacked the President on July 2, 1881, as Garfield walked arm in arm with Secretary of State James G. Blaine through the waiting room of the Baltimore and Potomac railroad station, located off Pennsylvania Avenue less than a mile from the U.S. Capitol. His valiant struggle for life ended September 19.

During those eighty days the nation lacked a leader, and almost no executive functions were carried out.38 Vice President Chester A. Arthur spent most of that period at his home in New York City. In late August "the cabinet considered asking Arthur to assume the executive duties."39 When consulted, Arthur "indicated that he had no wish to come to Washington" and "was averse to any appearances that he was waiting for Garfield's death so that he might assume office."40

The notification of Garfield's death reached Arthur at his home at No. 123 Lexington Avenue at 11:30 the night of September 19. The Vice President, himself a widower, was deeply moved and, burying his face in his hands, laid his head on the table and wept.41 In the home to offer support were Police Commissioner Stephen B. French, District Attorney Rollins, Elihu Root (who would later become secretary of war under William McKinley), and John C. Reed, Arthur's private secretary.42

The Vice President's immediate decision to take the oath of office once he had returned to Washington was dispelled upon receiving a dispatch from the cabinet (gathered near Garfield's cottage at the seaside resort of Elberon, New Jersey), which urged him to take the oath without delay.43 In the dark of night, District Attorney Rollins and Root searched for Judge John R. Brady of the New York Supreme Court, while Commissioner French hurried from Arthur's home in the opposite direction to locate Judge Charles Donohue, also of the New York Supreme Court. Judge Brady was first to arrive and set about writing out the oath on a piece of paper.44 Out of courtesy, the party waited for Judge Donohue. Within twenty minutes all had arrived. Arthur's son Chester Alan Arthur, Jr., had arrived about midnight, having driven furiously to the house in a coupe when he heard the news. P. C. Van Wyck, a close friend to the Vice President, moved into the front parlor on the ground floor as the Arthur's valet, Aleck Powell, rearranged the curtains and lit the gas chandelier.45 At 2:15 A.M. on September 20, the oath was read in low voices as Arthur responded sentence by sentence. Ending with "So help me God," the new President kissed the Bible.46 The President then affixed his signature under the written oath as did Judge Brady. Over the next few hours, reporters kept the doorbell ringing. Not until 5 A.M. were the lights extinguished, allowing Arthur to retire for a few hours of sleep.47

Within a very short time, Secretary of State James G. Blaine and Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln arrived to escort the President to Elberon to pay their respects to the dead President and to call on Mrs. Garfield.48

The succession law of 1792 dictated that next in line after the Vice President was the president pro tempore of the Senate, followed by the Speaker of the House. Yet neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives were in session. In the event something should happen to Arthur, there was no Vice President, no president pro tempore, and no Speaker to step into the presidency.

Knowing that if he were to be assassinated there would be an interregnum for the first time in American history, Arthur drafted a proclamation on September 20 calling the Senate into special session and mailed it to the White House. Upon his safe arrival in Washington on September 22, the President, to establish a federal record of it all, took a second oath administered by Supreme Court Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite and witnessed by former Presidents Grant and Hayes among others, in the Vice President's office at the Capitol.49 The letter no longer necessary, Arthur issued a proclamation "declaring that an extraordinary occasion requires the Senate of the United States to convene" in a special session on October 10 to elect a president pro tempore.50

Three times during his tenure, President Arthur tried to prod Congress into acting on proposals dealing with the issues of presidential disability and succession. But with the immediate crisis past, Congress refused.51 Partial attention was finally paid to the issue in 1886. The second succession act located the line of succession in the President's cabinet in the order the departments were created, beginning with the secretary of state.52 "Some members of Congress (including a future President, Rep. William McKinley of Ohio) opposed the measure on the grounds that it violated democratic principles by allowing the President to appoint the successors. The statute was also unclear as to whether succession would be temporary (pending a special election) or permanent in the event of a double vacancy."53

Barely into a New Century

Newspapers held out hope that President William McKinley would recover after he was shot as he greeted people at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, on a speaking trip in Vermont, as well as the majority of the cabinet, journeyed to Buffalo to be near the chief executive. First treated at the hospital on the exposition grounds, the President survived surgical attempts to locate the two bullets, one of which was not found.54 When doctors thought it safe, the President was transported to the home of exposition president John G. Milburn for postoperative recovery. Advised on September 10 that McKinley's condition was so improved that they might "as well disperse," Roosevelt joined his wife and family awaiting him at a cabin in the Adirondacks.55 Over the next three days the President could not sustain his rally, and the cabinet and the Vice President were recalled. A mounted courier carried the message to the Vice President and his hunting party on Mount Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondack region.

In the early morning hours of September 14, McKinley, "whispering the title of his favorite hymn, 'Nearer, My God, To Thee,'" died.56 Roosevelt arrived by special train early that afternoon. At the Milburn home, the Vice President inquired as to the health of Mrs. McKinley and was assured the first lady was doing better, then was escorted to the upstairs area. Gazing upon the silhouetted features of the chief executive, the Vice President did not speak but stood silently with bowed head. Turning to leave the room, tears streamed down his face, "his strong frame shaking from convulsive sobs."57

Refusing the escort of the Fourth Signal Corps and two platoons of mounted police stationed outside the Milburn house, Roosevelt did accept the services of three mounted policemen. His closed carriage (followed by carriages carrying many members of the Cabinet and other dignitaries) traveled one mile along Delaware Avenue, arriving at the home of Roosevelt's personal friend Ansley Wilcox at 3:15.58

The Vice President was directed to the library, where he positioned himself in the bay window. Forty-three witnesses were present. The scene was one of short delays and high emotions. An attempt to capture the moment on film failed when a photographer's bulky camera and stand crashed to the floor, prompting the Vice President to ban any further efforts. A five-minute conversation between the Vice President and Secretary of War Elihu Root confirmed that the oath should be taken before Roosevelt would sign the written copy.

The witnesses crowded into a semicircle as Secretary Root began to speak, only to be overcome with tears and grief, as were many in the room. (It had been twenty years earlier when Root had been present at the solemn swearing-in of President Arthur.) Starting and stopping twice, the secretary pushed out the words: "I have been requested on behalf of the Cabinet of the late President, at least those who are present in Buffalo, all except two, to request that for reasons of weight affecting the affairs of government that you should proceed to take the constitutional oath of President of the United States."59

U.S. District Court Judge John Hazel moved forward to the side of the now-composed secretary. Roosevelt replied, "I shall take the oath at once in accordance with your request and in this hour of deep and terrible national bereavement I wish to state that it shall be my aim to continue absolutely unbroken the policy of President McKinley for the prosperity of our beloved country."60 As Judge Hazel began, "Mr. Roosevelt's right arm shot straight up above his head," and he held "it rigid there until the oath was complete."61 As President Roosevelt's chin dropped to his chest, a profound moment of silence followed, quietly broken by Judge Hazel directing the President to "attach his signature" at the bottom of the document resting on a small table nearby.62 Adjourning to the home's morning room, Roosevelt composed his first presidential public statement, then followed with a short cabinet meeting in the library.

At age forty-two Roosevelt was the youngest man ever to become President. Although Congress was not in session at the time of McKinley's death, the Succession Act of 1886, opposed by then-Representative McKinley, positioned Secretary of State John M. Hay next in line.

In sixty years, from 1841 to 1901, five Presidents had died in office, two from natural causes and three from assassinations. The inaugural swearing-in ceremony had come to simultaneously represent the starting of a new administration whether by electoral votes or succession.

The Bible— From Coronations to Inaugurations

One element of the swearing-in ceremony not required by the Constitution is the ritual of the President placing his left hand on the Bible and raising his right hand toward heaven. The practice of taking oaths upon Bibles stemmed from English and American colonial history. Bibles were used in the coronations of Britain's kings and queens and in the administration of oaths in civil and ecclesiastical courts.63

Just before George Washington's swearing-in on the balcony at the Federal Hall in New York City, Chief Justice of the New York state judiciary, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, who would administer the oath, raised the question, "would legitimacy be lacking if the oath was administered without a Bible?"64 A search ensued. When no Bible could be found in the building, the inquiry spread to St. John's Masonic Lodge No. 1, a few blocks away on Wall Street. A Bible secured, the ceremony proceeded as scheduled.

Not every swearing-in ceremony has included a Bible, although there is strong evidence that a Bible has been present in the proceedings since James Buchanan's inauguration in 1857. The exception is Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, when he was hastily sworn in after William McKinley died.65

The image of a Bible barely visible through a dimly lit Vermont farmhouse would set the stage for the next unexpected swearing-in ceremony and "fire" the nation's imagination.

Through Father to Son

Vice President Calvin Coolidge was vacationing at his father's homestead in Plymouth Notch, Vermont (a village within the township of Plymouth). Early in the morning of August 3, 1923, Col. John Coolidge awoke his son, addressed him as "Mr. President," then delivered the telegram containing the news of President Warren G. Harding's death at 7:30 the previous evening.66

There were no telephones in the Coolidge home. The original announcement had been telegraphed to White River Junction, Vermont, from San Francisco by George B. Christian, secretary to President Harding.67 At White River the operator telephoned W. A. Perkins, "in charge of the public telephone at the village of Bridgewater," who sought out Erwin C. Geisser, the Vice President's stenographer, and Joseph N. McInerney, his chauffeur, who in turn roused reporter William H. Crawford. Perkins then rushed the message by automobile to the Coolidge home.68 Geisser, McInerney, and Crawford arrived soon after.

Activity in the household quickly escalated. The Vice President and Mrs. Coolidge dressed and proceeded downstairs. Left upstairs to sleep were housekeepers, Aurora Pierce and her assistant, Miss Bessie Pratt. Outside, the automobiles began to arrive.

More than half the reporters assigned to Coolidge when President Harding's condition worsened had been recalled by their editors when Harding's health stabilized. The remaining reporters received word at the hotel in nearby Ludlow and hastened to the scene.69 Amid the caravan that made its way to the homestead was an automobile carrying recently resigned congressman and Senate candidate Porter H. Dale of Vermont; L. L. Lane, president of the Railway Mail Association of New England; and Joseph H. Fountain, editor of the Springfield (Vt.) Reporter (a weekly newspaper and also representing the Associated Press).70

The Vice President, sitting at the desk where many of his schoolboy reports had been written, put pen to paper composing a note of condolence for Mrs. Harding. He then dictated a statement for arriving reporters, many of whom immediately departed to file their stories of Coolidge's first reaction— unknowingly missing out on witnessing the oath-of-office ceremony.

Across the road at the general store, Coolidge discussed the ceremony by telephone with Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes (also next in line to the presidency). Hughes urged the Vice President to take the oath of office immediately.71 "It should be taken before a notary," said the secretary, who then approved the Vice President's choice— the senior Coolidge— also a Windsor County notary.72 Preparations inside the home continued as a copy of the Constitution was located.

The home was a stark contrast to formal settings for presidential oath-of-office ceremonies. The fourteen-by-seventeen-foot parlor was the "essence of rural America."73 At the center of the parlor, dimly lit by a kerosene lamp, was a table on which rested three books: the Revised Laws of Vermont, a catalog of farming tools, and a Bible that had belonged to Coolidge's mother, Victoria.74

The Bible remained on the table, highlighted by the light from the lamp, as the senior Coolidge readied to become the first father to swear in his son as President. The colonel and the Vice President faced each other as soon-to-be First Lady Grace Coolidge stood nearby. The President recalled Dale, Geisser, and McInerney being in the room, while Mrs. Coolidge remembered the presence of Crawford.

The comings and goings of automobiles had aroused the neighbors, of whom about fifteen joined reporters holding vigil on the veranda to witness the ceremony through the bay window. Only the voices of father and son could be heard through the still night air. At the conclusion of the oath, they heard a brief pause, then the voice of the new President added, "So help me God!" As the clock showed the time to be 2:47, Colonel Coolidge affixed his notary seal to the typewritten oath, which was signed in triplicate by the new President and the witnesses.75 Both Fountain and Lane were thought to have been present and were noted in numerous newspaper accounts. The signed oaths that could prove their presence have since disappeared.

Although the Coolidges returned upstairs to bed, activity did not cease. As Lane stood guard, reporters and the curious continued to gather as a telephone lineman arrived to install a telephone— the line running through the kitchen window.76 In Ludlow, D. P. Rossiter, former editor of the local weekly, had routed out of bed the manager of the local telephone company, convincing him of the importance of installing wire service for the reporters' use upon their return.77

That morning, as the President and first lady departed for Washington, he directed the limousine to stop near the family cemetery, where he stood silently by his mother's grave for a few moments. The President recounted, "It had been a comfort to me during my boyhood when I was troubled to be near her last resting place, even in the dead of night. Some way, that morning, she seemed very near to me."78

Once in Washington and under the advice of Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty (who worried about the legitimacy of having a state official swear in a national figure), Coolidge retook the oath of office. It was administered by Judge A. Hoehling of the District of Columbia Supreme Court in Coolidge's suite at the Willard Hotel on Tuesday, August 21.79 No publicity followed, as it was feared news of the second oath-taking would "take the edge off" the simplicity of a scene that had served as the backdrop for the transfer of great power. The scene was so vivid in people's minds that even the President's reminder in The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge that Bibles were not used in Vermont or Massachusetts in administering oaths could deter public reaction.

Artists' renderings of the ceremony were published in newspapers and "replicated and sold in the hundreds of thousands."80 Arthur Keller traveled to the farmhouse, painted the interior, sketched Colonel Coolidge, and afterwards went to Washington to sketch the faces of the other participants.81

Once the President had left, the senior Coolidge had the telephone removed. Recalling the momentous occasion, Colonel Coolidge, in the "mood to dispose of all the myths that had grown up around the administration of the oath," admitted that both Miss Pierce and Miss Pratt "did not like it very much" that he had forgotten to wake them that historical night in time to witness the ceremony.82 They were even more distressed when "one of the Boston papers" noted "we used an old greasy kerosene lamp."83 "It's old enough," commented the colonel, "but it wasn't greasy, that morning or any other morning."84

Abrupt Transition, Part 2


C. L. Arbelbide is a historian and storyteller specializing in federal holiday history and unique events associated with the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and the National Mall. She is the author of The White House Easter Egg Roll (1997).


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.

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