IT was a cold morning, but the sun was shining and the sky was blue. The crowd began to gather early. The inauguration address was not expected before half past one, but when I got there, at ten o’clock, thousands were already in place.
I had decided upon a stone seat, a long granite bench with granite back, circling about a large grassy space as a retaining wall a long distance from the front of the Capitol, a long distance from the spot on the Capitol front where the incoming President was to stand. I took a steamer rug with me, so as to be able to sit down on the stone bench whenever I wanted to: and when I arrived there was space left for only one person and I gladly took it.
Every moment, more and more arrived, filling the open space in front of the Capitol, in front of the long granite bench and far behind it. By eleven o’clock the space was crowded, by eleven thirty it was jammed, by twelve it was only with the greatest difficulty that any one could twist and squirm through the jam, and, so it was estimated by those looking down on the crowd, at least a hundred thou-sand were there.
On previous occasions only a few people had ever expected to hear an inaugural address. It would be sufficient if now and then a word could be caught, and if the ceremony itself could be witnessed, but this time was to be different. For the speech of Harding was to be heard for what was really an immense distance.
Many a night, leaving the Library of Congress at closing time and emerging upon the great space then almost always lonely and practically deserted, I had heard mysterious and almost ghostly sounds sweeping over the empty space. Here and there I would come upon some one listening and noting: for it was the testing of a new apparatus, a sound conveyor, a transmitter. It was to be used to carry the words of the speaker to a distance hitherto undreamt of. It was placed upon a small porch, of classic design, directly above where the incoming President was to stand, at the foot of the platform on the central steps of the Capitol. The porch was strangely like the one designed by Latrobe a century before for that very spot.
As the great throng waited for the ceremonies to begin it was curious to notice that the flag that floated above where the new President was to stand was at half mast. The explanation was that a leading Congressman had just died : but none the less it seemed odd to leave the flag in that way : and shortly before the time when the ceremonies were to begin some official noticed it and it was raised to full height.
While the immense throng waited, the transmitter was not inactive. A talking machine had been placed under the porch, and tune after tune was turned on and speech after speech. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was solemnly given, to a highly astonished audience, and then, with impartiality, came “Dixie!” And there followed an almost unceasing line of talk and music, with now and then a rest to allow the scarlet-coated Marine Band to play. But the bandsmen were not seated beneath the canopy and so had none of the benefit of the transmitter, and although, from where I sat, I could see the leader vigorously leading and could see that the instruments were at the players’ mouths, it was only now and then that even a single note was heard, at the distance at which I sat and over the heads of a restless chirring mass. Then again the transmitter and the talking machine, with perhaps gay dance music or a solemn Ave Maria. There was no censor for the apparatus and, fortunately, none was needed, although there easily might have been need: and even as it was the effect was not at all in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion that had called the people together.
A thin page came and hung a row of funeral-like wreaths along the front of the speakers’ stand causing mild excitement among spectators. A fat darky came with a broom and swept the spot where President Harding was to be and there was another slight wave of mild excitement. Here and there, in the crowd, colored toy balloons were sent up, and there were again slight waves of mild excitement.
A greater wave of interest swept the crowd, and a line of motor-cars came slowly on, crowded with wounded soldiers. The cars stopped in front of the central portico, and the soldiers were assisted to seats that had been reserved. There were other mild waves of interest as cars drove up with various important occupants, whose identity only a few could even guess. But when a big motor-car came up, in which were seated, outgoing President Wilson and incoming President Harding, accompanied by Senator Knox and Representative “Joe” Cannon, a stronger but silent interest was manifested. Even from my distant place, the pair of principals could for a moment be well seen, for I had a field glass. Escorted by a squadron of cavalry, with fluttering guidon of red and white, and followed by other cars, the Presidential car stopped at the Senate end of the great building, and Wilson was shielded from sight by assistants, and the crowd knew that the first important act, the swearing in of the Vice-President, in the Senate chamber, was about to take place.
It was evident, in the swift look, that President Wilson was feeble and broken. The man who had so recently been practically all powerful, in the world, was almost unable to walk, and quite unable to leave the car without some swift assistance from official ushers and helpers immediately beside him.
Harding, fresh, vigorous, almost youthful, was a vivid contrast in appearance and bearing, but there was apparent, in his manner, only a gentleness and consideration for the man whose place he was about to take.
There followed another wait, and all watched to see when the movement from the Senate chamber to the central front should begin, for the windows of the connecting passage-way permitted a view of the connecting corridor.
But even more closely, for a time, I watched a door in the Senate wing, a service door, a little heeded and insignificant door. It opened, and a car moved quietly up, for all had been arranged to the fraction of a moment. President Wilson was not going to wait until the open public ceremonies.
He was too feeble to walk down those outside steps to the spot where he would have had to stand. So he was to leave as soon as he should sign a number of just-passed bills that were waiting for him. But only a very few knew, that he was to leave by that insignificant service door, chosen because it was unnoticeable and because it was on the very same level, as his waiting car. An open space was kept there, free from other cars so that he could get away without being held in a blockade even for a few minutes.
At half past twelve the door gently opened, and in the opening he appeared. He seemed, in the flash of sight, more feeble, more tottering than be-fore, but courteous and brave. It was clear that he had been making and was still making a tremendous effort.
Then followed an incident, immensely dramatic and pitiful. The President of the United States for he was still the President and would be for another hourthe President of the United States, recently the dominator of the world, with the almost certainty of being formal ruler under the league had not his terrible illness struck him, was not able even to attempt to enter his car. A trained usher of the White House, a broad-shouldered powerful man, swiftly and with precision of movement backed up into the car, took hold firmly of the President’s shoulders, and practically pulled him up into the seat. It was all over in a moment. Few saw it. It was a sight to make one gasp. To what a feeble pass had almost infinite greatness come !
It was only a moment. Mrs. Wilson got in be-side him. The car instantly moved away. She could not accompany him in the formal journey from the White House, but now was ready to be his companion, ready to resume her place as the wife of Woodrow Wilson.
The car moved off. It went about three lengths before it was noticed, and then, before the few who realized could raise the beginnings of a feeble cheer, it had vanished, and the outgoing President had started on his way to his new home.
He did not, like almost all of our Presidents, have a home, a dwelling place, a home locality, to return to. Washington had his Mount Vernon. Jefferson had his Monticello. Dolly Madison from Montpelier used to send pickles and home-dried cherries to her successor in the White House, Mrs. Monroe, the British officer’s daughter ; and so on up to modern times, through the Hermitage, Kinderhook, Canton and Oyster Bay. All, or practically all, had a home. But Wilson was essentially a homeless man; he had to make a new home, which made the change in his fortunes even more dramatic. He had recently purchased a house on S Street, and to that house he went to take up his home.
Under one’s eyes was the passing of a ruler, a man born to command and with every faculty trained to that end. And, realizing this, the imagination must needs accompany him. Thoughts came of the mighty Wolsey, and of the words of Shakespeare: “An old man, broken with the cares of state.” Not that Wolsey was old in years, not that Wilson was old in years; they were within a year or two of the same age, close to sixty, when power slipped away from them.
Wilson would go to his unfamiliar home; he would sit restlessly for a while; and then would come the realization that all was over. Many a President before him had given place to a successor, but this was the first of our rulers who could have looked at world possibilities following rulership here.
A few first stragglers began to move through the connecting passageway, and soon the numbers increased, and it was but a little while before men began to dribble down into their places on the central stand.
Soon Warren Harding emerged and walked down to the front of the platform. Soon Mrs. Harding, quietly and with self-possession, took her place at a little distance from her husband. This and that distinguished individual were picked out : a few Senators of note, the retiring and the incoming Vice-Presidents, the Chief Justice. There were other justices, there were ambassadors and there were State governors, there were army and navy men of high rank, there were a few personal friends, there were a few ladies besides Mrs. Harding. For a few moments there was a cloud of tobacco smoke: some could not, even at such a place and such a moment, do without smoking. It was a curious thing to see. A solemn silence fell upon the hundred thousand spectators. The black-gowned Chief Justice and the man who in a moment would be President faced each other, and the silence grew more tense. Then came the words, as formally demanded by the Constitution:
“I 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 kissed a Bible as he took the oath, a Bible than which none could be more fitting, for it was the very one used by George Washington on his first inauguration, far back at the beginning of the Constitution. What thoughts come of that far-away day in New York City, when Washington solemnly touched his lips to this very book. And when President Harding, now facing forward, and speaking with a calm impressiveness, delivered an ad-dress all American, delivered it soberly, calmly, with manner all dispassionate, and with every word, every syllable heard plainly to an immense distance, it was a wonderfully impressive scene. And all was so simple ! Just a handful of soldiers in the throng, indicative of the millions so recently under arms in actual war. A simple grouping, also, of soldiers and sailors around a stand of colors. Above the heads of the speakers and the distinguished group about them, an American flag, horizontally spread. Pigeons circled disturbed in their Capitoline home.
One could not but think of Washington, and his I conjure you, my fellow citizens,” when this latest of our long line of Presidents declared with solemn precision of utterance :
“The recorded progress of our Republic, materially and spiritually, in itself proves the wisdom of the inherited policy of non-involvement in Old World affairs.We seek no part in directing the destinies of the Old World.”
Yet in how short a time were we to be making involving treaties with Europe and Asia!
From the start to the conclusion it was a speech of Americanism, and the immense throng felt it as such, and were powerfully moved. It was delivered with dignity and earnestness throughout, down to the solemn ending.
Always the incoming President feels the sense of responsibility and the earnest desire, no matter how fleeting, to do something for his country; and al-ways the multitude assembled are thrilled by the promise of the future.
It was all over. This quiet throng, this quiet ceremonial, this quietly delivered speech of Americanism without ostentation, without visible manifestation of power, without display. But with all the impressiveness that comes from the presence of a hundred thousand, listening quietly, with gravity, to their new head.
Quietly the crowd dispersed. Nowhere was there undue haste, nowhere even the slightest disorder, although there were no soldiers to enforce order, and but the thinnest scattering of police. In all, it was an example of Americanism : the medleyed mu-sic, the darky and his broom, the absence of all show of power.
And in the minds of the dispersing hundred thou-sand there silently echoed words and phrases from the address of the leader whose voice had but just ceased:
“We have seen a world passing and spend its fury, but we contemplate our Republic unshaken and hold our civilization secure.”