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In San Francisco Warren G. Harding lay dead, and the nation was without a Chief Executive. In the early morning hours, by the light of a flickering oil lamp, an elderly Vermonter swore in his son as the thirtieth President of the United States
December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
The Vice President reached for the first glass and raised it to his lips. He took a cautious taste, then a lusty swallow. The Congressman and the newsman followed suit. None of the three appeared in a rush to deposit the required fifteen cents on the counter. Coolidge viewed his fellow celebrants with a slight but distinctly impish grin. Fountain describes himself as having been frozen with fascination at the prospect of being treated to a Moxie by the man who would soon be President of the United States.
Slowly but surely, and in the classic Vermont manner, the freeze thawed. Coolidge’s left hand was slipping into the depths of his left hip pocket. Even more slowly, the freckled and sunburned hand emerged, clutching a child’s-size coin purse of black leather. Carefully Coolidge fingered some coins and presently took out just one. With extreme care he deposited a shiny new nickel on the counter beside the three empty glasses; he was paying only for his own Moxie. Stumblingly Joe Fountain deposited a dime beside the lone nickel, then sidestepped the retreating hulk of Congressman Dale.
Coolidge said curtly, “Figure we’d best get back to Father.” Miss Cilley volunteered to bring over any telephone messages that might arrive. Colonel John was in the kitchen, shaving. Geiser was checking the prescribed inaugural oath as he had copied it in longhand from a manual in his possession, rereading his own handwriting with extreme care. Never before had the oath been given in a lamplighted farm homestead with a built-in privy. Coolidge took the paper from his secretary, read it carefully, handed it back to Geiser, and told him to type it up in triplicate. As a practicing lawyer and onetime Amherst dissertationist, Coolidge was professionally famed, even notorious, for meticulous attention to legal technicalities. Evidence seems to suggest that he himself considered the unusual oathtaking entirely legal. Nevertheless, he would wait for specific confirmation from the Chief Justice.
Geiser returned with the three typewritten copies of the oath. Coolidge read the ribbon copy with care, then handed one carbon to Geiser with the admonition, “Be sure to get the signatures of the witnesses.”
The time was approximately 2:35 A.M. There was a light tap at the front door, and Calvin Coolidge answered it in person. Florence Cilley did not enter; she smiled and handed in a message: “Procedure legal. Best wishes. Taft.”
Joe Fountain recalls that Coolidge slipped the paper into his pocket and without a word approached the center table, behind which his father stood. The parlor lamp with its elaborately molded glass base cast a bright light on the leather cover and gilded spine of the family Bible. According to Joseph McInerney, the other surviving witness, Grace Coolidge stepped to her husband’s side, while Congressman Dale and Fountain moved to his left. Edwin Geiser looked on from a corner.
Colonel John, freshly shaved and dressed but still without collar or tie, stood surprisingly straight for a man of seventy-eight. He moved the ornate oil lamp nearer the Bible and the center of the table, then faced his only son.
Calvin placed his left hand on the closed Bible, and like his father, raised his right hand. In leisurely Vermont accents the father read the oath in its entirety: “I, Calvin Coolidge, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States …” Speaking with a less pronounced but still recognizable Vermont accent, the son repeated the entire oath without stumbling or hesitating, including the “So help me God,” and so became the thirtieth President of the United States.
Grace Coolidge was trembling. Colonel John gulped slightly, and his eyes were noticeably moist. The new President was grimly silent. Congressman Dale pulled a biscuit-sized gold watch from his vest pocket and glanced at it, then boomed, “It is exactly two fortyseven!”
The President glanced at his wife without speaking, or without any move to embrace her. Instead he turned briefly toward Geiser. The pompadoured young man then stepped forward to hand the President a fountain pen. Coolidge took it hurriedly, bent over the table, and scrawled his signature directly beneath the typed text. He handed the pen to his father, who carefully wrote, “John C. Coolidge.” Still trembling, the new First Lady stepped to the table and signed “Grace G. Coolidge.” Congressman Dale signed next, then Geiser, then Fountain.
No one spoke. The elder Coolidge strolled to his highboy desk, briefly fumbled through a clutter of books and catalogues, then pulled open the top drawer, lifted out his notary public’s seal impresser, and applied it to the duly signed oath. Colonel John held the precious paper as the President walked toward the stairway, his wife following. At the foot of the stairs he paused to let her walk ahead. Then he turned, smiled slightly, and said, “Good night.”