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Let's face it: Calvin Coolidge isn't a name that comes up when people talk about great American presidents. He's up there with the likes of Chester A. Arthur, James A. Garfield, and his predecessor Warren Harding—you know they existed, and probably did some stuff, but that's about it. They don't get the ink of a Lincoln or Kennedy.
Coolidge has at least one leg up on those guys, because he's featured in one of the best lines in the classic movie Singin' in the Rain, when silent film star Lena Lamont exclaims: "Why, I make more money than…than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!"
The Democratic governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith, was an admirer. He said of Coolidge that "His great task was to restore the dignity and prestige of the Presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history […] in a time of extravagance and waste […]" (source).
Still, Coolidge played a pretty important part in making the 1920s "roar," thanks to his stance against government involvement in the economy, and serious tax cuts for businesses and individuals. During his tenure, the economy boomed while the federal deficit shrunk.
Also, ironically for someone so personally taciturn that he was known as "Silent Cal," he was the first president to address the nation via a newfangled device known as radio, and he never seemed to stop talking to the press for the next four years.
John Calvin Coolidge grew up on a farm in Vermont, with a father who took time off from farming to serve in state government. He came from a long line of New England Yankees, including settlers in the early 1600s and ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. John Jr. himself didn't aspire to much beyond the Vermont farming and merchant community (source).
Glad that worked out for him.
He didn't get the nickname "Silent Cal" for nothing. He was famous for saying as little as possible, although he was quite witty and married a very social, talkative woman in Grace Goodhue (source). Grace liked to recount a dinner party, when the woman sitting next to Coolidge told him she had a bet going that she could get more than two words out of him. He kept his eyes facing forward and replied: "You lose" (source).
After his graduation from Amherst College in 1895, Coolidge stayed on in Massachusetts and practiced law in Northampton. He started out in politics campaigning for William McKinley, like his future Vice President Charles Dawes, but soon he was serving in local positions in Northampton and was eventually elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives on the Republican ticket. In 1918, after a stint as mayor of Northampton, state senator, and Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, he was elected governor.
In 1919, the Boston police went on strike. Coolidge was not a fan of unions and their tactics, so he ended up calling in the National Guard and having a stern discussion with Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor. He was particularly angry about this strike and declared "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time"
Nothing says tough like staring down strikers, especially cops, and his forcefulness against the police strike earned him a lot of street cred with conservatives at the time and thrust him onto the national stage. When Warren Harding ran for president, he picked Coolidge to be his running mate.
Harding won the presidency in 1920, and the country took a conservative swing away from the internationalist policies of Woodrow Wilson. Coolidge was the first VP to attend cabinet meetings (source) but generally avoided a lot of public attention. He made speeches when he had to, but didn't use his role leading the Senate to make any waves (source).
Under Harding, the country moved away from the Progressive Era of strong government involvement; not everything was considered the federal government's business and the feds thought most stuff should be handled at state and municipal levels. Businesses were seen as the way to move the economy forward, so they were given a lot more freedom from government regulation (source).
However, Harding's administration was ridden with more scandals than Frank Underwood's. Or Kevin Spacey's for that matter. Some were very personal concerns about the president (disclosure of a passionate sexual affair before he became prez); some were administrative. The most serious, the Teapot Dome scandal, involved bribes paid to the Secretary of the Interior for drilling rights in Wyoming.
But the scandals didn't involve our righteous boy Coolidge, and when Harding died in office in 1923, Cal unexpectedly got a big promotion.
Coolidge found out he was going to be president while he was back home in rural Vermont visiting his family. He was sworn in by his father, a notary, by the light of a kerosene lamp. Is that a great origin story for a presidency or what?
For the rest of his first, unelected term, Coolidge mostly continued on with the policies of Harding's administration, minus the extramarital affairs and corruption. He was a model of probity and incorruptibility.
It was a no-brainer that Coolidge would be the Republican nominee for president in 1924. But on July 7, 1924, Coolidge lost his 16-year-old son Calvin, Jr. to sepsis, which turned out to be a complication from an infected blister the boy got while playing tennis. Despite the efforts of the best doctors at Walter Reed hospital, they couldn't save him (source).
Coolidge was devastated.
Colleagues found this taciturn man sobbing with grief in his office. Even though he was in the middle of a presidential election campaign, he'd lost interest in winning. His wife Grace often said that he was never the same man after that, that he had "lost his zest for living" (source). Even after he won the election, there was no celebrating in the Coolidge family.
Coolidge was popular during his unelected term, and the Democrats were deadlocked between two candidates. The Republicans had the support of big business, which gave them a lot of resources, plus they kept promising to keep the U.S. out of foreign conflicts while continuing humanitarian aid to a recovering Europe (source).
It was an attractive message to a country that had been forced to sweep in and end a bloody war (320,000+ Americans killed or wounded) between the political rivals of the Old World, and that had resented having had to get involved at all. Peace, but also a prominent place in the world—that's what Americans wanted from their government.
Republicans also avoided taking strong stances on the major social issues of the day. They sort of vaguely said something against the revived Ku Klux Klan, and on Prohibition Coolidge just promised to uphold the law (source). Coolidge's failure to condemn the KKK lost him minority voters to the more liberal Democratic party, natch, but it wasn't nearly enough to swing the results of the election
So despite not really campaigning after the death of his son, Coolidge won in a landslide, with nearly twice as many votes as his Democratic opponent John W. Davis. Republicans also won significant majorities in both houses of Congress, which assured a pro-business, tax-cutting government for years to come.
As president, Coolidge was personally reserved but very visible. He held an average of eight press conferences a month over the course of his presidency, and addressed the nation over the radio at least once a month (source). But he still wasn't big on chit-chat, and would apparently sometimes sit silently through interviews.
Once, political advisor Bernard Baruch asked him why he had so little to say. Coolidge replied: "Well, Baruch, many times I say only 'yes' or 'no' to people. Even that is too much. It winds them up for twenty minutes more" (source). Coolidge even advised his successor, Herbert Hoover, to keep quiet. "If you keep dead still, they [White House visitors] will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile they will start up all over again" (source).
Coolidge didn't even read his first State of the Union address to Congress in 1925—he had a clerk do it. We're sure Congress loved it; they didn't have to drag themselves to their feet and applaud every two minutes.
Coolidge was determined to be a hands-off president. With the exception of protective tariffs, which he favored, he thought the government should butt out of everything: international politics, business, agriculture, and disaster relief. He cut taxes so much that the majority of the U.S. population was soon paying little to nothing at all. And he managed to cut government spending enough to make up the difference.
Coolidge made all this crystal clear in his Inaugural Address. He genuinely believed that the feds shouldn't be making all the big decisions—most things should be left to local governments and the people themselves to figure out. He once said that "If the federal government were to go out of existence, the common run of people would not detect the difference" (source)
Some people, unfortunately, did detect the difference, namely the common run of people in Louisiana and Mississippi who, in April of 1927, were inundated by the worst river flooding the country had ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by floodwaters that reached 30 feet high in places, and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages were sustained. Just like in Hurricane Katrina 75 years later, poor African Americans were hit hardest. So the government rushed in to help, right?
Even then, Coolidge resisted providing federal aid to the displaced flood victims in the South. He refused to do a radio broadcast appealing for relief funds, believing it would just draw attention to the disaster and create a greater demand for federal funds to help the suffering victims of the deluge. As a frugal Vermont Yankee, he believed that self-reliance and personal responsibility were the keys to getting out of a bad situation. You give people handouts, and they'll just want more.
Congress pressured Coolidge to come through with federal disaster aid, trying to convince him that the scope of the damage was just too great to expect the states to have the resources to handle it.
He pushed back. Hard.
It took until December of that year for him to agree to release funds for flood control, but he was still holding out for hundreds of millions less than the House and Senate had proposed. And, PS, it would only apply to the Flood of 1927, not any future disasters, so don't get any ideas.
The disaster and the subsequent legislation pushed through by Congress against Coolidge's wishes had two important consequences. First, it led to a change in what states and towns could expect from their federal government, paving the way for the New Deal programs that would extend beyond disaster relief into many other domestic areas. And that was exactly what Coolidge was afraid would happen.
Second, it turned African Americans in the South, who felt completely abandoned by Coolidge in the aftermath of the flood, into Democrats. It was the Republicans who'd historically taken the strong stands against slavery, but Black Americans wouldn't tolerate the way they were left stranded and helpless in the floodwaters while white families were rescued and evacuated.
In Coolidge's eyes, the private sector was way more productive and efficient than the government, which was inefficient and created artificial prosperity. He said on more than one occasion, that "the chief business of the American people is business" (source). He was determined not to subject business to government regulation, believing that it would unleash the power of the markets to turbocharge the economy and make life better for everyone.
In fact, during the Coolidge years, as long as you weren't a farmer you were probably doing better than the previous decade. If you were a farmer, you got no government help to help ease the agricultural depression that had set in during the years after WWI.
During the war, the agricultural sector was booming, because the U.S. was supplying all that food relief to Europe. Once the European countries got back on their feet and started producing their own food, the price of U.S. produce crashed. There was too much food on the market and fewer buyers. Prohibition decreased the demand for grain (that's what you make booze from). Plus, Europe was buying less from the U.S. because they weren't happy with Coolidge's protective tariffs on European goods.
Long story short, about 600,000 farms went under in the 1920s and the government did nothing about it.
Despite personally knowing the hardships of farming life, Coolidge thought—no surprise—that subsidies would just create more dependence on the government; the market should determine what price consumers were willing to pay for farm goods. Congress passed farm subsidy bills, but Cal vetoed them. He told the chairman of the Federal Farm Loan Board that "Well, farmers never have made money. I don't believe we can do much about it" (source).
Thanks, Mr. President. Here, have some surplus corn.
On the international stage, Coolidge tried to straddle the line between the United States being influential on the world stage and not actually getting too tangled up in other nation's affairs. He insisted on the repayment of war debt from European countries, and supported the U.S. participating in the Permanent Court of International Justice, which he mentions in the Inaugural Address. But he definitely didn't want the U.S. to belong to the League of Nations. Basically, he was cool with the U.S. having commercial relations with other countries, but not political ones (source).
Despite that isolationist talk, under Coolidge the U.S. got more involved in Latin America. Certain U.S. companies, like the United Fruit Company, were heavily invested in some Latin American and Caribbean countries by this point. Coolidge authorized the presence of U.S. troops for "peacekeeping" in Haiti and Nicaragua for a number of years, with the excuse that they were protecting U.S. business interests.
Eventually the Latin American countries got fed up, and called a convention in 1928 in Havana to pass anti-U.S. legislation. That's when Coolidge finally agreed to back off and remove American troops (source). This was the first step in what would become the "Good Neighbor" policy under Hoover and FDR: cooperation and trade good, military intervention bad.
In 1928, Coolidge signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a basically symbolic pact between a bunch of countries to never again use war to resolve conflicts. Frank Kellogg, U.S. Secretary of State who proposed the pact, became the second member of Coolidge's cabinet to win a Nobel Peace Prize (after his Vice President Charles Dawes in 1925) (source).
Of course, the pact to avoid war fell apart by 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, and in 1939 when Germany started to invade Poland and everyone else in Europe. Still, the agreement reflected a new attitude about wars of aggression, which had previously been seen as just another way to conduct foreign policy. Now, they were just plain wrong.
Coolidge also had a mixed record on civil rights. On the one hand, he wouldn't appoint KKK members to office, hired African-Americans to government positions, campaigned against lynching, and made a significant speech defending minority World War I vets and their patriotism. Back when he was president of the Massachusetts State Senate, he singlehandedly managed to get D.W. Griffith's pro-Klan film Birth of a Nation removed from theaters in the state.
OTOH, as President he didn't condemn the KKK outright; he often kept a low profile on the controversial stuff. But in his First Annual Message in 1923, he waded into the fray:
Numbered among our population are some 12,000,000 colored people. Under our Constitution their rights are just as sacred as those of any other citizen. It is both a public and private duty to protect those rights. The Congress ought to exercise all its powers of prevention and punishment against the hideous crime of lynching, of which the n****es are by no means the sole sufferers, but for which they furnish a majority of the victim. Already a considerable sum is appropriated to give the n****es vocational training in agriculture. About half a million dollars is recommended for medical courses at Howard University to help contribute to the education of 500 colored doctors needed each year. On account of the integration of large numbers into industrial centers, it has been proposed that a commission be created, composed of members from both races, to formulate a better policy for mutual understanding and confidence. (source).
Sounds pretty enlightened for the 1920s, especially considering what was going on in much of the country. African Americans had fought for their country in WWI and moved north for work that was plentiful during the war years. They were able to live, vote, and work freely in northern cities, and Black civic leaders emerged who sought social and political equality for their communities. Freaked-out whites, fearful of the rising advancement of African Americans, engaged in unprecedented numbers of race riots in the postwar years.
On his Second Annual Message in 1924, Coolidge again reviewed the status of "The N****":
These developments have brought about a very remarkable improvement in the condition of the n**** race. Gradually, but surely, with the almost universal sympathy of those among whom they live, the colored people are working out their own destiny. I firmly believe that it is better for all concerned that they should be cheerfully accorded their full constitutional rights, that they should be protected from all of those impositions to which, from their position, they naturally fall a prey, especially from the crime of lynching and that they should receive every encouragement to become full partakers in all the blessings of our common American citizenship(source).
"Almost universal" sympathy? We doubt it.
Coolidge continued his calls for tolerance in a 1925 speech to veterans at the American Foreign Legion, just two months after 44,000 members of the KKK marched in Washington.
[…] we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language. If we are to create on this continent a free Republic and an enlightened civilization that will be capable of reflecting the true greatness and glory of mankind, it will be necessary to regard these differences as accidental and unessential. We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character. […]Whether one traces his Americanisms back three centuries to the Mayflower, or three years to the steerage is not half so important as whether his Americanism of to-day is real and genuine. No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat. (source).
In case you're marveling at those last two sentences and wondering who Coolidge's speechwriter was, it was Calvin Coolidge. So why don't we hear that rhetoric of tolerance seven months earlier in his Inaugural Address?
Clearly, Coolidge was focused more on international relations and the economy in the inaugural; there's one reference to tolerance, but that's about it. Maybe the clue is in his appeals to being "American" throughout that address. Did he want to focus on unity, not division? On American-ness, not class or race divisions? Could it have something to do with the fact that it was broadcast to the whole country, including the South?
The inaugural address is a very specific type of speech, designed to sketch out a broad vision and inspire patriotism. The annual addresses, OTOH, had lots of topics that had to be checked off: you know—the army, waterways, railroads, prison reform, the judiciary, French spoliation claims. It required status updates in dozens of areas. "The N****" was one of those categories.
No doubt the devout and determinedly virtuous Coolidge harbored no conscious animosity to African Americans. He consistently emphasized the American-ness of everyone who followed our ideals of liberty and love of country, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. Even so, it would have been good to hear more condemnation of racism and intolerance in the Inaugural Address. Not to mention some policy initiatives aimed at improving the social and economic lives of African Americans.
No one's ever really figured out why Coolidge decided not to run for president again in 1928. Maybe he was tired of fighting with Congress about disaster spending. Maybe the death of his son was just too crushing a blow. Maybe his belief in a limited executive branch made him think no one should be president for more than a single term lest they get a little too drunk on power.
Whatever his reasons, his way of announcing the decision was to distribute strips of paper to reporters who were traveling with him during his 1927 summer vacation (source). In typical Coolidge style, the paper simply said: "I do not choose to run for President in 1928" (source). Could've fit in a tweet.
Compare that to George Washington, who wrote, "The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made" (source).
And that was just the first of four paragraphs.
After leaving office, Coolidge went back to Northampton, Massachusetts, where his political career had begun, and spent the next four years writing an autobiography and one year writing a column called "Thinking Things over with Calvin Coolidge" for a national magazine.
Then one day in January 1933, his wife Grace found him dead from heart failure. Just before his death, he'd confided in a friend, ". . . I feel I no longer fit in with these times" (source). FDR's promise of an aggressively activist (and free-spending) government, the eroding of traditional cultural values, the increasing diversity of Americans: they must have felt strange for this Vermont farmer's son whose family settled here in the 1600s.
Kind of how your grandparents must feel about the idea of uploading your consciousness to the cloud or not wanting to drive a car or watch network TV. Just weird.
In retrospect, Coolidge is largely seen as the president who helped bring about the Great Depression by allowing the superheated economy to go unchecked and starving the agricultural sector.
It's widely believed now that Coolidge's anti-regulation stance was a major reason for the stock market crash because it led to some seriously irresponsible practices, like people taking out loans to buy stocks, the creation of fake companies, and the overproduction of products for people were speculating on the stock market rather than buying stuff (source).
But hey, hindsight is 20/20. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It seemed like a good idea in the early 2000s, too.
On the foreign policy front, the Dawes Plan and the Kellogg-Briand Pact failed to prevent the rise of fascism in Europe, which eventually led to World War II, so that didn't help Cal's track record either.
But Coolidge's ideas about regulation and small government caught on again with a vengeance. He enjoyed renewed popularity in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, whose hands-off economic policies and deep tax cuts were right out of the Coolidge playbook. Conservative Republicans still admire his small-government, free market, and low-taxes ideas as the path to prosperity today. When Coolidge took office, the top tax rate was 73% (including special wartime surtaxes); when he left, it was around 25%. The economy was booming. Unemployment was low. Hard to argue with that.
Of course, there will always be people to argue with it. Maybe it wasn't Coolidge's policies that caused the economic boom; maybe it was the war and all the manufacturing it required. Maybe it was growing automobile ownership, or the spread of electricity to more American homes, which made everyone run out to buy electric appliances (source). Regardless, every Republican president since Coolidge has emulated his economic policies.
In 1926, political reporter Walter Lippmann said that the key to Coolidge's success was that he could do nothing and make it work. "This active inactivity suits the mood and certain of the needs of the country admirably. It suits all the business interests which want to be let alone […]. And it suits all those who have become convinced that government in this country has become dangerously complicated and top-heavy […] (source).
Guess we're still hearing the voice of Silent Cal.