By Brett Hall: Harding Home Presidential Site Staff Member
With the technology, glitz, and glamor that are the modern spectacle that we expect when watching a modern presidential inauguration, Warren G. Harding’s inauguration seems to get lost in the shuffle. It was not because it was less important than any other inauguration in history, but because Harding did not look for a spectacle. He was not a man who desired the hype that surrounded the event. There was no salute from the naval guns, no military or civilian procession, and no inaugural ball. He wanted a simple ceremony, one that would highlight the peaceful transfer of power that the Office of the Presidency carries with it. Let’s take a look back to March 4, 1921.
On a chilly but clear March day, President-elect Harding awoke at 8 a.m. in his suite at the new Willard Hotel ready for his date with history. Mr. and Mrs. Harding had breakfast in their room, and Mr. Harding read the morning newspapers before heading out to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to meet with President Woodrow Wilson. Mr. Wilson was in poor physical shape, following a debilitating stroke. His doctors and family recommended that he not go to any inaugural ceremonies other than to accompany the Hardings from the White House to the Capitol. The Salisbury(Md.) Evening Post reported that President Wilson was “walking feebly with the assistance of a cane” and that it was “necessary for secret service men to place his feet on each succeeding step as he descended as it was apparent to all that it would be impossible for him to take part in the ceremonies at the Capitol.”
Most people had waited along Pennsylvania Avenue since the early morning. There were many booster clubs and “original” Harding organizations in Washington D.C. Many Ohioans made the trip to see one of their own take the presidential oath. With most hotels in D.C. booked, dozens of sleeping cars that brought special parties for the inauguration parked in the rail yards with their passengers permitted to use them for living space.
President Wilson and President-elect Harding stepped into their automobile (for the first time in history), left the White House and headed down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. Mr. Harding received an ovation from the crowds along the street, and he kept busy tipping his hat. The avenue was lined with spectators that were held back with wire ropes. As the procession went down the street, squads of Boy Scouts were present to “give first aid to any spectators who may need their services.” It was a cold March morning. The temperature was recorded at 30 degrees with the wind having a sharp bite to it around 9 a.m. before “the mercury had climbed 10 degrees” after 10 a.m.
The president and president-elect arrived at the Capitol and were ushered inside. President Wilson would remain inside while the final session of his Congress concluded. Mr. Harding told President Wilson, “Goodbye, Mr. President. I know you are glad to be relieved of your burden and worries. I want to tell you how much I have appreciated the courtesy you extended to me.” Harding then waited to take the stage.
Outside of the Capitol, the large crowd was taking its place, and the amplification system was being tested. This was the first time a presidential inauguration would be amplified for the crowd to hear. To the left of the inaugural stand in the front row was a group of wounded soldiers from Walter Reed Hospital. A reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated, “a nurse got a cheer from the crowd by passing out cigarettes and hot chocolate to the disabled veterans.” The flags above Senate and House offices flew at half-staff in honor of Missouri Democrat James “Champ” Clark. Clark was a member of the House of Representatives and a personal friend of Harding. He died two days before Harding’s inauguration.
Harding took the stage with a small printer’s rule in his pocket (his personal good luck charm) and placed his hand on the George Washington Bible. He raised his right hand and said those sacred words: “I, Warren Gamaliel Harding, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Harding took the oath at 1:18 p.m. at the exact moment that Woodrow Wilson had eight years before. Harding became the first Baptist and the first journalist to become President of the United States. President Harding then removed a small, finely printed manuscript from the pocket of his blue jacket and held it in his left hand. He began his inaugural speech.
Among other things, Harding said, “The success of our popular government rests wholly upon the correct interpretation of the deliberate, intelligent, dependable, popular will of America.”
Looking to his task ahead as president, he said, “Out of universal service will come a new unity of spirit and purpose, a new confidence and consecration which would make our defense impregnable, our triumph assured.”
Following the address to the nation, Harding broke a tradition that had stood since George Washington’s time. Harding stepped back into the Capitol and went to the Senate for an executive session of Congress and personally presented the nominations for his cabinet. The president told the Senate that he desired to “maintain close and amiable relations” during his administration. President Harding and the First Lady returned to the White House for a luncheon with friends and family members from Marion at 2:44 p.m. The press requested that the First Lady come out of the executive mansion and take photos with the president and George B. Christian Jr., Mr. Harding’s private secretary.
As the day came to a close, the first family began settling into their new home. The gates to the White House were reopened for the public for the first time since the beginning of the Great War, and preparations were being made for an eight-month-old Airedale puppy, Laddie Boy, to come to Washington D.C. from the Caswell Kennels in Toledo to make the family whole. The sun rose the next day on a new administration and a country that had searched for answers after a world war that exhausted the spirit of America. The peaceful transfer of power, which has, and is, the cornerstone of American democracy, was completed. The nation waited to see what America’s new course would be.