“On the night of August 2, 1923, I was awakened by my father coming up the stairs calling my name. I noticed that his voice trembled. As the only times I had ever observed that before were when death had visited our family, I knew that something of the gravest nature had occurred…He had been the first to address me as President of the United States…He placed in my hands an official report and told me that President Harding had just passed away. My wife and I at once dressed.
“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 the power to serve them.”
The new President’s first thought was to express sympathy to Mrs. Harding and the nation, already beginning to mourn over the late President. Those messages being sent, Coolidge turned to consider the proper form of oath to be taken immediately.
“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.”
The President, standing in the Homestead sitting room at 2:47 in the morning on August 3rd, described the scene six years later in retirement,
“The oath was taken…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 [Porter] Dale, who happened to be stopping a few miles away, my stenographer [Erwin C. Geisser], and my chauffeur [Joseph McInerney].”
In the painting below, is there someone standing in the doorway to the kitchen? How many people do you see?
“The picture of this scene has been painted with historical accuracy by an artist named [Arthur I.] Keller, who went to Plymouth for that purpose. Although the likenesses are not good, everything in relation to the painting is correct.”
Scholar and “Coolidge personator,” Jim Cooke, will be reenacting this simple yet solemn ceremony in a few short hours at the Homestead. The gravity and candor of what happened this night ninety years ago remains with us even now. It illustrates the modesty of our system in providing continuity that no other blueprint among human governments has matched. Mr. Cooke’s excellent account of that night, entitled “Dramatis Personae: Plymouth Notch, Vermont” in volume 13 of The Real Calvin Coolidge (1998) presents the best account of this historic transition of power in the most unlikely of places, Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Mr. Cooke presents the enduring mysteries of this night also: from what happened to the typed, signed and notarized oaths to who was actually present in that room. Even now, after all these years, mystery shrouds the occasion. Coolidge, ever an observer of the smallest details, endorses the historical accuracy of Keller’s portrait and gives us all a window into that place and time when Providence raised up the kind of leader President Adams desired ever to occupy the White House.