Essays, Papers & Addresses

“It Was a Great Occasion”: Calvin Coolidge Comes to Williamsburg

by Rosanne Butler

Rosanne Butler was an archivist and administrator at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., for 26 years. She has been on the staff of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Archives, Williamsburg, VA, since November 1999.
coolidgecarSaturday, May 15, 1926—the day President Calvin Coolidge came to Williamsburg, Virginia, for the 150th anniversary of the Virginia Resolutions for Independence—was a hot and sunny, typical-of-Williamsburg-in-May day. Over 10,000 people crowded into the little town and onto the tiny campus of The College of William and Mary for the festivities. Speaking stands, moving towers for taking motion pictures, and press boxes were put up at the College for a celebration called by its organizers “the largest of its kind ever held” (Newport News Daily Press, 5/15/26).

Williamsburg in May 1926 was a dusty, down-at-heel Southern town, dubbed “Lotus Land” in a 1912 Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial after an election day when town officials forgot about the election and never opened the polls. But from 1699 to 1780 it had been the rich and powerful capital of the largest of Britain’s North American colonies. George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson were frequent visitors. The College of William and Mary, founded in 1693, was the second oldest college in the United States, its Christopher Wren Building the oldest surviving college building in the country. George Washington had been its Chancellor from 1789 to 1799; Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and James Monroe were among the many notables who had attended the College; and the Phi Beta Kappa Society had its founding here.

Calvin Coolidge was the 4th U.S. President of the 20th century to connect with Williamsburg and the College. Teddy Roosevelt had presented a bronze lectern to Williamsburg’s colonial-era Bruton Parish Church for the church’s 1907 restoration. Woodrow Wilson had visited in 1916, and later returned to William and Mary to receive an honorary degree. Warren Harding came for the inauguration of William and Mary President J.A.C. Chandler on October 19, 1921, and accepted an honorary degree that day. After Coolidge, Herbert Hoover came to town to attend the 1931 Sesquicentennial of the Battle of Yorktown and receive an honorary degree from William and Mary in a tent on the Yorktown battlefield. By the end of the century, nearly every one of Coolidge’s successors would visit Williamsburg during his own Presidency.

Coolidge arrived at an important moment in the life of the College. Despite its illustrious past, by the late 19th century the school had been in decline for some time. It gained ground under the leadership from 1888 to 1919 of Lyon G. Tyler, when it became a state-supported and co-educational public college. By 1926, its President Chandler was in the midst of a major effort to expand the student body, the physical plant, and the faculty. The College sponsored the Sesquicentennial; Coolidge’s participation (invited by the Virginia General Assembly and arranged through U.S. Senators from Virginia Carter Glass and Claude Swanson) was intended, among other purposes, to bring some useful publicity to William and Mary, as noted by Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, then head of the College’s Endowment Fund Campaign: “….The celebration will do a great deal to bring this whole vicinity, especially the College, to the public attention.” (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Archives, The W.A.R. Goodwin Papers, W.A.R. Goodwin to Flo Hope Norris, May 18, 1926 ). Two years earlier, after Goodwin sent Coolidge a copy of his Romance and Renaissance of The College of William and Mary in Virginia, Coolidge wrote to thank Goodwin and express the hope that he could someday see the College (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Archives, W.A.R. Goodwin Papers, Calvin Coolidge to W.A.R. Goodwin, May 5, 1924).

As it happened, Coolidge became the last U.S. President to see Williamsburg before its restoration as Colonial Williamsburg–envisioned and proposed by Goodwin and funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.– began. Coolidge arrived in Williamsburg just 2 months after Rockefeller first toured the town with Goodwin; 6 months after Coolidge’s visit, Rockefeller would authorize Goodwin to have preliminary drawings of a restored Williamsburg prepared; in December 1926, Goodwin would make his first purchase on Rockefeller’s behalf of an 18th century house in Williamsburg; in November 1927 Rockefeller would give the go-ahead to Goodwin for full restoration of what had been the colonial town; in 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt would open Williamsburg’s reconstructed Duke of Gloucester Street as “the most historic avenue in America.”

Coolidge left Washington, D.C., for Williamsburg on May 14 aboard the Presidential yacht “Mayflower.” The Washington Post (5/23/26) boasted the “First Picture of President Coolidge Whistling,” a photograph of Coolidge and Mrs. Coolidge urging their reluctant dogs to board the boat. Accompanying Coolidge and his wife were Sen. and Mrs. Swanson, Sen.Glass, Sen. and Mrs. Bingham of Connecticut, U.S. Rep. and Mrs. Montague of Virginia, C. Bascom Slemp (former Secretary to the President), Everett Sanders (Secretary to the President), and Col. Henry W. Anderson. (New York Times, 5/15/26). The “Mayflower” reached Yorktown at 9:00 a.m. on May 15. Virginia Governor Harry F. Byrd, William and Mary officials, a regiment from nearby Ft. Eustis, and enthusiastic crowds welcomed the Coolidges to Virginia; Mrs. Coolidge in turn congratulated Gov. Byrd on the accomplishments of his brother, explorer Richard E. Byrd (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 5/16/26).

As the Coolidge motorcade made its way towards Williamsburg, it was greeted with singing and cheering; Coolidge remarked on the beauty of the wildflowers growing by the side of the road. The party arrived in Williamsburg about 10:00 a.m. to more crowds and cheering. Coolidge’s first stop was the site of the former colonial Capitol, scene of Patrick Henry’s “Caesar had his Brutus” speech and the adoption of the Virginia Resolutions. Here he viewed what remained of the Capitol’s foundations and was photographed reading the commemorative tablet on the lawn. After firing of a Presidential Salute, Coolidge’s party continued down Duke of Gloucester Street and onto the William and Mary campus, to be met there by the applauding student body. Inside the College President’s bunting-draped House, Coolidge donned cap and gown, then stepped outside to lead a procession to the speakers’ platform behind the Wren Building. Dr. Goodwin gave the invocation, Gov. Byrd introduced Coolidge, and Coolidge spoke. “Greetings from Congress” and “Greetings” from the Governors of the states that had been the thirteen original colonies followed Coolidge’s speech. The old bell in Bruton Church tower was rung–just as it had been on this day 150 years before–as were bells at William and Mary and the old Court House. Conferring of honorary degrees on Coolidge and Byrd, playing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and a procession back to the President’s House completed the exercises.

Coolidge’s address, relayed over telephone to Richmond for broadcast by radio station WRVA, was warmly received by the audience and made headlines for its focus on States’ rights. Opening with references to the historical significance of Williamsburg, the College, and the Founding Fathers who had been part of Williamsburg’s past, Coolidge explained how he had come to attend the Sesquicentennial, then recounted the history of Virginia’s actions against Britain from 1769 to 1776 and why the Resolutions had been written. He analyzed the Resolutions, discussed the role of Virginians in creation of the Federal constitution, and enlarged upon the theme of States’ Rights: “The States should not be induced by coercion or by favor to surrender the management of their own affairs. The Federal Government ought to resist the tendency to be loaded up with duties which the States should perform,” and “I want to see the policy adopted by the States of discharging their public functions so faithfully that instead of an extension on the part of the Federal Government there can be a contraction.” He closed by cautioning that “Amid all the contentions of the present day nothing is more important to secure the continuation of what [the colonial Virginians] wrought than a constant and vigilant resistance to the domination of selfish and private interests in the affairs of government in order that liberty and justice may still be secure and the public welfare may still be supreme” (“Address of President Calvin Coolidge at The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va., May 15, 1926,” Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1926). While in Williamsburg, Coolidge received a welcome radio message (“Transpolar flight successful. Respectful greetings.”) from Lincoln Ellsworth aboard the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Expedition’s airship “Norge,” which for a time had been feared missing. To this Coolidge responded: “Message received. Hearty congratulations” (New York Times, 5/16/26).

At 1:00 p.m., the College’s dining hall hosted a luncheon in Coolidge’s honor. A then-undergraduate described the meal at which he was responsible for serving Coolidge’s table: 500 guests were seated in Trinkle Hall. Shortly before lunch the Secret Service, having already examined the dining hall two or three times, came in, saw that President Coolidge would be sitting with his back to windows, and held everything up until a wooden screen was placed over the windows to protect Coolidge from outside view. A student orchestra played for the luncheon guests. Mrs. Coolidge asked for the musicians’ names and whether they would play a request for her, impressing the students with her warm personality. Of the President: ”The only thing any of us heard Mr. Coolidge say throughout the entire dinner was when he turned halfway around in his chair” and asked the waiter for more Smithfield ham. “The rest of the dinner he simply remained very quiet and let the conversation flow around him’ (Oral History Collection, J. Wilfred Lambert, University Archives, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary).

Coolidge and his party left Williamsburg after lunch. William and Mary rounded out its festivities with the annual “Physical Education and Athletic Pageant” and crowning of the students’ May Queen. In honor of the Sesquicentennial and the President’s visit, Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette–”the oldest newspaper in the South and the first to publish the Declaration of Independence”–gave out a souvenir “Colonial Issue” written by students of William and Mary’s School of Journalism. A pleased Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin later summed up the Sesquicentennial day in a letter to a friend: “It was a great occasion” (Goodwin to Norris, op cit.).

©2001 Rosanne Butler