In late July, 1923, Vice President of the United States Calvin Coolidge was greatly relieved by news that President Warren Harding was recovering splendidly from his bout of pneumonia at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Calvin was spending time at his summer home, his boyhood home, in Springfield, Vermont. While taking a break from the politics of Washington, D.C., he performed amateur tree surgery on the beautiful old shade tree in his front yard. He paid no attention to reporters and looky-loos as he concentrated on his work.
On the afternoon of August 2, President Harding’s physicians sent Calvin a telegram and reassured him of the president’s health. The Coolidge home had neither electricity nor a telephone. At about 10:30 p.m. that night, Calvin went to bed. Shortly after midnight on August 3, another messenger arrived by car at the Coolidge residence. Calvin was in bed asleep when his father, John C. Coolidge, awoke him. Calvin knew something was wrong by the sound of numerous cars pulling up at the normally tranquil home. John read the telegram to Calvin: “The president died instantly while conversing with members of his family at 7:30 p.m. The physicians report death was apparently due to some brain embolism, probably apoplexy.” He immediately returned a telegram to Mrs. Harding: “We offer you our deepest sympathy. May God bless you and keep you.” He, Calvin, was now President of the United States.
The news was a great blow to Calvin, though he took it with his characteristic calmness. He dressed immediately and descended the stairs to the sitting room where an army of reporters had already gathered. They could detect no difference in Calvin’s demeanor, as was his nature. He calmly told the reporters, “Reports have reached me, which I fear are correct, that President Harding is gone. The world has lost a great and good man. I mourn his loss. He was my chief and my friend.”
Within half an hour, the Coolidge residence, which was normally a quiet and lonely farm house became “a mecca for hundreds.” By 1:30 a.m., a telephone was installed at the Coolidge residence. Calvin called Washington and received instructions on how to perform the oath of office. He learned that he needed a notary public to administer the oath of office. Just then, a congressman arrived with two federal employees to act as bodyguards. Calvin’s father, John, a notary public, held a brief swearing in ceremony in his own home. Calvin’s father beamed as he spoke in a trembling voice, “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” A reporter asked Calvin’s father to describe his feelings while swearing in his son to which he replied, “One would not say that he was elated to have the President die.”
Calvin’s first act as president after the swearing in was… to return to bed. The two federal employees turned bodyguards stood on either side of the door to Calvin’s bedroom to ensure that no one disturbed the president and first lady. Cars came and went as Calvin slept. Reporters waited quietly but impatiently outside the Coolidge home. Finally, at 7:20 a.m., Calvin looked out the front door. Reporters bombarded him with questions, but Calvin spoke not a word. Calvin bowed at them indifferently, posed for a few photographs, and went back inside. Ten minutes later, Calvin and several others were “taken by motor car” to a special train which delivered him to the White House.
Becoming president upon the death of a previous president had its challenges. Everyone, especially Calvin, understood that he had not been selected by the people to become president. That changed when he won the 1924 election. Calvin strongly supported women’s suffrage and equality. The economy during his presidency, one of rapid and expansive growth, became known as the “Roaring Twenties.” Calvin preferred to take a hands-off government approach and lived up to his nickname “Silent Cal Coolidge” as he seemingly only spoke out of necessity.
In 1927, Calvin took everyone by surprise when he told reporters in as few words as possible, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” Reporters gasped. Calvin briefly explained, “”If I take another term, I will be in the White House till 1933. Ten years in Washington is longer than any other man has had it – too long.”
Following his presidency, Calvin published an autobiography and wrote a syndicated newspaper column entitled, “Calvin Coolidge Says.” The columns most certainly were brief. Just after noon on January 5, 1933, Calvin’s wife returned from shopping and found the former president unconscious on his dressing room floor. A sudden heart attack struck as he was preparing to shave and he fell to the floor. Although several people were present in the home at the time of his death, no one heard Calvin fall. Even at the moment of his death, he remained silent.
On this fourth of July, as you enjoy hot dogs and burgers from the grill and drink cool refreshments, take just a moment of silence for “Silent Cal.” Say Happy Birthday to America… and to Calvin Coolidge. He is the only American president who was born on the fourth of July.
1. Vermont Standard (Woodstock, Vermont), August 2, 1923, p.1.
2. The Barre Daily Times (Barre, Vermont), August 2, 1923, p.7.
3. Rutland Daily Herald (Rutland, Vermont), August 3, 1923, p.1.
4. Burlington Daily News (Burlington, Vermont), August 3, 1923, p.1.
5. Rutland Daily Herald (Rutland, Vermont), January 6, 1933, p.1.