Politics and Military

Calvin Coolidge Takes the Oath of Office by the Light of a Kerosene Lamp

Calvin Coolidge, vice president of the United States, was vacationing with his wife at his family’s homestead in Plymouth Notch, Vt.,  on the night of Aug. 2, 1923, when his life suddenly changed.

President Warren G. Harding had died. And the manner in which Calvin Coolidge succeeded him that night — right down to his Puritanical treatment of the Bible — fit perfectly with his carefully cultivated image.

 

Calvin Coolidge, wearing a black armband for President Hardin

Calvin Coolidge, wearing a black armband for President Harding

As vice president, Coolidge didn’t have many official duties. He and his wife, Grace Goodhue Coolidge, joined the Washington social scene. He was nicknamed ‘Silent Cal’ from his sparse conversation at parties. According to one story, a woman sitting next to him at dinner said, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” He replied, “You lose.”

Calvin Coolidge

He had been born in the rear of the general store in the small village of Plymouth Notch on July 4, 1872. He came from old Puritan stock, and his family had deep roots in New England politics and farming. (You can watch him wield a pitchfork on this video here.)

Calvin Coolidge entered politics as a lawyer in Northampton, Mass., and rose to governor of the commonwealth. He rose to national prominence in 1919, when the Boston police force went on strike. Coolidge called up the national guard, took control of the police department and fired the striking policemen.

It was a tumultuous time, when middle-class Americans feared the country was being overrun with immigrants, radicals and labor unions. Coolidge’s moralistic response — “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time” — reassured voters.

In 1920, Warren G. Harding picked Calvin Coolidge as his running mate and won a landslide victory as president of the United States.

Oath of Office

Harding died suddenly in California on Aug. 2, 1923. Coolidge was awakened by his father, a notary public, who gave him the news — and the oath of office. Harding’s administration was marred by scandal, and Coolidge’s reputation as a Puritan in Babylon would make him a popular president.

That reputation wasn’t an accident. Calvin Coolidge relied for a decade on a New York advertising man, Bruce Barton, to shape the public’s perception of him. Barton cast Coolidge as an old-fashioned Yankee farmer who would uphold moral standards in a decadent modern age.

Barton probably had a hand in Coolidge’s reminiscence of the night he took the oath of office — by kerosene lamp, with his wife, on his family farm. Calvin Coolidge described how he heard his father coming up the stairs, voice trembling; how his father handed him a report that President Harding had died; how he knelt down and prayed, asking God to bless the American people.

Aug. 3, 1923

Here’s how Coolidge remembers that night:

My first thought was to express my sympathy for those who had been bereaved and after that was done to attempt to reassure the country with the knowledge that I proposed no sweeping displacement of the men then in office and that there were to be no violent changes in the administration of affairs. As soon as I had dispatched a telegram to Mrs. Harding, I therefore issued a short public statement declaratory of that purpose.

Calvin Coolidge Homestead

Calvin Coolidge Homestead

Meantime I had been examining the Constitution to determine what might be necessary for qualifying by taking the oath of office. It is not clear that any additional oath is required beyond what is taken by the vice president when he is sworn into office. It is the same form as that taken by the president.

Having found this form in the Constitution, I had it set up on the typewriter, and the oath was administered by my father in his capacity as a notary public, an office he had held for a great many years.

Puritanical

Coolidge was such a Yankee Puritan he didn’t put his hand on the Bible when he took the oath of office. Puritans in colonial New England thought it was wrong to do so because it gave a physical object the honor due only to God.

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. It was not officially used, as it is not the practice in Vermont or Massachusetts to use a Bible in connection with the administration of an oath.

Besides my father and myself, there were present my wife, Senator (Porter) Dale, who happened to be stopping a few miles away, my stenographer, and my chauffeur.

Plymouth Notch is now part of the President Calvin Coolidge Homestead District, which includes more than a dozen buildings restored as much as possible to the way it was when Coolidge lived there. It is a National Historic Landmark.

This story was updated in 2020. 

 

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