Essays, Papers & Addresses

75th Anniversary of Calvin Coolidge’s Inauguration: March 4, 1925

by Jerry L. Wallace

Jerry L. Wallace served as historian/archivist of three Presidential inaugural committees in 1973, 1981, and 1985. He is retired from the National Archives in Washington, DC, and is now archivist at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas.

On March 4th, 1925, 75 years ago, Calvin Coolidge was inaugurated
President of the United States in his own right.

Coolidge had actually come into the Presidency 19 months earlier, upon the sudden death of Warren G. Harding in August 1923. In a dramatic early morning ceremony at the Coolidge Homestead in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, Colonel John C. Coolidge had administered the Presidential oath to his son, the one and only time that this has occurred in our history. The event immediately captured the imagination of the nation.

The previous November, Coolidge had won election with the slogan “Keep Cool With Coolidge,” soundly defeating two major challengers, Democrat, John W. Davis, and Progressive, Robert M. La Follette. He thereby became the first President elected from New England since Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire in 1852.

The Constitution provided that Coolidge take his oath of office on Wednesday, March 4th, 1925. (It was not until the ratification of the 20th Amendment that inauguration day was move up to January 20th; the first inaugural to fall on the new date was Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1937.) The weather, which had frequently treated his predecessors unkindly with snow or rain or both, treated Coolidge well. His inauguration day dawned bright and clear, and for Washington, the temperature was unusually mild. This would help to make for a large crowd that day.

Coolidge kept to his regular routine as much as possible. He arose, as was his custom, before 7 o’clock. He then went for a walk around the White House grounds, breakfasted with his wife, and answered mail and reviewed his inaugural speech. Vice President-elect Charles Gates Dawes and Congressional leaders arrived a little before eleven. The official party then set off for the Capitol, escorted by a military unit from Vermont.

At the Capitol, the first order of business was the inauguration of General Dawes as Vice President, which took place in the Senate Chamber, over which he would preside. Dawes used his inaugural address to attack the senators’ right of filibuster, upsetting senators and creating something of a sensation. The President was not amused.

The Presidential oath-taking followed on the east portico of the Capitol Building. On this occasion, not his father, but the Chief Justice of the United States, William Howard Taft, administered the prescribed oath to Coolidge. The Bible used was that given him as a boy by his mother. On the platform nearby were his First Lady, Grace Goodhue; his 19-year-old son, John, who had come down from Amherst for the day; his father, Col. Coolidge, who had almost been snowbound in Plymouth; and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Andrew I. Goodhue, who, some said, had not always appreciated him.

Missing was his younger son, Calvin, Jr., who had died tragically the previous July. For the President and his family, who were still in mourning, young Calvin’s loss greatly diminished the pleasure and happiness normally associated with such a grand occasion. About the President, there was an air of melancholy.

His mourning, along with a desire to avoid excessive display or expenditures of the people’s money, led the President to request that the inaugural ceremonies be kept simple. Chief Justice Taft observed, “The effort seems to be to have as much show as they can if it can be called republican and simple.” This emphasis on restraint and avoiding unnecessary show turned out well, producing a ceremony of Jeffersonian simplicity. The rites were, in the words of one knowledgeable commentator on inaugurations, “strikingly impressive in their unostentatious dignity.”

By the time Coolidge had come to Washington, inaugurations had lost their novelty for him. In his Autobiography, writing of the Harding-Coolidge inauguration of March 4, 1921, he said: “As I had already taken a leading part in seven inaugurations and witnessed four others in Massachusetts, the experience was not new to me.” Moreover, based on his inaugural experiences in Massachusetts, Coolidge was not at all impressed by the ceremonies in Washington, which were overseen by the Congress. In describing the role of the President of the Massachusetts Senate in swearing-in the Governor and his Council, he noted that the ceremony followed “a formal ritual that has come from colonial days, and is much more ceremonious than the swearing-in of a President in Washington.” In fact, Coolidge was critical of the event at the Capitol: “I was struck by the lack of order and formality that prevailed.” He particular disliked having the Vice Presidential and Presidential oath-takings take place in separate locations, the Senate Chamber and on the east portico of the Capitol, respectively, which he saw as destroying “all semblance of unity and continuity.” Eventually, this practice was ended by Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, when he moved Vice Presidential swearing-in to the east portico and also, by the way, put an end to the Vice President’s inaugural address (no more embarrassing Dawes-like addresses).

After the oath, which took place around one o’clock, the President delivered his inaugural address, containing 4,059 words and lasting 47 minutes–longer by far than the addresses of most of his predecessors and successors. Wilson’s addresses, for example, ran 1,802 words in 1913 and 1,526 in 1917, a total of 3,328 for both. In his biography of Coolidge, Claude M. Fuess declared it to be “one of his ablest utterances.” In it, Coolidge pressed his program of stability and steady advance and of efficiency and economy in government. There was no occasion to call for major reforms or changes in existing policy. Its tone reflected his confidence and faith in the nation’s future. Problems there were to be sure at home and abroad–but good, steady progress was being made in resolving them. Many of the ideas expressed in it had been previously stated in his State of the Union message of December 3, 1924. Perhaps Coolidge chief theme was this:

I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. That is the chief meaning of freedom. Until we can re-establish a condition under which the earnings of the people can be kept by the people, we are bound to suffer a very distinct curtailment of our liberty.

While lacking the high drama of the Homestead Inaugural, Coolidge’s formal inauguration at the Capitol had its own special significance: For the first time, a President was sworn-in by a former President, that is, Chief Justice Taft, who had served as the 27th President, 1909-1913. Most importantly, however, for the first time, the inaugural ceremonies were carried by radio to all sections of the nation, making the Presidential inauguration into a national event in which all citizens could participate. In the past, only the crowd gathered in the plaza in front of the Capitol could hear the President take the oath, and even then, prior to introduction of the amplifier in 1921 for Harding’s inaugural, only those up close could hear it and the Presidential address clearly. Now, a farmer sitting in his parlor in Kansas, could hear the ceremony as clearly as if he were on the platform itself. It was estimated that 25 million American heard the ceremony. The Presidential inauguration was being transformed from a local event in an old Southern town into a truly national happening. In 1949, the arrival of television would later complete the process.

Following the ceremony at the Capitol, Coolidge returned to the White House for a luncheon and then reviewed the inaugural parade, the last official event of the day, from a glass-enclosed stand. This took less than an hour.

In keeping with the President’s wishes, there was no official inaugural ball that evening (in fact, none had been held since Taft’s day). There was, however, an unofficial charity ball attended by Vice President Dawes, and, in far off Plymouth Notch, there was dancing in the meeting room above Florence Cilley’s general store. Others visited the Congressional Library, which was especially illuminated for the occasion, or attended the theater.

The President did permit himself some entertainment, however. On the eve of his inauguration, the Coolidges had attended a performance of Aïda at the new Auditorium Theatre accompanied by family members and Massachusetts friends, who had come down to Washington on a special train. That evening, however, after busy days of events, the President dined with his guests at the White House and later attended a banquet at the Cairo Hotel, given in his honor by member of the Massachusetts Legislature. The newly inaugurated President was at home in bed by 10 o’clock, as were most of his fellow citizens. And sleep well they could, for they knew the Republic was in good hands with Calvin Coolidge. That’s the way it was 75 years ago.

©1998 Jerry L. Wallace