Genre: US Presidents
Author: Amity Shlaes
Title: Coolidge (Buy the Book)
Calvin Coolidge became President in 1923 and faced many of the issues that our current president is faced with today.
- The U.S. had just ended WW1 and faced a large Federal deficit.
- Women’s issues were a key topic.
- Immigration reform was a central issue. This book records how President Coolidge dealt with these and other issues.
The story of Calvin Coolidge is a story of struggle. Coolidge’s life can be broken down into periods between potentially debilitating setbacks, and victories delivered from the brink of failure. Coolidge learned of sorrow at an early age with the death of his mother.
He was twelve. His only sibling and younger sister, Abigail, met an untimely death from an unknown and sudden illness as a teenager. He was eighteen. As Vice President of the United States, he became President after Warren Harding died suddenly.
Another family member would leave him too early with the death of his son Calvin Coolidge Jr. while Coolidge was President of the United States. Calvin Jr. was sixteen. These hardships instilled a frequently tested perseverance at an early age that can be seen throughout Coolidge’s life.
Coolidge never held a single office for a long period of time. Rather, he quickly climbed the political ladder to the Presidency. He did not even seek reelection after his first full term—one of only four sitting presidents not to do so.
Although Coolidge persistently maintained a dedication to his principals, a rarity in Washington DC then and now, his political tenure was far from scandal free. Coolidge was not concerned with popularity and often pushed the boundaries of what could be stomached by his constituents.
While Governor of Massachusetts the Boston Police Strike tested Coolidge’s resolve and was a defining moment in his political career and the nexus in which he was thrust into national eminence. He was also tested whenever farm subsidies, a policy that could have greatly benefited his home state of Vermont, were vetoed by his administration multiple times.
He would be tested again and deny federal relief funds to Vermont after being devastated by unprecedented flooding shortly after denying federal funds to a
Many of the issues that defined Coolidge’s legacy in Washington are current issues that are vehemently debated today. Balancing a post-war budget proved to be a monumental, but achievable, task for Coolidge.
A major platform of the Harding and Coolidge ticket was normalcy: the need for stability and consistency in a post-World War I and strike-prone America. This normalcy could only be achieved by instituting fiscal and monetary policies aimed to restore America with a sustainable economic and tax foundation.
During Coolidge’s sixty-seven month presidency, the federal debt fell and the top income tax was halved to 25 percent while undergoing major technological transformations that shaped a modern life in America through the roaring twenties.
Early Years and Building a Political Career
Coolidge learned the realities of life when his mother died from consumption when he was twelve. His mother’s death had a pronounced effect on the preteen as he became noticeably taller, thinner, and quiet. Only a few years later he lost another family member—his only sibling, Abigail.
Her death was sudden and the cause is still unknown, but appendicitis is suspected. Coolidge was often sickly in childhood and followed the advice of his school principal, with the support of his father and grandmother, Sarah, to study at Amherst College in Massachusetts in the class of 1895.
Continuing his unrelenting difficulties, Coolidge did not perform well for the first three years of college either academically or socially.
Although he liked books and learning, he made poor grades his entire academic career. Awkward and gangly, Coolidge always found himself outside circles of popularity and was unable to gain admission to a fraternity or athletic team. During the latter half of his collegiate career, he fell in love with politics and oratory.
A term he and his presidential running mate Warren Harding would dub “normalcy”. The effects of instability and uncertainty could be felt with the Panic of 1893. Issues other than the gold standard also permeated politics at the time. Workers’ strikes could be set off at a moment’s notice and tariffs were fiercely debated. A workers strike would later play a crucial role in Coolidge’s political ascension.
His father remarried while Coolidge was at Amherst.
Finding his own wife soon became a priority after he graduated and moved to Northampton, Massachusetts to practice law. Coolidge’s determination showed itself in full force when qualifying as an attorney and finding a wife—both of which he accomplished.
The first time Coolidge noticed his future wife was when he heard a laugh from the across the way. He did not see her, but his housemate explained the laugh belonged to a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf, Grace Anna Goodhue. Coolidge’s quiet seriousness was paired well with Grace’s talkative nature and sense of humor.
They married in 1905. Once in Washington, Coolidge wildly protective of Grace and did not like her to be glamorous and available to the world. As the First Lady was sitting for her portrait by Howard Chandler Christy, she wore a red dress alongside a white collie named Rob Roy.
Coolidge did not care for the color of her dress thinking that it was too flashy. The painter assured that the dress must be
While practicing law in Northampton, he was elected to city council and held the unpaid position and his first political position for a year before being elected City Solicitor. He held the office of City Solicitor for two, one-year terms before taking a brief political hiatus.
He then became clerk of courts for the county for a year despite it barring him from practicing law. This period of county politics ended with his only defeat: the position was for Northampton’s school board. One reason for his defeat is that many of the residents felt that he should not be on the school board as he and Grace did not have children at the time.
From here, Coolidge left county politics and was elected as State Representative to Boston. In this
He held true to this for the rest of his political career.
Here, we can see Coolidge’s progressivism that was popular within the Republican Party at the time. Later, Coolidge would shift to a moderate as the platforms of the Republican Party were transforming. Coolidge echoed Demosthenes from his studies at Amherst that “Men do not make laws. They do but discover them”.
This sentiment would be carried through his presidency and his vetoing behavior. During his tenure in the state congress we see the development of many characteristics that would stay with Coolidge throughout his time in Washington.
Coolidge noted that it was more important to “kill bad bills than to pass good ones”. He also solidified his belief that it was the state’s responsibility to resolve its problems.
During this time the financial system was shaken by the Panic of 1907. Even with the critical assistance of J. P. Morgan, there was a growing push for a central bank. After serving two terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Coolidge became mayor of Northampton. From this position Coolidge was able to retire city debt. Reducing public debt would be a hallmark of Coolidge’s political career.
In his third term as State Senator, Coolidge was elected president of the senate.
The consequences of which would have to be managed by a line of presidents. One of the most effective at doing so was Coolidge. The next rung on the ladder to becoming president was Lieutenant Governor under Samuel McCall.
Coolidge was largely credited for McCall’s election as Governor. As cars were becoming more popular, the dynamics of campaigning were becoming more demanding. Grace hung an epigraph on the wall of the campaign headquarters to describe Coolidge or Silent Cal as he would soon become known:
A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw, the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard
Why can’t we be like that old bird?
McCall, and his eastern base of support, was able to clench the election with the help of Coolidge’s western base. Coolidge and McCall were elected into three, one-year terms.
World War I was the major discussion point during this time while campaigning. When McCall announced that he would not seek reelection to a fourth term, Coolidge ran for governor.
Coolidge was elected by the narrowest margin of his state-wide campaigns to the office of Governor of Massachusetts. Coolidge and his running mate, Channing Cox, built a platform that favored fiscal conservatism towards the still infant income tax, support for woman’s suffrage, and support for American involvement in World War I—a divisive topic amongst the numerous Irish and German Americans living in Massachusetts.
In his first of two terms as Massachusetts Governor, Coolidge faced his biggest test to date.
Coolidge was confronted by the American Federation of Labor and the Boston Police Union demanding better working conditions, higher pay, and recognition of their union.
The Police Commissioner, Edwin Curtis, fanned the flames by issuing a statement that such a move would not be tolerated. The situation quickly deteriorated into a strike in September of 1919. The strike organizers fully expected that Governor Coolidge would be in favor of a compromise.
A compromise would be understandable considering the prominent Bolshevik type fears of the time. German revolutionary groups were gaining power, Mexico was in a civil war, and a similar situation involving Seattle led to the mayor’s resignation.
Calming tensions appeared to be a priority.
Coolidge thought differently. The policeman of Boston staged a
The Massachusetts National Guard was summoned and a disagreement ensued between the Republican Police Commissioner Curtis and the Democratic Mayor of Boston, Andrew Peters. Peters announced that he would be taking over the entire police force from Curtis and Curtis was villainized.
Coolidge favored Curtis in a highly controversial move.
Eventually, Wilson came out in favor of the American Federation of Labor’s leader Samuel Gompers—making Coolidge’s task all the more difficult. Wilson would later his change back and forth between sides.
Coolidge felt the police were deserting their positions and could not under any conditions return to the force. Gompers issued a public statement that resulted in a highly circulated telegram from Coolidge:
The right of the police of Boston to affiliate has always be questioned, never granted, is now prohibited … Your assertion that the commissioner was wrong cannot justify the wrong of leaving the city unguarded … There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.
Coolidge’s actions upstaged Wilson when he was unable to decisively handle the national strikes that were occurring at the time. Wilson, from his sickbed, would later wire a congratulations for “a victory for law and order”—an unprecedented move from a Democratic President to a Republican candidate.
Coolidge’s strong stance would be remembered at the ballot box during the next gubernatorial election and even into the presidential election to come. Coolidge was reelected with an overwhelming majority into a second term.
Before leaving the office of Governor, Coolidge saw the 17th Amendment ratified so that voters would choose senators rather than the state legislatures. This was seen as a defeat to the old boys club that the Washington Senate had become.
Coolidge also reorganized the state government and incurred indignation in doing so. Many of the positions that were deemed obsolete or inefficient and removed were held by Coolidge’s friends. Most did not stay friends, nevertheless, Coolidge continued to climb within the Republican Party.
Coolidge originally had his eyes set on the presidency after his highly publicized incumbency as Massachusetts Governor. The highest he placed in the party convention to nominate presidential delegates was sixth. Harding took the prize and was nominated at the 1920 Republican National Convention.
Coolidge was unexpectedly considered for Vice President. The idea spread quickly and Coolidge was nominated. Harding and Coolidge ran on a platform they called “normalcy”. The core of which is fiscal responsibility. World War I ended in 1919 and left the United States with an extraordinarily high national debt.
Normalcy focused on economics and downsizing the federal government. Harding and Coolidge campaigned in a time when America was shifting. The passing of the 19th Amendment meant the 1920 election would be the first in which women could vote.
The Grand Old Party was also changing from a progressive party to the party of low taxes, tariffs, less central government, and stability. They took over 60% of the popular vote and the house was almost 70% Republican.
Calvin and Grace finally found themselves in Washington, but it was an unpleasant change.
From their first moments of adjusting to their new surroundings, the Coolidges sensed that they may never catch up to Washington. The White House itself took on a specific character under Harding. Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, noticed that the Harding White House had the “general atmosphere of a convivial gambling saloon”.
The Coolidges were relegated to living in a hotel where they were not allowed pets as a home had yet to be established for the use of Vice President. This was particularly discomforting to Grace who was a natural animal lover. Grace would often feed mice in the hotel despite knowing it could bring criticism.
In referring to the mice she often fed, Grace
The First Lady made a reputation for herself by summoning mediums to talk with the dead and raging through the White House accusing others of robbing her when she had misplaced a necklace.
The influence of the Vice President was surprisingly lacking, but Coolidge began to slowly make roots.
Part of Coolidge’s Presidency would be established through Harding, particularly through the appointment of Andrew Mellon to Secretary of the Treasury. Harding would also set in motion two scandals that would greatly influence Coolidge’s bid for the presidency.
The first was the establishment of the Veterans Bureau led by Charles Forbes who would later defraud the US Government of millions in less than two years. The second was known as the Teapot Dome scandal that implicated Harding and the Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall of bribery. The investigation would carry into the majority of Coolidge’s presidency and result in Fall being sentenced to jail time for bribery.
Coolidge’s succession into the presidency was abrupt. Harding had most likely contracted pneumonia or some other respiratory illness and died in San Francisco. Coolidge was sworn in by his notary father in his Vermont home in Plymouth Notch.
After managing the transition and mourning of Harding, the budget was Coolidge’s top priority as the 30th President of the United States.
He scheduled weekly meetings with the Director of the United States Bureau of the Budget, Herbert
Mellon proposed the idea of “scientific taxation” in the Mellon Plan. Mellon shared Coolidge’s moral outrage at expenditure. Coolidge initially thought that lower taxes would “starve the government beast” whereas Mellon advocated low tax rates to increase tax revenue by means of encouraging commerce and taxable transactions.
His tax plan was often put on congress’ backburner in favor of immigration legislation. Eventually the Immigration Act of 1924 passed and Coolidge reluctantly signed the bill despite his disapproval of language that sought to specifically curtail Japanese immigration.
During Coolidge’s tenure as president, farm subsidies were a nagging issue.
Expanding subsidies would be a benefit to Vermont, but Coolidge twice vetoed the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Act and similar acts of legislation. Supporting artificial prices in any industry was contrary to Coolidge and Mellon’s economic policies. William Jardine, Coolidge’s own appointee for Secretary of Agriculture, was a staunch dissenter of farm subsidies, but it held support by Congress.
Shortly after Coolidge’s successful nomination for 1924 Republican candidate with Charles Dawes as a running mate, Calvin Jr. developed a blister after playing tennis that lead to an infection and sepsis. He died just weeks after his 16th birthday. Calvin Jr.’s death, in conjunction with Coolidge’s strategy of never attacking his opponents, led to a very subdued campaign and election. Regardless, Coolidge won the election.
After winning the 1924 election, the twenties were roaring and, with the exception of tariffs, Coolidge largely left the American economy loosely regulated under his Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. This period was a pivotal time in American history.
Charles Lindbergh completed his trans-Atlantic flight and became a useful resource for Coolidge.
Coolidge appointed African Americans to federal positions, endorsed African Americans running for office in a public letter, and repeatedly called for anti-lynching laws, although none passed during his presidency.
When a voter wrote to complain about a black man competing for nomination to run for Congress, Coolidge published his response saying that he and any African American is just as entitled to submit his name for candidacy to any public office. Coolidge also signed the Indian Citizenship Act that granted full citizenship to American Indians while permitting special sanctions.
America saw the development of airlines and the commercialization of radios. Coolidge made use of a new radio presence as a tool for American unity and campaigning. Business was booming and the national debt was shrinking faster than expected. However, the good times for the administration would not last.
Coolidge was highly criticized for his response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
He held true to his belief that it was the states’ responsibility to respond to their own affairs and that the executive branch was meant to only coordinate, offer limited supplies, and encourage. To Coolidge, federalism and intruding upon a governor
After the flood, there was an outcry for flood control legislation. Coolidge ultimately signed a compromise measure in the Flood Control Act of 1928, but before the bill passed, Coolidge’s convictions were tested once again when his home state Vermont had its own devastating flood that swept away entire towns.
Coolidge stayed in Washington and did not call a special session. He stayed true knowing his family, friends, and state were suffering and he had the power to alleviate some of their misfortune.
Most of Coolidge’s activities and efforts were oriented towards domestic policy, but towards the end of his
The advocate nations of the law were the US, headed by Coolidge’s Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, and France.
Coolidge is often portrayed as an isolationist from his discontent with the League of Nations, but was neither an activist nor an isolationist—he did
Besides the Kellogg-Briand Pact, Coolidge visited Havana, Cuba to attend the Pan-American Conference. This was largely a ceremonial and symbolic visit and did not result in any exact legislation or policy change.
Coolidge may not be included in a list of modern presidents, but he was in many ways modern. His socially progressive roots with small government conservatism in a post-war boom defined his presidency. Many of Coolidge’s decisions, some unpopular, were ultimately beneficial to the economy and the American people.
His economic and fiscal policies led to lower tax rates and a reduction of national debt. While never a well-versed economist, Coolidge understood the value of adhering to a budget. Coolidge was emotionally and morally tested throughout his life, but held admirably resolute.
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