Congress authorizes Washington bicentennial, Feb. 22, 1927

POLITICS

On this day in 1927, Congress initiated plans to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington, the nation’s first president. While the bicentennial festivities would not occur until 1932, Congress nevertheless held a joint session to get the project rolling.

On Dec. 2, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge had signed a joint resolution that established a commission to oversee the bicentennial ceremonies. The resolution, introduced by Sen. Simeon D. Fess (R-Ohio), a former college president, launched activities both to mark the occasion and to increase understanding of Washington.

The commission employed Alfred Bushnell Hart, a Harvard professor and former president of the American Historical Association, as an adviser. Under the leadership of Rep. Sol Bloom (D-N.Y.), the commission overcame the Great Depression’s financial restraints and initiated or inspired thousands of commemorative events across the country.

When Coolidge entered the House chamber some three years later, the U.S. Army Band played “Hail to the Chief.” The floor and galleries were packed with lawmakers, Cabinet members, diplomats, military officers and assorted dignitaries. Several of Washington’s descendants also attended the kickoff event.

Coolidge delivered a long speech in which he said of the nation’s first president: “His was the directing spirit without which there would have been no independence, no Union, no Constitution, and no Republic.”

Radio, then a relatively new medium, allowed tens of millions of people to hear what transpired in the chamber. In all, 42 stations in the United States and Canada carried the broadcast. In addition, millions more around the world listened in with the aid of some 200 “ham” radio operators who relayed the broadcast on shortwave.

The U.S. Post Office Department, then an integral arm of the federal government, authorized the issuance of a special series of 12 commemorative postage stamps, in denominations ranging from half a cent to 10 cents, that were sold during the anniversary period.

Five years later, the work of the eight-member bicentennial commission — drawn from four legislators from each side of the U.S. Capitol — bore fruit with a ceremony at the Capitol Plaza on Feb. 22, 1932. John Philip Sousa composed the “George Washington Bicentennial March” for this occasion, which was to be his next to last performance before his death. Sousa conducted the combined bands of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps in his new march, which was well received and is performed today.

Initially, Coolidge served as chairman of the commission. He was succeeded in 1929 by President Herbert Hoover. Bloom, who went on to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee from 1939 to 1947 and again in 1949, was its director. Bloom established his reputation as an entertainment impresario in 1893 at the age of 23 while developing the mile-long Midway Plaisance at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Fess and Willis C. Hawley (R-Ore.) were the co-vice chairman. The commissioners appointed by the president included auto magnate Henry Ford.

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