President Warren Harding, a voice for the ages

December 29, 2017

In 1922, President Warren G. Harding made a sound recording of his voice, for archival purposes. He died in 1923, succeeded by Calvin Coolidge. National Archives image.

In 1922, President Warren G. Harding made a sound recording of his voice, for archival purposes. He died in 1923, succeeded by Calvin Coolidge. National Archives image.

President Warren G. Harding made a recording of his voice in 1922, for archival purposes. From the photograph it appears the recording was made to a wax or plastic disk. Hypothetically, the recording exists somewhere in the bowels of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).


August 3, 1923: Calvin Coolidge sworn in as president

August 2, 2014

Calvin Coolidge taking the oath of office August 3, 1923, upon learning of the death of President Warren G. Harding. Curtis Publishing Company image (artist?), 1924; from the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress

Calvin Coolidge taking the oath of office August 3, 1923, upon learning of the death of President Warren G. Harding. Curtis Publishing Company image (artist?), 1924; from the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress

Vice President Calvin Coolidge took the oath of office for the presidency first from his father, a notary public, in New Hampshire, after having been officially informed of the death of President Warren G. Harding while on a tour, in San Francisco.

Coolidge is the only president to have been sworn in by a member of his immediate family.

More on Calvin Coolidge from the Library of Congress “Today in History” feature:

Calvin Coolidge

After all, the chief business of the American people is business.

President Calvin Coolidge,
address before the American Society of Newspaper Editors,
Washington, D.C., January 17, 1925.
Foundations of the Republic (1926), 187.

Calvin Coolidge
Calvin Coolidge, full-length portrait, seated at desk, facing front, holding pen and paper, wearing black armband in mourning for President Harding,
Washington, D.C.,
August 4, 1923.
Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929

Calvin Coolidge took the presidential oath of office on August 3, 1923, after the unexpected death in office of President Warren Harding. The new president inherited an administration plagued and discredited by corruption scandals. In the two remaining years of this term, Coolidge, long recognized for his own frugality and moderation, worked to restore the administration’s image and regain the public’s trust.  He went on to win the presidential election of 1924 in his own right.

Coolidge believed that government should interfere as little as possible with business and industry. His administration supported tax reductions for U.S. businesses as well as high protective tariffs in support of U.S. goods—which were being produced in greater quantities than ever before. Technological and managerial innovations, improvements in the methods of production, and growing distribution networks made consumer items more generally available.  Many Americans purchased cars and radios, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines—taking advantage of increasingly obtainable consumer credit.

Vacuum Cleaners on Display at the J.C. Harding & Co. Store
Vacuum cleaners on display at the J. C. Harding & Co. Store, probably in Washington, D.C.,
[1909-32].
Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929

Raleigh Haberdasher Show Window
Raleigh Haberdasher show window
Washington, D.C., circa 1925.
Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929

Automobiles in Window of the Washington-Cadillac Co.
Automobiles in window of the Washington-Cadillac Co.,
Washington, D.C., 1927.
Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929

Some groups did not participate fully in the emergent consumer economy, notably both African-American and white farmers as well as immigrants. While one-fifth of the American population made their living on the land, rural poverty was widespread. Despite agricultural overproduction and successive attempts in Congress to provide relief, the agricultural economy of the 1920s experienced an ongoing depression. Large surpluses were accompanied by falling prices at a time when American farmers were burdened by heavy debt. Between 1920 and 1932, one in four farms was sold to meet financial obligations and many farmers migrated to urban areas.

Restrictive immigration laws, aided by a resurgence of nativism in America in the 1920s, contributed to an atmosphere hostile to immigrants. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 discriminated against immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The National Origins Act of 1924 completely excluded Japanese and other Asian immigrants and further reduced those admitted from southern and eastern Europe.

Visitin' 'Round at Coolidge Corners
Visitin’ ‘Round at Coolidge Corners,
1924.
Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929

The economic growth of the 1920s spurred the rise of consumer organizations and campaigns. Some, such as the Truth-in-Advertising Movement, which pursued ethics and self-regulation in advertising, were industry-based. Other campaigns and organizations sought to educate consumers. The Better Homes Movement celebrated home ownership, home maintenance and improvement, and home decoration in towns and cities across the country. The Thrift Movement sought to teach children and citizens how to save and spend wisely. Stuart Chase worked to educate consumers about unfair advertising and pricing practices used by manufacturers of consumer products. Lastly, there were campaigns such as the Playground Movement which began in response to popular anxieties about material excess, misuse of leisure time, and the loss of traditional values.

Learn more about Calvin Coolidge and his era:

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From the Library of Congress collections: Calvin Coolidge, full-length portrait, seated at desk, facing front, holding pen and paper, wearing black armband in mourning for President Harding. Coolidge took the oath of office in Plymouth Notch, VT early in the morning of Friday, August 3rd, and arrived in Washington late that night, the day after the death of President Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865-1923). Coolidge was the nation’s thirtieth president.


90 years ago: Harding died in San Francisco; Coolidge rose to presidency

August 11, 2013

It’s another one of those mostly-unexplored crevices of history.  90 years ago this August, President Warren G. Harding died in a San Francisco hotel, while on a trip visiting western states.  Harding’s death promoted Calvin Coolidge to the presidency.  They were Republican presidents in one of the hottest stock market eras of all time, during the Roaring ’20s.  Their policies probably helped lead the nation to the financial ruin after the dramatic stock market crash of 1929.

Perhaps its no wonder people would like to forget that fascinating time — but shouldn’t we really give Harding and Coolidge some diligent study?  Consider: Harding and Coolidge would be the last ticket to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt for anything; FDR’s reputation rests on his rollback of Harding-Coolidge-Hoover policies.  But in 1920, FDR’s ticket ran on policies more similar to those policies than opposed to them.  Odd how history turns sometimes.

Warren Gamaliel Harding won the election to succeed Woodrow Wilson, some said simply because he looked like a president.  Harding was a little laid back for the times — considering McKinley was assassinated, his successor, the hyper-caffeinated Teddy Roosevelt would die young of a heart attack, obesity nearly took out Teddy’s successor, William H. Taft, and Wilson had suffered a stroke about half-way through his second term.  It was an era when high blood pressure had no particular treatment, and the Type A men who presided over the nation could suffer from all the syndromes high blood pressure can cause.  At the White House website [links added here]:

In 1921, President Warren Harding spoke into a recording apparatus to create a phonographic copy of one of his speeches.  Photo from the Miller Center, University of Virginia

In 1921, President Warren Harding spoke into a recording apparatus to create a phonographic copy of one of his speeches. Photo from the Miller Center, University of Virginia

Before his nomination, Warren G. Harding declared, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality….”

A Democratic leader, William Gibbs McAdoo, called Harding’s speeches “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” Their very murkiness was effective, since Harding’s pronouncements remained unclear on the League of Nations, in contrast to the impassioned crusade of the Democratic candidates, Governor James M. Cox of Ohio and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Thirty-one distinguished Republicans had signed a manifesto assuring voters that a vote for Harding was a vote for the League. But Harding interpreted his election as a mandate to stay out of the League of Nations.

Harding took office promising to be a business-friendly president, meaning he supported the big money guys.  Laying out a lesson of history that too many today never learned, Harding led Washington to cut taxes on the upper income levels and bigger businesses, and set up the Roaring ’20s economy that would lead to the financial collapse of the U.S. in 1929, plunging the nation into the Great Depression.  Off the job, he played poker at the White House with bootleg whiskey on the table.  No Treasury “revenuer” would bust the President and his high-rolling friends.

In 1923, Harding’s luck started to run out.  Stories of corruption in his administration began to circulate.  The Miller Center describes what led to his unexpected death:

Death of the President

Shaken by the talk of corruption among the friends he had appointed to office, Warren and Florence Harding began a tour on June 20, 1923 of the West and Alaska. He hoped to get out and meet people, to shake hands and explain his policies. Although suffering from high blood pressure and an enlarged heart, he seemed to enjoy himself—especially in Alaska. On his return journey, he became ill with what was then attributed to a touch of ptomaine (food) poisoning. The presidential train rushed to San Francisco, where his condition worsened. On August 2, he most likely suffered a heart attack in the evening, while his wife was reading to him. He died quietly and instantaneously.

Word quickly spread that Mrs. Harding, the last person to be with him that evening, had poisoned him to prevent him from being brought up on charges of corruption that soon engulfed his administration. A sensationalist book published in 1930 detailed the allegations against her. Her refusal to allow an autopsy of the President only fed the rumors. Harding left the bulk of his estate, valued at $850,000, to his wife.

It was August, after all.  Coolidge retreated from Washington to his home in Vermont.  The Miller Center’s account is a good one:

On August 2, 1923, John Coolidge woke his vacationing son and daughter-in-law at the family home in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, to tell them of President Harding’s death from a heart attack. Coolidge knelt, prayed, and went downstairs. Although the old house had no phone, it was soon abuzz with reporters. At 2:24 a.m., with the newspaper men settled and a copy of the Constitution retrieved, the elder Coolidge, a justice of the peace, administered the oath of office to his son by the light of a kerosene lamp. Soon after, Calvin Coolidge went back to bed as the 30th President of the United States.

Coolidge is the only president to have been sworn in by a close family member.  The “Constitution retrieved”  should be a point of study of presidential aides.  After the assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas, federal Judge Sarah Hughes got a call to administer the oath of office to Lyndon Johnson before Johnson flew back to Washington.  Hughes said she’d do it, but she needed a copy of the oath.  Apparently not giving adequate thought, this spurred a furious search for a copy of the oath.  After too long, a lawyer in the U.S. attorney’s office recalled the oath is in the Constitution, and a copy in a law book was taken to where Johnson and the presidential entourage awaited aboard Air Force 1 at Love Field.

You never know when you’re going to need to remember history, and know where to retrieve some bit of law.

Coolidge used a calm hand at the tiller during his presidency, continuing what he and others thought to be wise policies to encourage the growth of business.  He’s always struck me as one of the better balanced men in the White House.  Coolidge brought Scouting into the mansion, for his two sons, John, and Calvin, Jr. — he was devoted to his family, and to outdoor recreation (though usually in a coat and tie — the fashion of the time).  John attended Amherst College during his father’s term.

He won his own term of office in 1924, but lost his younger son.  Calvin, Jr., played his brother in tennis, but developed a blister on his foot from the match.  The blister got infected, and the boy developed blood poisoning, which took his life on July 7, 1924.  Although Coolidge, Sr., won the election that fall, after his son’s death he appeared anxious to get out of the White House.  Using the “two-term” precedent as his excuse, and claiming the small part of Harding’s term as his first, Coolidge did not run for re-election in 1928.

Coolidge enjoyed wearing various hats, and did not blanch at posing in clothing created for him, which means we have a rich (though limited) catalog of photographs of Coolidge in strange attire.  Campaign staffs for presidential candidates since at least 1960 have made a study of this, working hard to avoid such photos, failing with some consequences.

President Calvin Coolidge and a 10-gallon hat.  Library of Congress image

President Calvin Coolidge and a 10-gallon hat. Library of Congress image

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