Ninety years ago this week President Warren G. Harding died suddenly, probably of a heart attack, while on a long and exhausting speaking tour around the American West. With his death Vice President Calvin Coolidge became the 30th president of the United States.
At the time Coolidge was on a two-week vacation at his family home in Vermont where, among other things, he helped get in the hay.
A vice president automatically becomes president upon the death of his predecessor, but they take the oath of office as provided by the Constitution as soon as practicable. The Coolidge home in Plymouth Notch had no phone or electricity, and so word reached the house via a telegram sent from San Francisco to White River Junction. Its message was then conveyed by phone to Bridgewater, where it went through several people before being delivered by car to the Coolidge home.
In the very early hours of the morning of Aug. 3, 1923, Col. John Coolidge awakened his son and gave him the news that President Harding had died at 7:30 the previous evening. At about 2:45 a.m. Coolidge’s father, a notary public, administered the oath in the family parlor by the dim light of a kerosene lamp. Coolidge remains the only president to have been sworn in either by a parent or by a notary.
A lovely sonnet by the accomplished New Hampshire poet Robert W. Crawford tells the story of Coolidge’s swearing-in. With the exception of a few things, like the fact that word of President Harding’s death did not come by postman, that the Coolidges had gone to dinner that evening and not simply gone to bed after a long day of haying, and that the two messages were not both from Washington, D.C., the facts outlined in the poem are basically accurate.
Here’s the poem, titled “The Swearing-in of Calvin Coolidge, Plymouth Notch, Vermont, 1923,” which, along with being historical, also conveys a deeply moral message:
“Strange, the postman’s loud, insistent knock/(The nearest phone, in town, two miles away)/Which roused them out of bed at one o’clock/Tired from bringing in the August hay./And stranger still, two telegrams they read/By lantern light: official ones, and both/With urgent news from Washington, that said/‘The President is dead. Please take the oath.’
But in Vermont — where even summer skies/Can whisper that it’s time to stack the wood/And every breath on northern air implies/You’re running out of days to do some good —/No one would be surprised, or think it odd/To see a man look up and say ‘So help me God.’”
Many of us often feel that we need the help of a higher being, even if we haven’t just become president of the United States. And of course, it is good to be reminded that every one of us every day is, as the poem says, “running out of days to do some good.”
Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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